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Thursday, March 31, 2011
Season preview: Bullpen

By Doug Padilla

Thornton
Matt Thornton gets the first crack at the closer's role in the post-Bobb Jenks era.
Congratulations Matt Thornton, you earned the White Sox’s closer role. Now watch your back. That seems to be the scenario surrounding Thornton’s anointment as the club’s first closer of the post-Bobby Jenks era.

Thornton was the favorite to land the role heading into spring training and the move became official when he looked more than capable of doing the job with his performance in Cactus League games. But manager Ozzie Guillen said Thornton will get “more than the chance to be the closer,” which means others will get a chance as well. So when Thornton has pitched a day earlier and a slew of right-handers are due up in the ninth, perhaps Sergio Santos or Jesse Crain gets the call instead.

So yeah, Matt, you got the job, but you seem to be on a short leash. Are you OK with that? “Hey, if I don’t do the job, I haven’t done anything my career to maintain that job all season long just based on past history,” he said. “It’s something where I have to earn it every single time I take the mound.” Good answer.

Chris Sale
The overall success of the bullpen could depend on an effective Chris Sale.
Not everything surrounding Chris Sale’s performance in March could be attributed to the simple fact that it’s just spring training or that he has never been in big-league camp before. The wunderkind left-hander showed he really was human after an eye-popping two months in the major leagues last season a mere months after leaving college. Sale had a 5.06 ERA in 10 2/3 spring innings, but he showed slight improvement after a change in his setup.

Sale started standing on the third-base side of the rubber while facing right-handed hitters and moved to the first-base side for left-handers. Expected to be a key piece in neutralizing a strong contingent of left-handed hitters in the American League Central, an inefficient Sale could prove to be a huge blow to the bullpen’s expectations. It might not be fair to place so much of a burden on such a young player, but Sale has shown that he can handle the load. His situation shows just how much Major League Baseball is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. One reason the White Sox might not be too worried: He had 14 strikeouts vs. only two walks in Arizona.

The projection was that White Sox relievers were supposed to be nasty on left-handed hitters with Thornton, Sale and Will Ohman. Apparently the right-handers looked at that as a challenge and nobody in that group has stepped up more than Santos, who didn’t give up a run this spring in 9 2/3 innings. The former infielder appears set to make another jump in his development, which is impressive considering he already got some chances in the late innings last season.

Throw out a spring outing against the Mariners when Jesse Crain gave up two runs in an inning of a game that was already decided and the newcomer from the Twins also looked solid. And don’t forget Tony Pena, who posted a 3.60 ERA in 15 innings.

With Jake Peavy about to miss anywhere from two to four starts to begin the season, Pena will be key in getting the White Sox through that stretch, even if he doesn’t start a game. If Pena can absorb innings and keep everybody else on the staff fresh, the White Sox might be able to piece things together in April.