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The Chris Sale Conundrum

In recent seasons, teams have come up with inventive ways to utilize their young pitching prospects. One of the more popular strategies among teams is to let their prospects gain experience in the bullpen. Some pitchers (Neftali Feliz) stick in the bullpen permanently, some (Phil Hughes) are eventually moved into the rotation, and some (Joba Chamberlain) are jerked between the two roles. 

While it has already been determined that Sale will prepare as a starting pitcher this off-season, his stay in the rotation may depend on Jake Peavy‘s health. Since the White Sox have five solid starters, Sale would be the most likely candidate to move back to the bullpen once Peavy recovers. Although this looks like the most likely scenario for Sale in 2011, let’s explore the thought of employing Sale in one role.

After throwing only 10.1 innings of minor league ball, Sale was promoted to the White Sox bullpen. Despite his inexperience, Sale’s performance out of the bullpen was exceptional. In 23.1 innings out of the bullpen, Sale accumulated 32 strikeouts with a 1.93 ERA (2.74 FIP). Sale also proved himself in save situations, going a perfect 4 for 4. Although it was a limited sample of innings, Sale proved that he has strong potential out of the bullpen.

While it’s tempting to leave Sale in the bullpen, the White Sox could extract more value from Sale in a starting role. Although obvious, the more innings a player pitches, the more opportunities he has to accumulate WAR. For example, even though Neftali Feliz had a great season out of the bullpen, he produced the same WAR as both Bronson Arroyo and Chris Narveson. Even if Sale manages a season like Feliz’s, he may produce the same value as a league average starter.

Although Sale has experience as a starter, there are concerns about whether he can succeed as a starter in the majors. Many analysts point to Sale’s unorthodox delivery and thin frame as signs that he might breakdown under a starter’s workload. Sale also throws at a lower arm slot than most, which could lead to problems with opposite handed batters (see Justin Masterson). Then again, Sale was drafted as a starter and it would behoove the White Sox to see if he can succeed in that role. 

At the same time, Jake Peavy is expected to miss an early chunk of the season and Sale is the logical candidate to take his place in the rotation until he recovers. White Sox Pitching Coach Don Cooper has already expressed concerns about moving Sale between roles, but it seems like the most likely outcome in 2011. Although it comes with more risks, moving Sale into the rotation permanently gives the Sox the best chance to maximize his value but creates a logjam once Peavy returns. While it’s possible Kenny Williams trades one of his starters to allow Sale to start the entire season, it’s more likely Sale reprises his bullpen role once Peavy is healthy. If the White Sox do utilize this strategy with Sale, however, they will be no closer to determining his long-term role once the season ends, leaving them in the same conundrum the following off-season.