No lead is safe these days when a White Sox reliever enters the game. While Matt Thornton has taken the brunt of fan anger, his struggles now seem to have spread to the rest of the bullpen. The situation got crazier Wednesday when three relievers — including Thornton — blew a three-run lead in the final inning, leading Ozzie Guillen to tell the media that he didn’t have a closer. It’s too early to overreact, and Guillen is smarter than that*, but frustration is beginning to boil over with the Sox.
Thornton entered the season as the newly-minted closer, but the shine quickly wore off. While the lefty has been his team’s best reliever the past few seasons (not to mention one of the best relievers in all of baseball), he’s struggled in his new role. No one wants to overreact to 4.2 innings pitched, but Thornton might need more time to refine his approach. Walks plagued him when he was with the Seattle Mariners, and those troubles have revisited Thornton so far this season. His velocity appears fine, which could mean that a bullpen session will fix these early struggles.
Chris Sale emerged as a potential candidate for saves this season as well, but he’s also experienced some problems. His issues, though, appear based more on luck rather than skill. Despite a strong strikeout to walk rate (9:1), Sale’s given up 11 hits in only 7.1 innings. So long as Sale doesn’t turn into a home-run machine, he should be fine.
Neither Jesse Crain, nor Sergio Santos, have pitched poorly this season, so perhaps they’re next in line for closing opportunities. Crain was part of the White Sox’s bullpen meltdown yesterday, which could mean that Santos might have a longer leash at the moment. Both players are capable of being successful closers, but the two lack the upside of either Thornton or Sale. It’s also Santos’ second season as a pitcher (in his career), so Guillen may be hesitant to install him in that role in the immediate future. With four options, none of which are all that appealing at the moment, what will Guillen do?
Despite his early troubles, Thornton has gotten consistent support from his manager. Guillen also likely realizes that Thornton is his best pitcher, and that he should be able to rebound rather quickly. For now, the frustration with the pen is at a high point and Guillen is likely to ride the hot hand. Could that include Tony Pena? Maybe, but it’s not likely. Once Thornton returns to form, he should return to the closer role.
If, however, one player emerges and Guillen names him the closer for the remainder of the season, not all is lost for Thornton. If we think a team’s best pitcher should be used during the most important moments of the game, then utilizing Thornton in that role is the optimal way for Ozzie to run his pen. Even though Bobby Jenks was the closer the past few seasons, Thornton was the Sox’s most reliable pitcher, and the guy Guillen brought in with the bases loaded in the eighth inning.
It’s too early for teams to panic and make dramatic changes with such small samples, but that won’t stop the White Sox. Their early bullpen issues have been so overblown this season that Guillen will play the match-up game until someone emerges. Thornton, though, is still the best option in the pen. Once he returns to form, the Sox could re-install him as the full-time closer. But it shouldn’t be viewed as a failure if Thornton doesn’t reclaim the job. He’s long been one of the best “secret closers**” in the game, and the White Sox have plenty of options.
*You can take my word for it, or you can call me an idiot in the comments.
**Copyright Carson Cistulli
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.