Windy City wipeout: K-Rod for closer?
April, 14, 2011
By Christina Kahrl | ESPN.com
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesWhite Sox closer Matt Thornton has already racked up four blown saves in the young season.The White Sox lost another squeaker Wednesday with their second extra-inning loss to the A's. It marked their fifth blown save in the bottom of the eighth inning or later, and the fourth blown save on the season for Matt Thornton, this time coming in relief of rookie Chris Sale. Sale failed to record an out after being handed a three-run lead in the ninth, so while the blown save gets put on Thornton, it was another bad day at the office for both of the Sox's should-be stoppers. After the game, manager Ozzie Guillen was every bit as combustible as his closers, exploding with an announcement of the obvious: "I don't have any closer."
Now, as much as you'll get an argument from those on the inside that pitching the ninth is different from any other, it's also true that closers can be conjured up from the least likely of sources. From last year's saves leaderboard, for example, Kevin Gregg (37 saves) was a former utility pitcher for the Angels, while the Mariners' David Aardsma (31 saves) was no stranger to the waiver wire. It isn't about the ability to generate saves -- give a lot of guys 30-40 opportunities in the ninth, and you'll get a save 75-80 percent of the time.
It isn't going to be Ozzie's job to pull a rabbit out of his hat, not by himself at any rate. In Sale and Thornton, he has two good lefties who can and will pitch effectively, but their rough starts mean it's going to take some time for trust in them to be rebuilt. Turning to Thornton early in the season and trusting that perhaps Sale would wind up earning the job in-season was a nice plan in the abstract, but in the big picture a pair of southpaws in the Cell doesn't exactly make for the best combination, not in a world full of right-handed hitters, and definitely not in a ballpark as righty pull-power-friendly as the Sox's home -- per Baseball Info Solutions' park factors, U.S. Cellular's 145 park factor for right-handed hitters' home runs is the single highest home-run factor in either league for every kind of hitter in any ballpark over 2008-10. In this kind of environment, there's a real need for a quality right-hander.
And simply put, Ozzie doesn't have that guy. Converted position player Sergio Santos has mid-90s heat and might be worth a peek, but like many conversion projects, the four-seamer could probably profit from more movement and less speed-gun heroics, and given his limited experience on the mound, his off-speed stuff understandably needs work: righties can kill his changeup when they aren't sitting dead-red, but his slider has promise. If that sort of sushi is a little too exciting for Ozzie, Jesse Crain might make for an adequate temporary solution, but he wasn't especially effective in high-leverage situations in 2008 or 2009, and his strikeout rate isn't all that much higher than average for relief help.
Enter Kenny Williams, who is as active a shopper as any GM in the game today. From Williams on down, the Sox believe in their ability to regild the lily, taking other teams' former top struggling prospects and getting them turned around. The rotation's stocked with them (John Danks and Gavin Floyd, for example), and it was their gamble on Bobby Jenks as a too-wild Rule 5 pick out of the Angels organization that helped propel the Sox to their 2005 title. The answer has to come from outside the organization, and it'll be Williams' crew who can find him. If it's a matter of taking a chance on a pitcher struggling with staying healthy, here again, the Sox can afford a bit of risk where other teams might shrink from it, because they have the benefit of Herm Schneider's matchless training staff.
The question is whether Williams can acquire someone this early in the season, when salary dumps generally aren't the order of the day, so it's likely to cost talent -- something Chicago's system isn't rich in. Making the call this early comes across as desperate, because it is. Even so, perhaps the best fit will involve the Sox living up to their season motto -- "All In" -- and making a deal for a short-time veteran who could use the change of scenery.
So the time is now for Williams to call Sandy Alderson, start talking about Francisco Rodriguez, and see how much money the Sox can get the Mets to eat while making it happen. K-Rod may not appear to be the same pitcher he was in his Angels' heyday, but his strikeout rate last season (28.4 percent) was his best since 2007. As much as "closer mystique" is overrated, the Sox probably can't afford to keep experimenting on into May; K-Rod's formerly famous enough to end the club's closer controversy, pushing Thornton back into his set-up job and letting the Sox re-evaluate what they want to do with Sale in the near term. Admittedly, the Sox would be risking K-Rod's 2012 option for $17.5 million vesting -- he needs to finish 55 games to get there, plus a clean bill of health -- but either you're all in, or you're not.
Christina Kahrl helped co-found Baseball Prospectus in 1996, is a member of the BBWAA, and covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter here.