Monday, Dec. 20, 2010
By Brett Ballantini
CHICAGO Last year, J.J. Putz cherry-picked enough easy wins to be considered the Chicago White Sox vulture, swooping down for surprisingly easy kills. But with Putz having departed for the Arizona Diamondbacks, the role is now open.
Early nominee for 2011 White Sox vulture? General Manager Ken Williams.
It happened very quickly, Jesse Crain recounted on Monday afternoon. We were negotiating with the Colorado Rockies and Boston Red Sox, they were offering a vesting third year, the White Sox called on Tuesday and we agreed on Wednesday Dec. 15.
It took 24 hours to get a deal done. I thought, These guys are serious.
Crain had his second-best professional season in 2010, going 1-1 with a 3.04 ERA and 2.3 KBB. His 3.45 Fielder Independent Pitching was equivalent to that of White Sox starter Gavin Floyd, and like Floyd he was lights-out at midseason, stitching together 21 straight scoreless appearances from June 12 to Aug. 4 and compiling a 0.28 ERA over 35 games between June and August. Crain tied for eighth in the American League with a career-best 21 holds, limiting hitters to a .215 average and stranding .769 of inherited runners. In his career vs. the AL Central, Crain is 20-7 with a 2.82 ERA.
His team-first makeup and his ascendant numbers pushed Williams to secure Crain for the next three seasons, paying him 13 million (4 million in 2011 and 4.5 million each in 2012 and 2013) in a contract made official on Monday.
Better yet, Crain feels hes only getting better.
I was sort of surprised to see just a few days ago on a Web site that my velocity has gone up over the last few years, he said. Im developing a new split-finger fastball to compliment his fastball, slider, curve and seldom-thrown changeup and Im really looking forward to working with Pale Hose pitching coach Don Cooper.
Crains correct, in that speed tracking finds that over seven professional seasons the righthanders fastball has increased in average velocity from 92.9 mph in 2004 to 94.8 mph in 2010.
Those numbers point toward Crain just reaching his professional peak. Yet hes chosen to ditch the deep gaps of Target Field for the summer bandbox that is U.S. Cellular Field. While there is some concern that Crains flirtation with being a fly ball reliever may make for a bad fit at his new ballpark (0.89 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio in 2010 but 1.23 in his career), the 29-year-old is unruffled.
Ive pitched in Chicago a bunch of times, Crain said. Yeah, the ball flies a little more, and some deep flies are going to turn into home runs, but you just cant let it affect you. You cant think too much.
The fireballer admitted to some surprise over Minnys reticence in re-signing him, claiming they told him right away the club wouldnt be looking for more than a two-year deal at 3.5 million per.
The Twins were never really in the running, Crain said. They said from the very beginning they wouldnt sign anyone for more than three years or 3.5 million per year. They told former Minnesota Twins reliever Matt Guerrier the same thing. We didnt negotiate with them at all.
Crains departure is just the latest from the Twins, who have lost key late man Guerrier to the Los Angeles Dodgers and second baseman Orlando Hudson to the San Diego Padres, and have yet to come to terms with key free agent starter Carl Pavano.
Im not sure what direction theyre going, Crain said. Im not sure whos going to come up. They have some prospects but with not much experience. Losing me and Guerrier is definitely going to hurt them.
As for handing in his deep blue Twinkies PJs to become a White Sox man in black, changing pinstripes in the midst of an intense rivalry, Crain didnt hesitate to admit he was entering uncharted territory.
I dont know, its going to be weird, he said of facing his old team. Ive never been anywhere else. I have a lot of very good friends there. But its going to be fun to go back there and face them.
With the closers roleand the makeup of the 2011 bullpen itselfin flux, Crain was assured of a key role on the back end. When Williams talked to Crain, the GM had the short man plugged in between Matt Thornton and Chris Sale as the last right-hander out of the pen. Its not inconceivable to see all three hurlers, as well as Sergio Santos, getting shots to finish gamesand if so, Crain is eager to give the firemans role a shot.
I closed games growing up all through the minors (42 saves in four minor-league seasons and 29 for AAA Rochester in 2003 and 2004), Crain said. I was ready to close in 2004, but the team traded for Joe Nathan and I never got the chance.
While never a closer in the years since, as Nathan became the ensconced finisher for Minnesota, Crains career save percentage of .188 is something the hurler is looking to reverse.
I feel confident I can fill that closer role, he said. Im excited to get the opportunity to do that and looking forward to closing with the White Sox.
For a guy bred for years to execute White Sox hittersCrain is 5-2 with a 1.45 ERA in 45 career games vs. Chicagothe 61, 215-pound pitcher is giddy with excitement to hop to the South Side.
Its exciting. If youd asked me in September whether Id be pitching in Chicago next year, Id have had no idea, Crain said. When the White Sox contacted me last week, I was ecstatic. I dont see why was cant go to the World Series.
Brett Ballantini is CSNChicago.com's White Sox Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnik on Twitter for up-to-the-minute White Sox information.