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Open competition makes four-lefty bullpen possible

Eric Stults was scored upon in five of his six major-league outings last year.
Eric Stults was scored upon in five of his six major-league outings last year.

There are still three open bullpen spots, but you can cross Gregory Infante's name off the list. He strained his left oblique Sunday against the Rockies, sidelining him "indefinitely."

Of course, Infante wasn't really a player, because he still hasn't figured out how to throw enough strikes. But Scott Merkin goes on to show just how open the competition is:

Hector Santiago appears to be the favorite for one of the two open bullpen slots. Brian Bruney, Zach Stewart, Dylan Axelrod and Eric Stults are among the prominent candidates in competition for the final spots.

Eric Stults is the new name in the mix, and it's taken three whole innings to get him mentioned with incumbents like Stewart and Axelrod. To give him credit, they are three good innings -- one hit, two strikeouts, and, most importantly, zero walks. Also in his favor is the fact that the Sox have been pretty open to outsiders in the past. While he came to the Sox on a minor-league contract, he's following a path to the 25-man roster cleared by the likes of Randy Williams and Erick Threets. Don Cooper can make use of these guys.

But it's hard to get a gauge on what he can bring to the table (if anything), because he doesn't fit the typical profile for a lefty journeyman relief candidate. He doesn't have extreme splits -- in fact, his big-league splits are backwards, with lefties hammering him. Nor does he have problems throwing strikes, because he issued just 20 walks over 80 innings last year.

Also, last year was the first year he spent in the bullpen. He was a starter for his entire pro career, first with the Dodgers (you may remember him throwing a four-hit shutout against the Sox in 2008), and then with the Hiroshima Carp in 2010. He came back to the States to try out for the Rockies in either role, and he ended up spending most of the year in Colorado Springs. He pitched well with the Sky Sox, and he wouldn't have been terrible in his three weeks with the Rockies if it weren't for those damned solo homers.

The long ball seems to be the one constant in his career. Stults has always had low grounder rates, and he gave up 15 homers over 80 innings last year, which is awful. Even that's not so simple, though. Pitching in Colorado Springs is like pitching on the moon, and NL West parks are all kinds of extreme. He's definitely a flyball pitcher, but to what extent is hard to figure out.

At this point, it's best to look at Stults like we did Dan Johnson -- not necessarily the guy, but the kind of guy. And in this case, bringing a guy like Stults on board would give the Sox a four-lefty bullpen if Santiago sticks. That's not new, because the Sox carried four lefties for a couple weeks last year when Santiago replaced John Danks, and if Matt Thornton is used as a traditional closer, his left-handedness is kind of irrelevant.

However, while there's a precedent, there doesn't seem to be a reason. Under Ozzie Guillen, the White Sox's second lefty could go weeks without pitching an inning that really mattered. Robin Ventura might be different, but not different enough that a third lefty would be highly useful. Now throw one more lefty on top of that. Sure, the Rocky Dennis jokes would be fun, but that's about it.

Stults will have an opportunity to gain traction over the next week or so, but in an ideal world, Zach Stewart makes a strong case for that spot in the bullpen. Stewart's future is in relief, and in his outings with the Sox last year, everything was fine until he passed the 25-pitch mark. He also figures to stand a decent chance of retiring the occasional tough righty in an important spot. Alas, he's had some problems with command thus far (three walks in four innings), which is why guys like Stults are very much in the conversation.