Matt Thornton’s next save with be his first. Not the way I wanted to start a post a week and a half into the 2011 season. Three times Ozzie has called on Thornton to close out a tight ballgame and three times Thornton has failed. Through ten games, the bullpen has been a huge disappointment. A perceived strength heading into Opening Day has seen every key member falter in a big spot.
Originally, I was a fan of the decision to make Thornton the closer to start the year. He has proved himself a dominant reliever the past few years and has earned this chance as the team’s closer. What I am beginning to question whether or not he has the makeup to be used in this role. It seems nowadays every closer not named Mariano Rivera has a certain intensity or intimidation factor that they use to their advantage. Whether it be effective wildness (Carlos Marmol), a ridiculous beard (Brain Wilson) or a blazing fastball (Neftali Feliz). Thornton doesn’t seem to possess any of these traits. Yes, Thornton does throw in the upper 90’s, but when he does it is as straight as an arrow. Watching him work, he has a certain calm about him. Never showing any emotion. This persona is what helped him thrive in late game, pressured packed situations in the seventh and eighth innings. Coming into close a game at the start of the ninth should be an adrenaline rush for most pitchers. Closers use this rush to their advantage. However, when you are as cool as the other side of the pillow like Thornton, this advantage appears nonexistent.
It may sound like I am in favor of change regarding the White Sox closer. That is not the case, at least not yet. I would really like to see a game where Thornton gets a save opportunity and Juan Pierre doesn’t drop a fly ball. Those two, working in tandem, have not been a successful combination thus far. Perhaps, Thornton notching his first save will be something that can get the ball rolling in the right direction. It may just take getting that first 1-2-3 ninth inning to get him in a groove. Who knows? In the meantime, there are two other candidates I’d like to take a deeper look at for the closer’s role. Hopefully one of these two can get Pierre to catch a fly ball.
There’s no question that Chris Sale has closer caliber stuff. He has the ability to embarrass some very good major league hitters. If the White Sox were not expected to contend this year I’d be all for Sale having an opportunity to close. I have complete faith that he will become a very good starting pitcher or an elite closer at some point in his career. The thing that worries me is his just over two months of major league experience. Entering Tuesday’s game, Sale had only worked 28 and two-thirds innings over 26 appearances. In his short time in the Show, Sale has had quite a bit of success and shown great control. However, he still needs more time to learn the league and it’s hitters before he can become a closer on a contending team. Though he may become the closer if Thornton’s struggles continue, it would be wise of Ozzie to keep Sale in his setup role where he appears to be most useful on this year’s club.
I want to preface this next statement by saying the bullpen will work best if Thornton can get out of this funk and remain the closer. If and only if, Thornton struggles in the coming weeks Ozzie will have no choice but to explore other options. It is my opinion that the best option would be Sergio Santos. Not only has he been the most consistent arm out of the bullpen early on this season, he also possesses that extra intensity teams look for in most closers. With three quality offerings, Santos pitches with his emotions on his sleeve. The one attribute that has caught my eye has been his fearlessness. It seems he will attack any hitter without backing down. What makes this trait so impressive is the fact he has only pitched one full season at the major league level. The adrenaline rush closers use to finish out games would fit perfectly into Santos’s makeup as a pitcher. He may be more mentally prepared to close than any other option the Sox currently have. I truly believe this is a role where he could thrive.
Though it is early, there appears to be no dominant team in the division. The Central Division crown is clearly there for the taking. These late inning losses are things the White Sox can’t afford. Right now, there seems to be an opportunity to open up a bit of a gap between the two other expected contenders; the Twins and Tigers. When the opportunity is there, it has to be taken advantage of. Regardless, this closer problem is something that must be ironed out sooner rather than later if the White Sox plan on making a run at the postseason.