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White Sox Thu Jan 13 2011

White Sox Preview: Part One -- Chris Sale

Thumbnail image for white sox.gifPart of a series previewing the 2011 White Sox.

It's the new year and that means it is time to start counting down the days until spring training. (Thirty-four until White Sox pitchers and catchers report. Set your watches accordingly.) While the White Sox get ready to show us just how all in they are in their "We're All In" campaign, their rotations and lineups seem to be fairly set. With exception of Adam Dunn and probably Brent Morel, the batting order will most likely look familiar to anyone who paid attention in 2010. The same goes for their rotation, which only has the question of when Jake Peavy will be rejoining its ranks.

That is not to say that everything is set in stone for Opening Day, of course. There is still the bullpen to sort out as well as who will take the honors batting between lead off man Juan Pierre and new masher Dunn, and a lot can happen in spring training. So as we inch closer and closer to Feb. 17, I will be examining what we should all be looking forward to once the Sox descend on the Cactus League ready to show off their minor-league talent and play meaningless baseball games with disproportionately high scores.

In part one of this series, we will turn our attention to the man who went from easily remembered draft pick to hilariously bejeweled Major League bullpen savior in just a matter of weeks, the rail thin Chris Sale.

There is no question that fans and pundits alike were pleased with Sale's debut in 2010. In 23.1 innings over 21 appearances, he amassed four saves and and 32 strikeouts -- not bad for a kid fresh out of the draft. With both a frame and a rise to the Majors similar to the great Stephen Strasburg, Sale brought with him a confidence that belied his age and inexperience and enough heat to fan the best of them.

Exceptional entrance to The Show aside, Chris Sale remains an anomaly for 2011 because he is a powerfully talented arm with currently no obvious place to go. While he does have the arsenal to make it as a young phenom starter, the Sox rotation is full with Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Edwin Jackson and eventually, god willing, Jake Peavy. Also, with the Sox acquiring former divisional rival Jesse Crain and former crosstown rival Will Ohman, the bullpen is starting to fill up as well. So just how should the Sox harness Chris Sale's bright future?

Of course, Sale was drafted to start. He also has the variety of pitches befitting someone who could go for six innings on a regular basis. And unfortunate as it may be, there is no guarantee Peavy will return with his old stuff, or even by his projected return of the beginning of the season. Be that as it may, Don Cooper has recently stated that he doesn't want to use Sale as a short term starter only to jump back in the bullpen once the rotation is back up to full force.

Another strong possibility, stronger had the Sox not just acquired Ohman, is utilizing Sale as a LOOGY. In the eight instances where Sale inherited another pitcher's base runners last season, he only allowed a run on three occasions. Given that, it seems like the role of taking the mound during duress and maintaining a fragile lead is well within his grasp. How nice would that have been on Aug. 17 of last year?

Of course, the most likely option is closer. The last time Ozzie took a chance on someone so young, it turned out pretty well for everyone, so it's easy to imagine Guillen feeling at least somewhat comfortable with handing the reins to the 9th inning to someone with a fastball that kisses the upper 90s. When watching Sale this spring, we should hope to see the same kid we saw last summer: a young rubber band of man with a dauntless fastball and a baffling changeup. If he can keep his walk count low, as he did last year with a 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio, I think the closer spot is his. The Sox will want to use Sale to the best of his ability, and this would be a great way to do so. With Thornton setting up the 9th and Sale closing it down, the bullpen seems like a much more promising place than it did at the end of last season. It will be up to Sale to prove he can make this happen.

So unless someone else is traded in yet another surprise move by Kenny Williams, I think Sale will see more of section 158 than he will the dugout this year. Whether or not he ends up filling Jenks' massive shoes depends on how much confidence and success he displays when facing high profiles batters in Glendale. If his strikeout to walk ratio teeters towards too many freebies, I think Matt Thornton will be the obvious choice. However, if Sale can bring his gold chain and swagger back to the table, we might be looking at the new face of the 9th inning at U.S. Cellular.

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