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Hector Santiago: Failed closer of yesterday, fifth starter of tomorrow?

A stealth campaign built on effective wildness sets the stage for a spring training battle for a rotation spot.

Brian Kersey

Covertly, discreetly and rapidly, Hector Santiago built quite a head of steam for the fifth starter job.

It started in late July, when the White Sox demoted him to Charlotte after the Francisco Liriano trade, affording Santiago the chance to stretch out. He started three games, didn't allow a run in any of them, and finished his stint with 6⅔ scoreless innings against Norfolk before he was back in the bigs. As Hawk Harrelson might say, "That didn't take long."

Then he made four starts in September, serving his purpose in three of them, and finishing the year with an exclamation point: seven innings, one hit, one walk, 10 strikeouts.

After the season, Santiago was off to winter ball, where he used five starts with Carolina of the Puerto Rican League to work on his off-speed offerings. The reps seemed to pay off, but you wouldn't quite know judging only by results, because it all looks the same.

Add up Santiago's starting stats from August through early December, and here's what you get:

1 0 0.00 3 14.2 9 0 0 0 6 13 1.02
Chicago 2 0 1.86 4 19.1 12 4 4 1 11 26 1.19
1 0 1.86 5 29.0 22 7 6 2 13 24 1.21
Total 4 0 1.43 12 63.0 43 11 10 3 30 63 1.16

This late-developing situation gave Santiago second thoughts about pitching in the World Baseball Classic. Earlier in the offseason, Santiago was angling for a spot in Puerto Rico's rotation. But since Jose Quintana isn't a lock and John Danks may not be ready by Opening Day, the White Sox rotation emerges as a bigger priority. Santiago is holding off on the WBC until he gets some input from the Sox, as Mark Gonzales relays:

"I haven't made an official decision yet," said Santiago, adding that he has spoken to Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez about a potential role as a starting pitcher. "It would be an honor to pitch for Puerto Rico. If they want me to start, I might do it. But I haven't spoken to (Sox general manager Rick Hahn), and it might not be the right time to leave the White Sox. I haven't faced hitters in a month, and I would be pushing it for the first week (of spring training) before leaving.''

Santiago said he accomplished his goal of polishing his slider and off-speed pitches in his five starts for Carolina of the Puerto Rican Winter League last month, and he has continued to throw up to 50-pitch bullpen sessions.

Santiago's future may very well lie in starting, if only because Robin Ventura struggled to figure out a comfortable way to use him one inning at a time. He started the season in the closer role, overthrowing his fastball and underthrowing his secondary stuff, which resulted in a bunch of homers. So the ninth inning wasn't for him, but even medium-leverage situations were an awkward fit. He walked too many guys without establishing a track record of pitching around them (a la Jesse Crain), and he wasn't the desirable choice for LOOGY work, because lefties didn't respect his slider.

When he fell further into the world of extended appearances -- first in long relief, and then as a starter -- he finally seemed to settle down. He took a little off his fastball for additional cut or sink, and he used his screwball more frequently against right-handed hitters. He still exceeded his recommended daily allowance of walks, but he showed a knack for getting unstuck.

At 25, he's got plenty of room and time to grow. As a hard-throwing lefty, he'll get as many chances as it takes to develop, especially since he doesn't mind right-handed hitters.

Now, the big question: What do you want to do with him in the interim -- assuming "effectively wild" is the only way he can be effective?

In his current state, he's an OK option for a fifth starter, but with conditions due to his inefficiency. He's not the best bet to get past four innings (even if he's throwing a shutout), and the Sox fell out of love with Francisco Liriano for the same reason. Quintana is easier on the eyes, even if he doesn't have a changeup.

Santiago is best suited for long relief, but valuable, experience-building outings are hard to find with a sturdy White Sox rotation. Santiago made only 14 appearances across June and July, and that isn't conducive for meaningful work.

So if neither of those roles are optimal, then starting in Charlotte's rotation has some benefits. He hasn't logged many starts at Triple-A, and Nestor Molina and Simon Castro are no closer to the big leagues than they were last year. Dylan Axelrod is still around, but Santiago has a leg up on him for the sixth starter.

Except if Santiago hangs out in Charlotte, that might compromise the White Sox's pitching staff, because the bullpen isn't exactly a strength. The Sox usually break camp with the seven best relievers, and Santiago makes that cut.

Now you can see why Santiago has second thoughts about the WBC, because whatever he does in the Cactus League will have some pretty big implications for the rest of his 2013. With a super-long spring ahead of us, we could use the storylines.