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Williams' bullpen leaves room for doubt after all

Zach Stewart.
Zach Stewart.

Earlier on Monday, Ken Rosenthal issued something resembling a mea culpa about his first impression of the Robin Ventura hiring. He didn't like the decision to hire Ventura (nor St. Louis' similar choice of Mike Matheny) because he thinks managers should have some experience in the coaching ranks. Still, the initial tone set by both novices has exceeded his expectations.

He's not quite eating his words yet, nor should he, since the season is barely a week old. But oddly enough, it's another White Sox-related item in Rosenthal's column that underscores the way small samples can mislead:

The White Sox bullpen looks like a force even following the trade of closer Sergio Santos to the Blue Jays for a highly regarded prospect, right-hander Nestor Molina.

The bullpen, third in the AL in ERA, includes three rookies – left-hander Hector Santiago and righties Addison Reed and Nate Jones – and another relatively inexperienced pitcher, righty Zach Stewart.

"For 12 years, we’ve put together a solid pitching staff in a small ballpark," GM Ken Williams said. "We’ve got a little bit of history. We kind of know what we’re doing. But unless people prove it, nobody gives you the benefit of the doubt. Now we’re at least showing enough early on to get the benefit of the doubt."

And after Monday night, the benefit of the doubt took a major hit.

Santiago gave up a pair of solo homers to blow a two-run lead in the ninth inning against the Orioles, which makes three homers allowed over four innings of work.

He isn't naturally that homer-prone, but it's shown up in his game before (he allowed seven over 44 innings at Winston-Salem last year). That'll happen, because an inflated home run rate is one of the ways command problems manifest themselves in statistics, and Santiago is not a finished product.

We've seen the upside of Ventura's decision to name Santiago closer, which is freeing up the best relievers to give the offense a chance to expand a narrow lead. On Monday, we saw the downside -- the learning experiences take place under a microscope.

That's a tricky balance to strike, and it's going to be interesting to see how Ventura handles it. Santiago is saying all the right things, and Ventura can't overreact to one bad night (or two, or maybe even three, if they're spread out enough).

At the same time, the architecture of the team lacks reinforcement of any kind. Brent Morel might not be aware of the book on him. Prospect folks have been mourning over the corpse of Gordon Beckham's potential this season. U.S. Cellular Field is turning into enemy territory for Adam Dunn, who has struck out 10 of 17 plate appearances at home. Alex Rios continues to make weak contact.

Basically, it's the same story as last season, and we know how that plays out over the course of the season. It puts a lot of stress on a bullpen and amplifies the missteps. We saw that with Matt Thornton in 2011. We saw that with an entire bullpen in 2007.

Should Santiago turn into a crisis situation, I think swapping roles with Thornton would address the issues sufficiently. Thornton rediscovered his "seek-and-destroy" setting in April, and a lefty exchange keeps the handedness balance in order.

That individual decision shouldn't be a big deal. But then the worry shifts to whether leads will make it to the ninth inning as often, and it's all an unfriendly reminder that the bullpen is still a delicate situation in a china shop of a team. Juan Nieves, whom we don't see quoted often, provided an interesting contrast to Williams' confidence with his postgame quote:

‘‘A year from now we’ll know who to count on and who not to count on,’’ Nieves said. ‘‘There was a concern [about having so many rookies], but we embraced it with open arms.’’

It sounds like Nieves is supportive of the bullpen's current construction, but not necessarily because it's awesome. The way I read it, he's prepared for the likelihood that some guys are going to survive and thrive, and others are going to eat it hard. Because the Sox lack resources to address the bullpen further, they have to pick the seven best relievers and figure out who is worth investing in down the road.

That's a fair approach, and it deserves patience. But that doesn't doesn't deserve "benefit of the doubt" in terms of powering a surprise contender, because the bullpen doesn't exist in a vacuum. Outside of the variances in individual performances, there will be persistent outside stresses that will exacerbate the its weak points:

If an offense with four dead zones can't provide enough comfortable leads to rest the high-leverage guys ...

If the starters leave three or more innings of work every night ...

If injuries strike ...

Monday's game isn't a harbinger foretelling certain doom. It is the beginning of whether we can even begin to know whether they can earn faith and trust, because Santiago is among five relievers who need to prove they can respond to failures at the big-league level. Unfortunately, Santiago will have his first chance this week.