White Sox season preview: Relief pitchers

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White Sox season preview: Relief pitchers

Every day this week leading up to Friday's Opening Day contest against Texas (1 p.m., Comcast SportsNet), we'll be previewing a different unit of the White Sox. Be sure to check out the looks at the White Sox infield, outfield and starting rotation if you haven't already. Today's topic: the bullpen.

It's the day before Opening Day. Do you know where your closer is?

Robin Ventura, his coaching staff and probably the team know who's going to take the ninth inning reigns. But the media, fans and Texas Rangers have no clue.

The safe bet is Matt Thornton will trot in from the bullpen to finish off the first save situation of the year for the White Sox. While his foray into closing didn't go so well last year thanks to a combination of suspect command and horrific defense from Juan Pierre, he's the safest pick Ventura could choose.

Reports of Thornton's demise last year were largely exaggerated, as from mid-May through the end of the season he was his usual dominant self: 2.40 ERA, 49 strikeouts, 15 walks, .563 opponent OPS. While Thornton is 35, he doesn't have a ton of innings on his arm and as long as his fastball velocity doesn't decline (it hasn't yet), he'll be fine.

If it's not Thornton, Hector Santiago seems to be the trendy pick thanks to an outstanding spring. The lone screwballer left in the majors, Santiago struck out 13 in 11 preseason innings -- but he also walked six, which could get him into trouble in high-leverage spots. Of course, he'll face plenty of those in a setup role, some of which will be more important than save situations.

But the emergence of Santiago this spring should work in Thornton's favor -- Will Ohman is better served as a lefty specialist, which would mean the Sox would have trouble getting through setup situations that feature a righty sandwiched by two lefties.

That's where Santiago comes in. If Thornton is the closer, Santiago would slide into the primary lefty setup role, leaving Ohman to be utilized mainly against lefties -- against whom he's pretty good.

Regardless of who begins the season as the closer, though, it's likely we'll see Addison Reed in the ninth inning at some point in 2012. While Reed's thrown all of 7 13 innings at the major-league level, he's posted gaudy strikeout rates everywhere from San Diego State to Chicago. He has the profile of a closer, and it's a matter of when, not if, he'll be finishing off games for the Sox.

Jesse Crain could get an opportunity to close later in the season, although he's more likely to stay in the setup role he's held his entire career. Crain has undergone a pretty interesting transformation in the last few years, going from a fastball-slider-curveball pitcher to ditching the curveball and throwing more sliders than fastballs.

That combination has worked out nicely, as two of Crain's three best seasons ERA-wise have come in the last two years. Opponents swung and missed at 13.2 percent of Crain's pitches -- easily a personal best -- and as a result, Crain posted the highest strikeout rate of his career in 2011.

Nate Jones earned a spot in the White Sox bullpen thanks to his upside, although the 26-year-old hasn't thrown a pitch above the Double-A level. He's a big strikeout guy, but he's also a big walk guy -- if Jones can harness his control, he could be an effective middle relief option, but for now, he'll likely be used primarily in low-leverage spots to ease him into big league competition.

Rounding out the bullpen is long reliever Zach Stewart who, outside of one magical start against the Twins, was pretty hittable last year with the White Sox. But he has decent stuff, and perhaps a move to the bullpen will lead him to throw harder and have more success. That's a minor thing to follow, but it could determine Stewart's future with the White Sox.

All in all, the Sox bullpen doesn't appear to be a weakness heading into 2012. The combination of Thornton, Santiago, Crain, Reed and Ohman should work to hold plenty of leads -- no matter who's closing.

The last White Sox rebuild: Bobby Howry remembers aftermath of '97 'White Flag' trade

The last White Sox rebuild: Bobby Howry remembers aftermath of '97 'White Flag' trade

Bobby Howry wasn't aware of the fact he was part of one of the more infamous transactions in White Sox history until a few years after it happened. 

In 1997, with the White Sox only 3 1/2 games behind the division-leading Cleveland Indians, general manager Ron Schueler pulled the trigger on a massive trade that left many around Chicago — including some in the White Sox clubhouse — scratching their heads. Heading to the San Francisco Giants was the team's best starting pitcher (left-hander Wilson Alvarez), a reliable rotation piece (Doug Drabek) and a closer coming off a 1996 All-Star appearance (Roberto Hernandez). In return, the White Sox acquired six minor leaguers: right-handers Howry, Lorenzo Barcelo, Keith Foulke, left-hander Ken Vining, shortstop Mike Caruso and outfielder Brian Manning. Only Foulke had major league experience, and it wasn't exactly good (an 8.26 ERA in 44 2/3 innings). 

Howry was largely oblivious to the shocking nature of the trade that brought him from the Giants to White Sox until, before the 1999 season, he was featured in a commercial that referenced the "White Flag trade."

"I don't even know if I knew it was called that before then," Howry recalled last weekend at the Sheraton Grand Chicago at Cubs Convention. 

The trade was a stark signal that youth would be emphasized on 35th and Shields. Both Alvarez and Hernandez were set to become free agents after the 1997 season, and the 40-year-old Darwin wasn't a long-term piece, either. With youngsters like Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Lee rising through the farm system, the move was made with an eye on the future and maximizing the return on players who weren't going to be long-term pieces. 

Sound familiar? 

It's hardly a perfect comparison, but when the White Sox traded Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox in December for four minor leaguers — headlined by top-100 prospects in Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech — it was the first rebuilding blockbuster trade the organization had made since the 1997 White Flag deal. Shortly after trading their staff ace at the 2016 Winter Meetings, the White Sox shipped Adam Eaton — their best position player — to the Washington Nationals for a package of prospects featuring two more highly-regarded youngsters in Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez. 

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And there still could be more moves on the horizon, too, for Rick Hahn's White Sox (Jose Quintana has been the subject of persistent rumors since the Winter Meetings). But for those looking for an optimistic outlook of the White Sox rebuilding plans, it's worth noting that the club's last youth movement, to an extent, was successful.

Only Howry (3.74 ERA over 294 games) and Foulke (2.87 ERA, 100 saves over 346 games) became significant long-term pieces for the White Sox from those six players brought over in 1997. And it wasn't like Schueler dealt away any of the franchise's cornerstones — like Frank Thomas, Albert Belle and Robin Ventura — but with future starters in Lee, Ordonez and Chris Singleton on their way the White Sox were able to go young. A swap of promising youthful players (Mike Cameron for Paul Konerko) proved to be successful a year and a half later. 

And with a couple of shrewd moves — namely, dealing Jamie Navarro and John Snyder to the Milwaukee Brewers for Cal Eldred and Jose Valentin — the "Kids Can Play" White Sox stormed to an American League Central title in 2000. 

"It was great," Howry said of developing with so many young players in the late 1999's and 2000. "You come in and you feel a lot more comfortable when you got a lot of young guys and you're all coming up together and building together. It's not like you're walking into a primarily veteran clubhouse where you're kind of having to duck and hide all the time. We had a great group of guys and we built together over a couple of years, and putting that together was a lot of fun."

What sparked things in 2000, Howry said, was that ferocious brawl with the Detroit Tigers on April 22 in which 11 players were ejected (the fight left Foulke needing five stitches and former Tigers catcher/first baseman Robert Fick doused in beer). 

"About the time we had that fight with Detroit, that big brawl, all of a sudden after then we just seemed to kind of come together and everything started to click and it took off," Howry said. 

The White Sox went 80-81 in 1998 and slipped to 75-86 in 1999, but their 95-67 record in 2000 was the best in the league — though it only amounted to a three-game sweep at the hands of the wild-card winning Seattle Mariners. 

Still, the White Flag trade had a happy ending two and a half years later. While with the White Sox, Howry didn't feel pressure to perform under the circumstances with which he arrived, which probably helped those young players grow together into eventual division champions. 

"I was 23 years old," Howry said. "At 23 years old, I didn't really — I was just like, okay, I'm still playing, I got a place to play. I didn't really put a whole lot of thought into three veteran guys for six minor leaguers." 

White Sox Talk Podcast: Zack Collins discusses staying at catcher

White Sox Talk Podcast: Zack Collins discusses staying at catcher

White Sox 2016 first round pick Zack Collins joins the podcast to talk about his future with the White Sox, when he hopes to make the big leagues and the doubters who question whether he can be a major league catcher.   He discusses comparisons with Kyle Schwarber, his impressions of Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech, why his dad took him to a Linkin Park concert when he was 6 years old and much more.