The changes go well beyond the everyday lineup. Another area of the Sox roster that enters spring training with a new look is the bullpen. Going into 2013, Addison Reed was the incumbent closer, and veterans Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain were entrenched as the primary setup men. All three of those players have since been traded -- Thornton and Crain left as part of midseason deals last summer, and Reed was moved during the offseason.
Holdovers Nate Jones and Matt Lindstrom will again be a part of the Sox bullpen in 2014. The team also has added free-agent relievers Ronald Belisario and Scott Downs. We can't say with certainty which seven pitchers will make up the Sox bullpen on Opening Day, but barring injury, we can expect those four guys to be there. The question is, who will pitch in what role?
I've been asked my opinion on the closer situation a few times now. The general feeling is Jones and Lindstrom will compete for the job in spring, and I've been saying I think Lindstrom should get the nod. First off, the 33-year-old veteran has been in that role before. He saved 23 games for the Houston Astros in 2010. Secondly, Lindstrom is more of a groundball pitcher than a big strikeout guy. Lindstrom had only 46 strikeouts in 60.2 IP last year.
Why does that matter? Well, in general I'd rather have a groundball pitcher like Lindstrom start his own inning when he enters the game. If Lindstrom comes in with runners on second and third with one out in the seventh inning, he's probably not going to get you that strikeout you need to get out of the inning with no runs scored. In fact, there's a better chance he'll induce a grounder that leaks through the infield for a two-run single.
In those kind of situations, I prefer bringing a strikeout pitcher out of the bullpen. For the White Sox, that guy is Jones, who had 89 strikeouts in 78 innings pitched in 2013. When you need that big punchout with a runner on third and less than two outs, Jones is the best bet the Sox have.
So, if you agree with this line of thinking, you want Jones to "pitch in traffic" when the situation calls for it in the seventh and eighth innings. Then, you go with Lindstrom in the ninth to start his own inning.
At least I thought this logic was good, until I looked at the numbers.
Unfortunately, Jones has not pitched well with runners in scoring position in his career. Opposing hitters have put up a robust .311/.382/.494 slash line against Jones in those situations. So, even though he's a strikeout pitcher, maybe he's not so adept at getting that big K when you really need one. These numbers suggest Jones is actually better off starting his own inning.
Opposing hitters put up a .286/.340/.352 slash line against Lindstrom with RISP last year, which was not too far off from his career norm of .264/.350/.365. All in all, Lindstrom is an OK option for entering the game with men on base. Being a groundball pitcher, he is capable of inducing a key double play from time to time.
Belisario, another groundball pitcher, has the best track record of the group with RISP. Opponents have posted a .235/.363/.324 slash line against Belisario in those situations. The high OBP is indicative of Belisario's propensity to walk batters, but the .324 slugging percentage shows he's pretty good at keeping the ball not only in the park, but in the infield as well. Even though he doesn't strike out a lot of guys (49Ks in 68 IP in 2013), he's a reasonable option as far as cleaning up someone else's mess. He'll certainly have a seventh or eighth-inning role with the Sox this season.
Downs, in case you were wondering, has given up a .255/.363/.362 slash line with RISP in his career. As the only left-hander among this group of four, I'm sure we'll see him in the seventh and eighth innings against select left-handed hitters.
So, the closer question remains, Lindstrom or Jones? Numbers aside, I'm still leaning toward Lindstrom for the ninth. If for no other reason, if he racks up 15 to 20 saves by the All-Star break, maybe Hahn will have a better chance of flipping him for a reasonable prospect in July.
Right now, here's my educated guess on what the Sox 12-man pitching staff will look like:
SP: Chris Sale
SP: Jose Quintana
SP: John Danks
SP: Felipe Paulino
SP: Erik Johnson
RP: Matt Lindstrom
RP: Nate Jones
RP: Ronald Belisario
RP: Scott Downs
RP: Daniel Webb
RP: Jake Petricka
RP: Eric Surkamp
Here are a few other names in the mix for a roster spot:
SP: Andre Rienzo
RP: Donnie Veal
SP: Charlie Leesman
I figure Webb, Petricka, Surkamp, Rienzo, Veal and Leesman are competing for three open spots. Now you know which three I'm expecting to win the jobs. We'll see if I'm right in about two months.
In the meantime, who do you think should be the White Sox closer this year?