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Countdown to Camp: Bullpen

2/5/2014
Entering spring training, Nate Jones and Matt Lindstrom are the favorites to be the Sox's closer. Getty Images

With Chicago White Sox spring training set to begin Feb. 15 when pitchers and catchers report in Glendale, Ariz., we’re taking an early look around the diamond.

From the moment pitchers and catchers report to Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 15 the most intriguing battle will revolve around the vacant closer role.

Addison Reed is now a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks after a December trade, leaving Nate Jones and Matt Lindstrom as the favorites to win the job. Recent precedent suggests, though, that the favorite doesn’t always end up with the role.

Pitching coach Don Cooper has added Daniel Webb to the list of candidates, although he admits that including the blossoming right-hander will raise a few eyebrows.

“He throws the ball well too but hell, if I said ‘Daniel Webb,’ everybody would say ‘Who?’” Cooper said at SoxFest last month. “Nobody would know who he was.”

Webb has just nine games of major league experience, all after rosters expanded this past September. While landing the closer role is a long shot, his chance of making the bullpen in any capacity is a good one.

Could Webb end up being the Hector Santiago of 2012? Reed was the young closer candidate that season while Matt Thornton was the veteran choice. Santiago grabbed the job out of spring training but ended up only keeping the seat warm until Reed ultimately snatched it away.

After signing a guaranteed one-year, $4-million deal at the start of the New Year, Scott Downs will be the late-inning left-handed option out of the bullpen. He essentially takes over the role Matt Thornton held since 2006.

With Jones, Lindstrom, Webb and Downs liking like bullpen locks, that would leave just two spots remaining.

Hard-throwing right-hander Ronald Belisario, signed as a free agent after he was non-tendered by the Los Angeles Dodgers, has pitched well in the past but off-the-field issues seem to have frustrated his former team. Belisario has twice been late to spring training because of visa issues, missing the entire 2011 spring. He was also kicked off his winter league team last offseason.

In 2009, he posted a 2.04 ERA in 69 outings, and in 2012 had a 2.54 ERA over 68 appearances. Last season he slipped a bit with a 3.97 ERA over 77 outings, while his 49 strikeouts were 20 less than the previous season.

Right-handers like Deunte Heath and Jake Petricka could be in line for the final bullpen spot (assuming a 12-man pitching staff). But with the way the rotation is being built, it might make more sense for the final bullpen spot to go to a long man.

If Felipe Paulino makes the rotation, the White Sox figure to be cautious since he has had both Tommy John surgery and a shoulder procedure since he last pitched in the major leagues in 2012. And since the final rotation spot looks like it will be filled by a young pitcher from the system, that would further necessitate the presence a reliever that can be used for longer stretches.

Charlie Leesman, Andre Rienzo, Eric Surkamp and Dylan Axelrod all could be in the mix for the long-man job.

OUTLOOK: Even if Jones doesn’t win the closer role out of spring training, the job figures to be his eventually. It will be hard for any member of the bullpen to match the first half Jesse Crain gave the White Sox last season, before he was injured and subsequently traded, of course. If Lindstrom, Belisario and Downs are all pitching to their potential, though, the White Sox should be better as a group than they were last season. If Axelrod can match his spring from last year, expect him to get the long-man role with Leesman, Rienzo and Surkamp heading to Triple-A to remain stretched out as starters if, and when, they are needed at the big league level.