Titanic Spring Roster Battles, Part Two: White Sox Closer
by Erik Siegrist
And so it begins... the annual closer controversy in Chicago.
For whatever reason, the White Sox go through closers the way teenagers go through crushes. Dustin Hermanson notched 34 saves last year, but neither began nor ended the season as the go-to guy at the back of the bullpen; prior to 2005, no White Sox reliever had managed to record even 20 saves since Keith Foulke's 42 in 2001. In between, six different pitchers got double-digit saves in a season for the Sox -- Foulke got 11 in '02 in between stints in Jerry Manuel's doghouse; Antonio Osuna also has 11 that season, while Damaso Marte got 10. Billy Koch opened 2003 with the job, but managed just 11 saves, while Tom Gordon ended up with 12 and Marte (again) had 11. 2004 saw Koch give way to Shingo Takatsu, who led the team with 19, but he spit the bit in 2005 and Hermanson took over, before Hermanson's back woes pushed Bobby Jenks into the job for the stretch run and playoffs.
Jenks was within shouting distance of brilliant in '05 -- including the postseason, he had a 58/18 K/BB ratio in 47 1/3 big league innings -- but so far in spring training he's looked more like the guy the Angels gave up on than the one who appeared in every game of the Sox's World Series sweep. No matter how you try to sugar-coat it, an 8/2 BB/K ratio in eight innings (yes, those numbers are in the right order) is ugly. If Jenks were simply competing for a job, instead of entering the season as the de facto closer, he'd probably already be back in minor league camp, with Ozzie Guillen's fat jokes ringing in his ears.
So if Jenks is about to go the way of Koch and Takatsu, who's in line to take over? Hermanson would be the logical choice, but his back problems have resurfaced, and he's receiving a series of epidurals just to try and get him back on the mound. Cliff Politte has been tried as a closer before, most recently in Toronto, with somewhat nighmarish results (11 home runs allowed in under 50 innings in 2003).
Logically the next candidate would be Neal Cotts, who has inherited Marte's role as top bullpen lefty, and whose career splits feature a better line against righties (.213/.333/.340) than against lefties (.238/.324/.395). But logic rarely has much to do with who closes in Chicago. Foulke getting pushed out the door, for instance, was just dumb. Takatsu, a soft-tosser from Japan, being unhittable one year and useless the next made no sense on the surface. And Jenks putting it all together, even if briefly, was the craziest twist yet. So assuming the logical candidate will get the job in Chicago, or keep it if he does, is assuming way too much.
Among the slightly silly candidates to fall into some saves this year is Brandon McCarthy. The Sox top (remaining) pitching prospect was supposed to have a swing man role this season until Hermanson came up gimpy, at which point the club started talking about using him in a short relief role. It's just a small step from pitching the seventh inning to pitching the ninth, at least when you're a highly touted arm.
Speaking of highly touted arms, Matt Thornton was a first-round pick once upon a time (well, 1998). Sox pitching coach Don Cooper has been trying to get him for a couple of years now, on the assumption that he can fix the mechanical problems that are scuttling his control and holding him back. Cooper wasn't pitching coach the last time the team tried something like this in 2002, with another ex-Mariner -- Damaso Marte. That one worked out pretty well, though, and Cooper's track record with the likes of Jon Garland indicates he knows his stuff, so it's possible Thornton will bust out in the 'pen just like Marte did.
If you want a really wacky pick, though, how about Sean Tracey? He's essentially a home-grown version of Jenks -- a kid with great stuff (a hard, sinking fastball and a slider are his best pitches) who's struggled to put things together. He's now 25, and while he doesn't quite have the jaw-dropping stuff Jenks does, he's also never been tried in the bullpen before either. If pitching in relief adds a bit of control and a couple mph to his mid-90s heat...