Can the White Sox can salvage Scott Linebrink?

Can the White Sox can salvage Scott Linebrink?
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No, certainly not.

But they sure as hell are going to try.

Surprisingly, despite losing the trust of Ozzie Guillen as early as ever this season, Scott Linebrink has set his White Sox career-high for innings pitched with 56.1.  But this is of course misleading.  Linebrink has been in less high-leverage appearances this season than Brent Lillibridge,  and as much as I hate to use the completely absurd "holds" statistic, Linebrink had 19 in 2008, 7 in '09, and is down to 4 this season.  I could go at length about this in no way assesses the quality of a reliever, but it does show that Linebrink hasn't been trusted to be used in protecting leads.  Three of the holds have come in the past 5 weeks, and the other one came in the 4th game in the season.  Between that was a vast desert of garbage time.

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You are a major league hitter, Scott Linebrink has thrown a 94mph fastball to you belt-high over the middle, and time has come to a halt

It's very clear that Guillen has been giving Scott the ball now that the season has faded into nothing, with a whopping 22.1 of his innings coming in the last two months, and only 14.2 coming during the salad days of June and July.  Unless Ozzie is intentionally losing games down the meaningless stretch (unlikely, he's paid enough), and unless his idea of developing the bullpen for next season doesn't involve using the young and raw Sergio Santos over the 34 year-old Linebrink, then there's a purpose to this practice.

Thanks to 'we need bullpen help! and we will pick up whatever discarded clown available to get it!' spending spree of post-'07, the White Sox are on the tab for yet another year for Linebrink, and not an even remotely cheap one.  Hell, he's due a raise next year to go up to $5.5 million.  Not only is there no "extreme suckage" clause that allows the Sox to void the thing, but no one wants to deal for an expensive last reliever on the roster.  But with his last year coming up, nothing would increase his value like a sudden wave of decent performances.

Ozzie working a crappy pitcher to increase his trade value seems uncharacteristic, especially in terms of the level of collusion with Kenny Williams it would imply.  So I think it's just as likely that the Sox are trying to work Linebrink into being a significant contributor again in his final contract year.  As terrifying as this prospect is to me, it's just as well.  An off-season deal for a mediocre reliever owed $5.5 million is just so damn unlikely, as teams tend to have higher ambitions for themselves at the beginning of the year than Scott Linebrink.  Better to see what team is absolutely crazy-desperate for a veteran in mid-2011.

In some senses, 2010 has been a bounce back season for Linebrink as he's lowered his ERA a smidge, and his WHIP has dropped from a God-awful 1.66 to a merely not-good-enough-to-pitch-after-the-7th 1.33.  In other senses he's been as awful and overpaid as ever before. 

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Scott Linebrink, AP File Photo

11 HRs in 56.1 innings is preposterously bad, so is his abysmal, lowest-in-8-years 32.1% groundball rate, which is especially troubling for someone throwing in U.S. Cellular, where lazily hit fly balls have a way of becoming A.J. Pierzynski home runs.  His FIP (4.85), and his WAR (-0.1) are also the worst he's had since his crummy 2007 season, on the strength of which the White Sox gave him that 4-year contract.

The seed of hope that Don Cooper could fix the eternally broken Linebrink seems ill-founded for two reasons.  The first, is that Cooper has already had three years to work with Scott with no results to speak of, unless you were particularly entertained by the time Coop snapped at Linebrink in the dugout in Wrigley after he needlessly nibbled around the plate in the 9th with the Sox up 6 runs.  The second, is that Cooper is notorious (examples being Gavin Floyd, Matt Thornton, Edwin Jackson) for fixing control problems, simplifying approaches, and generally keeping pitchers from beating themselves.  For Linebrink, he's already achieved this; he's a full walk per 9 innings better than last season, but that hasn't fixed the fact that he's extremely hittable.  Cooper can't give him movement on his fastball.  He can't make his fastball uncrushable.  He can only make him more efficient....efficiently bad.

Linebrink has a good splitter, but the fastball he establishes it with is extremely straight, and despite its plus velocity, tends to be sent a long way when Scott leaves it up in the zone....which is a lot.  Since his debut with the Sox, Linebrink has shown he can hit 95 and rack up strikeouts, but he's also been hit consistently for power, puts himself in abysmal defensive position after every throw, and occasionally loses confidence if he gives up too many bombs in rapid succession, resulting in control problems.  At 34 years of age, and three seasons with the one of the best pitching coaches in the game, it's time to admit what we have; a ghastly overpaid, flyball pitcher playing in just about the worst ballpark possible for his style.

As such, no plan for next season that doesn't involve finishing 3rd in the AL Central, or trying to see if John Danks can record 30 no-decisions in a single year, should involve Scott Linebrink being anything better than the 5th guy out of the bullpen.  Being able to trade Linebrink is unlikely, but perhaps possible via some early season anomaly like all of his fly balls dying on the warning track inexplicably for a month straight, and thereby driving his run totals down.  At that point we can only hope that Kenny will be cagey enough to take the first deal available, and not think that he's finally going to get a return on his blunder of an investment.  Failing that, from the way he's used him, at least we can trust that Ozzie knows what he has in Linebrink.    

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