The Chicago White Sox and Oakland Athletics engaged in a marathon 14-inning contest on Wednesday afternoon that featured two blown saves, a game-tying home run from each team’s cleanup hitter, and perhaps even a budding closer controversy in the Windy City.
Left-hander Hector Santiago surprised many when he seized the closer role for the White Sox out of spring training. The 24-year-old had only pitched 5.1 innings about Double-A prior to this season — those innings came in a very brief stint with the big league club last July before getting sent back down to Double-A — but he impressed enough to be named closer this spring after surrendering only one earned run in eleven innings.
Selected by the White Sox in the 30th round of the 2006 Draft, Santiago started his professional career as a reliever, but was transitioned into the starting rotation last season. He has always been able to miss bats. His career strikeout rate in the minors was 9.6 K/9. He throws 93-94 MPH with the fastball from the left side, which is certainly a skill that does not grow on trees, but his newly-developed signature pitch – the screwball – is what has suddenly catapulted him to the big leagues. It’s the pitch that makes him different. It’s the pitch that could help him find success at the highest level.
On Wednesday evening, though, Santiago showed that his development as a big league reliever remains a work in progress. He allowed five hits — including a game-tying home run to Yoenis Cespedes — and three runs in route to his second blown save of the year. In his first seven games of the season, Santiago owns an 8.43 FIP and has given up four home runs in just 6.1 innings.
Despite those unsightly numbers, the southpaw has found some peripheral success. He has a 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first 6.1 innings as a big league closer and has an 11.9% swinging strike rate. The ability to miss bats remains. He simply has given up far too many home runs, an issue that never presented itself in the minor leagues. His career home run rate in the minors was just 0.6 HR/9. Santiago has never possessed strong ground ball tendencies, however, and his ground ball rate thus far in 2012 is only 15%.
The specific ground ball rates and home run rates should not be taken as gospel, as 6.1 innings is hardly a large enough sample size to draw conclusions, but the data does point toward an issue that cannot be ignored by the White Sox. For most teams, it would be wise to weather the storm and allow Santiago to work through his struggles and develop as a big league pitcher. For the White Sox, however, it was doubtful that they selected the correct reliever to close in the first place. Right-hander Addison Reed is the most dominating reliever on the roster and has continued to prove that throughout the first three weeks of the season.
Reed was drafted by the White Sox in the third round of the 2010 Draft out of San Diego State University. In 2011, the 23-year-old shot through the minor league system, striking out 111 batters in just 78.1 combined innings between four different minor league levels. His fastball/slider combination is devastating, and some scouts have already slapped a 70-80 grade on the slider in its present form. He is largely considered to be the closer of the future for the organization.
In 7.1 innings to begin the 2012 season, he has continued to lay waste to opposing batters. He has yet to surrender an earned run and possesses a 10-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In addition, opponents are only hitting .154 against him this year and only hit .157 against him in his 78.1 innings in the minors last year.
It’s time to move Addison Reed to the role that he should have owned coming out of spring training. The White Sox obviously have no qualms about relying on a rookie to serve such an important role for the club — as Hector Santiago is also a rookie — so if the organization is not about to rework the roles of the bullpen and employ a flexible “bullpen ace,” it would be wise for them to place the best reliever on the team in the most prominent role in the bullpen.
This discussion is not designed to argue that Hector Santiago cannot be a successful major league reliever. He is only 24-years-old and already missing bats at an above-average rate. The organization has confidence in his abilities, and his screwball gives him an unusual wrinkle that few opposing batters will have seen prior to facing him in a game situation.
Instead, this discussion is much more about Addison Reed and correctly utilizing his abilities on the mound. The White Sox need to maximize the effectiveness of the bullpen, especially since they view themselves as legitimate contenders in the AL Central. Hector Santiago is a nice story and a should prove to be an effective bullpen arm who can face both lefties and righties, but Addison Reed is the prize of the White Sox bullpen. He was their #1 prospect coming into the season and should be featured as such.