Ready or not, it's time to assess how the 2012 White Sox bullpen can be expected to perform.
This post will go up no sooner than March 30th, and it is likely that a complete understanding of who will possess each role will not be revealed for a few days yet.
Still, think of all the previews written a month ago that weren't even aware of Hector Santiago's existence. How silly will they look when Santiago records 73 saves (not many blowouts for this team), prompting Bobby Thigpen to come down from the stands and acknowledge that the young New Jersey native is not only his better, but is more deserving of the name 'Bobby Thigpen' than he, before granting the lefty the moniker, and setting upon a life as anonymous drifter?
While we don't know the roles, we do know the cast...mostly.
Matt Thornton - LHP - CLOSER KINDA MAYBE SORTA PROBABLY WHO'S ASKING ANYWAY?
In an all-or-nothing season with plenty of worthy candidates chomping at the bit behind him, Thornton might not have survived his bout of early-season bad luck and defensive betrayal in 2011 even with a strong performance. As it was, he also had a run of poor command and uncertain tinkering with his off-speed stuff. It was a popular time to lose faith in him.
For the rest of the season, Thornton posted a double-digit strikeout rate, was well under three walks per nine innings, and got his ERA down to a respectable 3.32, with peripherals that suggested that 2011 could fit in well enough besides the three superlative seasons that preceded it.
He's a 35 year-old power pitcher who throws fastballs 85-90% of the time, and hasn't experienced a velocity loss, so things have a chance to be pretty good for Thornton going forward.
We don't just throw out his April issues as irrelevant, however. Thornton has shown cracks in his armor, and he certainly doesn't have the tools to weather issues with his fastball command. But Thornton has around 260 innings of above-average relief work for the Sox in the last four years, and deserves some trust.
Jesse Crain - RHP - SET UP MAN WE PRESUME
After one year of Crain posting an balls-in-play average in the .260's, he was an easy regression candidate. Now that he's done it in back-to-back to seasons, discussions can began as to whether there's somethig to it.
Crain's slider usage only slight outweighs his fastball usage, but is comparable to Thornton in terms of brazenly relying on his strongest offering. The result has been lots of strikeouts (9.64 K/9 in 2011), lots of walks (4.27 BB/9), and pretty much no groundballs (33.3%).
That doesn't seem to be a good combination for playing in U.S. Cellular Field unless Crain can continue to generate weak contact with his slider.
If so, Crain can continue to be a fine set-up man with an ERA around 3.00. If not, he's going to give up some damaging home runs, likely with runners on, and lend to the instability in an already somewhat shaky pen.
Will Ohman - LHP - LOOGY IF HE'S LUCKY
Ohman can get lefties out. He throws in the low-90's, has a hard slider, and posted a 4.25 K/BB ratio against southpaws, which effectively covered up that everything hit off of him tends to leave the yard.
Unless you're prone to optimism about Spring Training stories of 34 year-olds adding effective change-ups, Ohman doesn't figure to have the tools to retire righties. As such, his success in 2012 will depend on how he's used.
In 2011, Ohman faced four more lefty batters than righties and finished with an ERA over 4.00, and can expect the same results if he's used similarly again. Whether or not Ventura has the ability to shield Ohman as much as he needs to depends on the performances of rookies and veteran journeymen.
Addison Reed - RHP - NEXT YEAR'S CLOSER
Dubbed "the top closer prospect in baseball" by John Sickels, Reed has a huge fastball, great control and command, and a two-plane breaking slider. He dominated five different levels in 2011, and if he were any more talented, people would wonder what the hell he's doing in the bullpen.
A somewhat shaky and erratic Spring has dulled notions of Reed rising to the top of the relief corps with relative ease, and will be somewhat vulnerable to left-handers due to his below-average change-up. He's also essentially a rookie, and might have some adjustment period, but his stuff should play plenty well at this level, and could put up the gaudy stats necessary to compete for Rookie of the Year if given the proper opportunity for saves.
Hector Santiago - LHP - SPRING TRAINING JOB PROGRAM
Hey, Hector's on the roster now!
The three openings in the pen allowed for the opportunity for someone to use a dynamic Spring performance to launch themselves into the majors, and that's exactly what Santiago did.
Hector tantalized last season by introducing a screwball and have a successful brief cameo in the major leagues, but his AA results suggested that he had yet to completely harness his stuff.
Working out of the pen, Santiago has touched 95 with regularity, his screwball has shown to be mystifying to hitters of either hand, and he even claims to boast a cutter. All that has resulted in a single solo shot home run accounting for the only run Santiago has allowed all Spring
The novelty of Santiago's complement of pitches should be enough to give him a leg-up on hitters thanks to lack of exposure, but this is also a guy who walked over 4 batters per 9 innings in AA last season. It wouldn't be a shock for there to be substantial growing pains, even if the potential for dominance he's flashed in Arizona is real
Zach Stewart - RHP - SPOT STARTER/LONG RELIEVER/BOTH
Stewart has a sinking fastball that plays well over multiple times through the order, and just enough stamina and reliable control to seem like he's wasted in the bullpen, and enough problems missing bats to think that consistent success is going to be hard for him to attain a start.
Still, he's shown himself capable of putting together a great start or two against weaker lineups, which is what one asks of a long reliever/spot starter.
It's hard to know what he'd look like in shorter stints while he continue to prepare himself as a starter, but Stewart has succeeded this Spring by flashing plus control, and only allowing 1/4 of the total of home runs he gave up in that awful start against the Royals last September.
Dylan Axelrod RHP - LOSING TO ZACH STEWART
Axelrod's surprising success during his September call-up relied on a sudden uptick in strikeouts after thriving in the minors as a control artist. Neither element has been on display this Spring.
When functional, Axelrod flashes a plus slider, and throw strikes to compensate for the weak stuff that surrounds it.
The same could be said about every fringe starter in existence, but it seems like Axelrod's limited complement would be helped by the lesser responsibilities of the bullpen. For the time being, the Sox will require starter depth--Jake Peavy is a member of their rotation after all--and Axelrod will be on hand to fill in whatever cracks Stewart can't. Or he'll beat Stewart out somehow. We're kind of spitting in the wind here.
Brian Bruney RHP - KNOWN LIMITATIONS
Bruney has mid-90's heat and a promising slider, and little concept of where it's going. Despite decent stuff, it's hard to rack up a sizable strikeout rate while falling behind in the count repeatedly. Bruney had a 2.16 ERA through 16 innings last season, before allowing 11 in his final 3 frames and getting cut. His peripherals never supported his success, and a good Spring Training performance and improved conditioning is the only thing to lean on in hoping that Bruney could overcome his lifelong hurdle of figuring out where the ball is going to go.
Nate Jones RHP - FUTURE BRUNEY
Jones' conversion to the bullpen in 2011 saw his strikeout rate spike and his prospect status recover, but his control remained spotty. Throughout the Spring, Jones has mixed dominant outings with command outages, yet has navigated it well enough to maintain a tidy ERA.
For the last guy in the pen, even flashes of dominance are a luxury, but the inconsistency also indicates that Jones could use more seasoning. Taking time for more seasoning doesn't seem like the way the wind is blowing this Spring.
Eric Stults - LHP - POPULAR IN JAPAN
Stults is 32 year-old journeyman with unremarkable stuff, who had a fairly terrible stint in Colorado last year. He's had a functional Spring with plenty of strike-throwing, and demonstrates no real platoon split. Stults would give the bullpen four lefties, and while he doesn't figure to be a liability against any batter, the lack of upside or a necessary tool likely spell doom for his candidacy.
The first five names mentioned are all locks for the roster, Stewart is outperforming Axelrod for the long relief role, and the final spot is a legitimate toss-up.
If there's an element of the roster where the White Sox clearly look like they're rebuilding, it's the bullpen. They traded away their top reliever in Santos to restock the farm system, promoted Sale to the rotation, and refused to spend money on filling the gaps; trusting that even their farm system could produce worthwhile arms to fill out the back end. It's a sound strategy, as temporary bullpen arms are some of the easiest assets to find, and the fallout from their failure is the easiest to endure.
This certainly isn't a team strong enough to thrive if the primary contributors (Thornton, Crain, Reed) fail, as the back-end figures to be a cycle of marginal major leaguers rather than any worthy understudies. Like every group on this roster, a lot of things need to click right.