The White Sox’s bullpen may be their biggest strength entering this season. The team dealt away last season’s closer, Sergio Santos, because they knew there were adequate replacements already on the team. Since dealing Santos, however, the team has not named his successor. While most team’s are at a point where position battles are coming to a close, the White Sox are being very secretive about their closer situation. With multiple candidates vying for the job, the White Sox aren’t doing fantasy owners any favors.
The White Sox have already finalized their bullpen, and there are some candidates who will not be considered for the closer role. Zach Stewart is expected to be the team’s long reliever, while Will Ohman will likely keep his role as a lefty specialist. That leaves five candidates for one slot.
Jones was one of two major surprises during camp. A 2007 fifth round pick, the 26-year-old Jones emerged for obscurity this Spring. Jones hasn’t been effective as a starter throughout his minor league career, but his strikeout rate soars when he pitches out of the bullpen. His 17 strikeouts in just 10.2 Spring Training innings is the reason he made the roster. He’s got an odd delivery, and hides the ball well, but he needs to work on cutting down his walks. Since this is his first taste of the big leagues, it’s unlikely they name Jones the closer right off the bat. But if he continues to strikeout hitters at such a high rate, the team could eventually turn to him. Remember, Sergio Santos was a relative unknown when he was handed the job. The White Sox have done things like this in the past.
Crain would rate higher on this list if it weren’t for a Spring oblique injury. Crain has been steadily working back from the injury, and should be ready for Opening Day, but he’s only pitched 5.0 innings this Spring. The injury likely takes him out of contention for the closer role initially.
Reed may end the season as the White Sox closer, but it’s unclear whether they’ll hand him the role on Opening Day. Reed’s be incredibly dominant throughout his minor league career, posting a phenomenal 155-20 K/BB rate. He only pitched 7.1 innings for the White Sox last season, but those numbers seemed to translate. Reed has pitched well this Spring, and while he’s still in the running for the closer role, there’s another rookie reliever who has out-shined Reed during Sox camp.
No player on the team has seen a bigger leap in value this Spring than the 24-year-old Santiago. The hard-throwing, screwballing lefty has impressed nearly every coach on the team. While he initially started out just trying to make the 25-man roster, Santiago is getting serious buzz as a potential closer. In a recent interview, White Sox pitching coach, Don Cooper, mentioned that the team was intentionally not letting Santiago pitch when the team was going to play division rivals or the Texas Rangers (who they open against on April 5th). If the team is going to those lengths to hide him, that definitely arouses some suspicion about how they might employ him going forward.
This is probably the most obvious choice, but Thornton looks like the most likely candidate to close on Opening Day. He’s been with the team for six seasons, has the most experience in the closer role and rebounded nicely after a poor start last season. Thornton has had another strong Spring, and new manager Robin Ventura might elect to stick with the veteran early on. He struggled in the closer role last season, so it will be interesting to see if he gets another chance to stay in the role. Before last year, Thornton was one of the best relievers in the game, there’s no reason for the team to panic over a few poor performances from early 2011.
Though Thornton may get the nod early on, there’s really no telling how the White Sox will handle the role as the season progresses. Don Cooper has also talked about using a closer by committee, but those never seem to last longer than a couple of weeks. It’s also tough to determine how Robin Ventura will handle the situation. He’s less intense and fiery than Ozzie Guillen, but does that mean he’ll have a longer leash if one of his guys struggles initially?
Either way, the closer situation could change as the season progresses. The White Sox have plenty of guys who can provide value in the role, but they’ll have to commit to one to make fantasy owners happy. Thornton seems like the best choice right now, but if Crain proves to be healthy, there’s a chance he’ll challenge for the role. If Thornton struggles, the media and the fans could also start clamoring for Reed or Santiago to claim the role. The White Sox also aren’t expected to be that good, and they could see what they have in the young guys if the team struggles. Thornton is the best bet, but there’s no telling where the White Sox may turn in a few months. Whoever the team chooses, they will have a lot of fantasy value.