White Sox Fifth Starter Fight: Dylan Axelrod or Hector Santiago?

He's the man ... for now. - USA TODAY Sports

Robin Ventura has a couple options to replace John Danks, but it might hinge on what he wants from his bullpen.

Given a little time to let the smoke clear, Robin Ventura and John Danks reached the same conclusion from the wreck that was his last start -- barring a Easter miracle, he's going to start the season on the disabled list.

Ventura hasn't named an official replacement, but Dylan Axelrod has the inside track on Danks' early starts, with Hector Santiago stretched out enough for an outside chance.

If the Danks replacement needs to handle April, I don't know if there's much of a difference between the two over a handful of starts, even if they're extremely different pitchers.

Let's assume they aren't going to be skipped, which I hope is the case. Thanks to two early off days, the Sox could avoid using a fifth starter until April 15. I don't particularly care for this idea, because more than anything, the Sox need as much of Prime Chris Sale as possible, and last year, Sale was much more effective with an extra day of rest. If the goal is to get him through the season with more left in the tank, it seems like it would be smart to take all available chances to give him an extra breather, rather than having to force it, resulting in Pedro Hernandez at Fenway Park.

Moreover, April is traditionally a pitcher-friendly month, and the schedule isn't particularly daunting for the fifth starter. Don't confuse it with a cakewalk -- neither Axelrod and Santiago are proven MLB starters, so you can't assume effective performances against any team. But basically, if Robin Ventura were forced at gunpoint to adhere to a strict five-man rotation for a month, he could be in far worse shape.

If Danks' chances of an effective return were more assured, perhaps Ventura could take advantage of one of those off days. But Danks could be a mess for most or all of the season, and if Gavin Floyd gets bit by another nagging injury or Jose Quintana can't shake the scouting reports, Ventura may have to improvise with the rotation later. I'd rather not see him scramble before he's forced to, because it didn't work out so well last year, and the talent involved is the same, as far as we know.

Here's what the impromptu fifth starter will face if the schedule holds. Click on their names for their game log against the team in question, and "HANDEDNESS" links to the MLB Depth Charts page.

April 6: vs. Seattle Mariners

EXPOSURE

Pitcher W-L ERA G GS IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
Santiago 0-0 2.70 4 0 6.2 5 2 2 1 2 6 1.05
Axelrod -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

Santiago: First three appearances were scoreless relief appearances; on Aug. 26, he threw four innings in relief of an injured Floyd. Outside of throwing a hanging screwball to Casper Wells for a two-run homer, he pitched well.

Axelrod: Never faced Seattle.

HANDEDNESS

Seattle has three lefties and two switch-hitters, but one of those switch-hitters is Justin Smoak, and he can't hit righties.

ADVANTAGE

Axelrod. Santiago would work, too, but I think Axelrod can confuse a team his first time around, so of course I want to test that theory.

April 12 at Cleveland; April 22 vs. Cleveland

EXPOSURE

Pitcher W-L ERA G GS IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
Santiago 2-0 2.76 7 2 16.1 13 5 5 1 7 20 1.22
Axelrod 0-0 6.35 2 1 5.2 7 4 4 0 4 3 1.94

Santiago: Successful in five traditional relief appearances before Ventura started him against Cleveland twice in late September, trying to take advantage of the Tribe's Marxist lineup. It didn't work the first time, as he threw 78 pitches over 31/3 innings in a 6-4 loss. The second time, Santiago struck out 10 Indians over seven one-hit innings.

Axelrod: His start against Cleveland came back on Sept. 20, 2011, and he didn't have much in that half of the doubleheader. He only faced the Indians once last year, throwing a perfect ninth.

HANDEDNESS

Not as left-leaning as last year. They'll field three good switch-hitters -- Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana are somewhat better against lefties (though that didn't help the team much overall in 2012), and Nick Swisher has no defined split.

They also have some platoon potential, with Mark Reynolds and Drew Stubbs facing lefties, and Lonnie Chisenhall and Drew Stubbs facing righties.

ADVANTAGE

Santiago until proven otherwise.

April 17: at Toronto

EXPOSURE

Pitcher W-L ERA G GS IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
Santiago 0-0 4.50 2 0 4.0 3 2 2 1 3 3 1.50
Axelrod 1-1 7.00 2 2 9.0 9 7 7 3 4 10 1.44

Santiago: Both outings were last year. He gave up a meaningless two-run homer to Rajai Davis on May 6, then came back a month later and threw three scoreless innings in relief of Axelrod in an 11-9 loss at the end of the first half.

Axelrod: He picked up his first career victory with six shutout innings during Ozzie Guillen's last game as manager in 2011. Last year, the Blue Jays roughed him up for seven runs over three innings (including three homers). Axelrod was on short rest, which is another reason I'd rather not have the Sox try to cheat with the rotation unnecessarily early.

HANDEDNESS

The Blue Jays lean right, but it didn't show in terms of overall production. They will have two new switch-hitters at the top of the order with Jose Reyes (a little better against lefties) and Melky Cabrera (generally level, but murdered lefties last year). Toronto isn't the healthiest team, though, so this is subject to change.

ADVANTAGE

I'd feel better with Santiago, although I'm willing to give Axelrod leeway for being put in a tough position last time.

April 27 vs. Tampa Bay

EXPOSURE

Pitcher W-L ERA G GS IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP
Santiago 0-0 0.00 1 0 1.0 1 0 0 0 0 1 1.00
Axelrod 0-0 10.80 1 0 1.2 2 3 2 1 2 2 3.00

Santiago: Finished a 7-2 victory on May 29. Jose Lobaton singled.

Axelrod: Was one of many White Sox pitchers to labor in that 10-4 blowout that pretty much killed the season on Sept. 29.

HANDEDNESS

Balanced, but thin. Lone switch-hitter Ben Zobrist is better against lefties, and so is their other above-average hitter, Evan Longoria. There are platoon possibilities -- Luke Scott and Kelly Johnson against lefties, Sean Rodriguez and Ryan Roberts against righties. Righties get to face James Loney right now.

ADVANTAGE

Coin flip, meaning Santiago for upside, Axelrod for efficiency.

The bullpen question

If Jesse Crain were around, it'd be pretty straight starter-to-starter comparison. Santiago ranks as the fifth- or sixth-best option in a full White Sox bullpen, so there would be little lost in replacing Santiago with a less proven arm.

With Crain out, Santiago becomes a little more important -- although he'd still the third late-inning lefty as long as Donnie Veal can recreate most of his LOOGY magic from last year.

But if you think Santiago has improvement in store, he could be a first lefty in waiting, and that might come into play early. Last year, Ventura called for Matt Thornton in 14 of the Sox's first 26 games, and Thornton ran into problems afterward. I can see Ventura calling for Santiago in Thornton-grade situations early, say if Thornton pitched the day before, or if there is any lingering concern about the elbow.

Axelrod doesn't have the same versatility. He's struggled in his brief MLB relief career, so if he's not in Chicago's rotation, he probably should be in Charlotte's rotation. If he's with the White Sox, he'd be the same as Brian Omogrosso or Leyson Septimo or Ramon Troncoso, confined to low-leverage situations if Ventura can help it.

The final formula

Although choosing Axelrod over Santiago for two Cleveland starts could be problematic, it really comes down to a matter of preference otherwise.

If Axelrod starts, there's less upside in rotation, but a lot more flexibility in the bullpen.

If Santiago starts, he brings the potential for outstanding starts, but if the bullpen's Crainless, the high-leverage guys could overheat.

Which one do you like better?

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