By Mark Gonzales, Tribune reporter
9:09 PM CDT, October 17, 2012
The White Sox were extremely pleased with the development of their pitching staff in 2012, particularly the rookie relievers who experienced the pressure of a division race.
In fact, general manager Ken Williams resisted any temptation to trade any of his young core relievers in midseason deals for Kevin Youkilis, Brett Myers and Francisco Liriano.
But several scouts who followed the Sox during their unsuccessful drive for the American League Central title believe they could encounter two scenarios that could change the landscape of their bullpen:
They could trade one of their young pitchers for a major league ready player -- such as an upgrade over catcher Tyler Flowers or a third baseman with a bigger upside than Brent Morel.
Or they could move a veteran, such as left-hander Matt Thornton or Jesse Crain, to lower payroll and give the youngsters more prominent roles.
Contrary to an internet report, the Sox have committed $65.25 million to seven players for 2013 (Paul Konerko will earn $6.5 million in 2013, plus $1 million annually from 2014-20).
Moving the salaries of Thornton ($5.5 million) or Crain ($4.5 million) would give the Sox the flexibility to add a free agent or allow them to absorb raises for first-year arbitration eligible players Alejandro De Aza, and Gordon Beckham, along with decent pay increases for Dayan Viciedo and Chris Sale.
But Thornton led the Sox with 74 appearances and gives them a veteran left-hander. And, after an injury-riddled start, Crain was one of the Sox's most dependable relievers down the stretch and limited right-handed hitters to a .129 batting average.
Thornton, 36, and Crain, 31, are in the final seasons of their contracts (although the Sox hold a $6 million option on Thornton for 2014). But there are indications that the young relievers are ready to take the next step in their maturation process.
Nate Jones capped an impressive rookie season by allowing one earned run over his final 23 appearances after hitting a speed bump in late July and early August. His 98 mph fastball automatically puts him into consideration for a late-inning role. Jones, however, will have to work on lowering first batters' .328 batting average against him.
After several years of injuries and control problems, Donnie Veal became one of the American League's most impressive left-handers. He didn't allow a run in 16 of his final 17 appearances while limiting left-handed batters to an .094 batting average (3-for-32). First batters went 2-for-23 (.087) against Veal.
A potential wild card is left-hander Hector Santiago, who could return to the bullpen if he doesn't win a spot in the rotation.
Santiago seemed more comfortable in four starts in the final five weeks of the season after beginning 2012 as the Sox's closer.
Addison Reed set a Sox rookie record with 29 saves, and he converted 14 of his final 15 save chances.
But television announcer Ken Harrelson wisely pointed out toward the end of the season that Reed needs to improve on throwing more strikes early in counts. Opponents batted .424 (14-for-33) when ahead in the count and .324 (22-for-68 with four home runs) after a 1-0 count.
Brian Omogrosso, 28, emerged as one of the most improved pitchers in the Sox's system, and he and Jhan Marinez (received as compensation for the departure of manager Ozzie Guillen to the Marlins) could compete for a middle relief role.
Omogrosso didn't allow a run in seven of his final eight appearances. Marinez pitched only once after getting promoted in mid-September from Triple-A Charlotte, where he posted a 2.86 ERA with 65 strikeouts in 63 innings.
Myers took some stress off the Sox's bullpen, but he is a free agent and could return to a starting role. The Sox appear to be interested in him for their rotation.
If the Sox are committed to Santiago as a starter, that could open a spot for left-hander Leyson Septimo. The Sox also could receive a lift from 6-foot-5 left-hander Santos Rodriguez, who is currently pitching for Salt River in the Arizona Fall League.
Rodriguez, 24, struck out 69 but walked 35 in 71 1/3 innings for Double-A Birmingham and Charlotte. Rodriguez throws in the mid-90s mph range and allowed only 40 hits.
Dylan Axelrod has been flexible and serviceable, as evidenced by his 7 1/3 innings of three-hit ball at Baltimore on Aug. 29 and his seven innings of two-run ball at Yankee Stadium on June 28. Two teammates believe Axelrod could be a 10-game winner in the National League.
Axelrod, 27, could be helped by a change of scenery if the Sox at least pick up the $9.5 million option on Gavin Floyd and/or find a way to re-sign Jake Peavy, as they don't seem worried about the possibility of fielding a rotation that could include four left-handers -- Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, John Danks (recovering from shoulder surgery) and Santiago.
Andre Rienzo is capping off an impressive season with a strong debut in the AFL, but the Sox appear optimistic about their current choices in the rotation.
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