When it was made clear that Bobby Jenks would not be a member of the Chicago White Sox in 2011 fans wondered if Matt Thornton would be the pitcher to take over the ninth inning duties. We found out this answer a few days ago. Thornton will start the season as the team’s new closer. Last year, Thornton gave the Sox a lot as one of the premiere set up men in baseball. Now, he is expected to produce at the same level when the game is on the line.
With the closer competition being put to the rest, the remainder of the bullpen can fall into their comfortable roles. Jesse Crain, Sergio Santos and Chris Sale seem to be tabbed as the arms that will set up Thornton in close games. These three fireballers paired with the likes of Will Ohman and Tony Pena gives manager Ozzie Guillen a tremendous amount of flexibility. For the first time in a few years, the Sox have more than just one reliable left-hander to summon from the bullpen. Sale and Ohman are both capable of giving opposing left-handed hitters fits. Ohman figures to be the main left-handed specialist in the pen called upon to get one tough lefty out. However Sale’s success could be the key. He has the ability to dominate both right-handed and left-handed hitters with a fastball reaching 100 MPH and a slider that can embarrass even the best hitters in the game. Just ask three time batting champ Joe Mauer about facing Sale. The importance of these arms cannot be overstressed. When the team you are chasing the past few years, the Twins, lines up the three headed monster of the previously mentioned Mauer, Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel it is a must to have reliable left-handed arms in the bullpen.
From the other side of the mound, Guillen will rely on Crain and Santos to be the right-handed version of Sale and Ohman. At the very least, Sox fans don’t need to worry about facing Crain with the game on the line. It seemed that when with the Twins, Crain always found a way to get out of a late game jam against the Sox propelling the Twins to victory. Hopefully, Crain brings with him some of that magic. Santos seems to fit into the role of sixth or seventh inning guy. With proven guys making up the back end of the pen, expect Santos to bring his intensity and blazing fastball to the middle innings. He showed a lot of promise last year as a converted shortstop, but finished the year with his numbers on a downward trend. With a great teacher in pitching coach Don Cooper, Santos can continue to learn how to pitch rather than just throw. As he continues to learn from Cooper he will also learn the league more as well as the hitters he faces. This should help him avoid the downward swoon he suffered through last August and September.
Tony Pena seems to be destined for his same role he has held since the White Sox acquired him back in 2009. Look for Pena to settle in as the long relief man and possible spot starter. It appears he has not quite earned the confidence of Guillen to be used in later game situations. Though he has the blazing fastball and hard slider/changeup combo to be dominant, he tends to be erratic with his location causing uneasiness in the dugout and in the stands.
In recent years, the game has turned into a battle of the bullpens. Teams often lean on these arms for three or four innings per game. Many times either winning or losing the game. The pieces are in place for an extremely successful bullpen with flexibility being the key. We know how Ozzie lets his starters go longer than most, almost to a fault. This should keep arms fresh and innings down, especially for Thornton, Crain and Sale, who the Sox must rely on heavily for success this season.