Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached the ideal situation with the back end of the bullpen.
Sure, said situation may have taken the scenic route in resolving itself. Sure, the scenic route took us through cemeteries, stockyards and the landfill district. Sure, it might be too late to be worth it.
Still. The White Sox have a guy who has the stuff to pitch in the ninth inning. In a typical save situation, he ranks No. 1 with a bullet on Ozzie Guillen's lineup card. He will close most games that need closing.
And he is not The Closer.
For Sergio Santos and the rest of the White Sox relief corps, that's exactly how it should be.Though he had a set closer in Bobby Jenks for 4 1/2 seasons, Guillen understands better than most managers that bullpens can be fluid. He relayed that knowledge beautifully after Sunday's game:
"[If I did,] all of a sudden, I have to stick with [Santos]," Guillen said. "All of a sudden you don’t see him in the ninth and it’s, ‘What happened here? You said he was going to be the closer.’ When you are there, close the game. I think it’s too early to say this is the guy we are going to use. We’re not save that many games. But every time he’s there, he does the job. I hope he just wait a little bit for what’s going on and then we do something or tell him."
I hope everybody can wait longer than a little bit, lest Guillen lose any freedom to manage Santos like he did in the ninth and 10th innings. Based on the first half of that quote, he seems to get this.
The Closer usually isn't called upon to pitch in the ninth inning of a tie game. The Closer isn't expected to pitch two innings. Guillen has never adhered to these rules as closely as other managers -- good managers, too! -- but he always has to answer to somebody when deviating from the conventional wisdom backfires.
But as long as Santos isn't The Closer, there is no conventional wisdom. When he pitched the ninth in a 2-2 game, nobody made special note of it, like we often did with Jenks. He also should have pitched the 10th -- and he did.
Santos, the best reliever on the staff right now, handled the tasks that the best reliever on the staff should handle. Maybe that's not the set role every reliever desires, but then again, he's never had a role. Hell, he's barely been a pitcher. Guillen may as well take advantage of his greenhorn status while he can.
Maybe this is the silver lining of the Matt Thornton debacle. Guillen named Thornton as The Closer at the end of spring training, and when Thornton started blowing saves, the two of them were stuck. Throw him into another save situation and risk exhausting any remaining goodwill, or use somebody else and tell everybody "Thornton can't handle it?" As it turned out, Thornton got clocked by both scenarios.
Everybody's still reeling from those episodes, so there's no point in exposing another key member of the bullpen to that wringer. The creation of Sergio Santos: Pseudo-Closer puts more pressure on Guillen than anybody else, but it allows both the pitcher and the manager to earn the benefit of the doubt at the same time. If they can pull off more late-inning magic, both should become rather comfortable rather quickly.
Philosophy aside, there's another reason for Guillen to be reluctant to dub Santos as The Closer: Santos still has to prove he's capable of withstanding a full season of work.
Santos has been nothing but impressive in his first 12 appearances of 2011 -- but the exact same thing could be said about him last year, when he also carried a spotless 0.00 ERA through his first dozen games:
- 2010: 11.1 IP, 3 H, 5 BB, 15 K, zero extra-base hits, 8-for-8 in stranding inherited runners.
- 2011: 15 IP, 7 H, 6 BB, 19 K, two extra-base hits, 4-for-4 in stranding inherited runners.
While the numbers are quite similar, there are reasons to believe that Sophomore Santos is ready to leave his predecessor in the dust.
Guillen was exceptionally protective of Santos in his rookie season. He only asked Santos to record four outs on two occasions over the first three months. This season, Santos has already recorded four or more outs five times, so Guillen must have some reason to believe that he can loosen the leash and maintain Santos' effectiveness.
And just from watching Santos, you can see that he's brimming with confidence in all of his pitches -- especially his slider. He's throwing it to both righties and lefties, and he's getting swings and misses from both sides (42.1 percent whiff rate before Sunday!). He made switch-hitting Justin Smoak look especially silly in the ninth inning, with that slider disappearing down and in.
He didn't have that kind of command last year, and the league smartened up. Both his walk rate and hit rate spiked over the following two months, and although he stabilized somewhat over the rest of the season, it wasn't without numerous rough patches.
The workload wasn't the problem. Santos only threw 51 2/3 innings in 2010, which is light for a pitcher that never hit the DL. He's on pace for 70 this year, and that's the biggest question going forward. Hitters will make some adjustments to Santos' adjustments to their earlier adjustments, but we can safely say his stuff is elite.
Whether he can maintain it for six months is still unknown. If Santos is The Closer, it's hard for both manager and player to offer an excuse for not answering the bell, so it might be beneficial to allow for some breathing room if Santos' stuff dulls down the road.
Christian Marrero Reading Room
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*J.J. takes a look at the significance of Konerko's five-hit game, among other things.
*James reviews the week that was.
*Oral Sox unleashes a Slumpbuster edition of the podcast -- all bits, all the time.