CHICAGO -- The top question to date concerning White Sox pitching standout Chris Sale has centered on whether the southpaw will be a starter, a reliever or maybe a little bit of both for the 2011 campaign.
A better question to pose concerning Sale just might be whether the rookie is better equipped to handle one of these roles in particular, both physically and mentally, at the ripe old age of 22 on Opening Day. White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper doesn't want Sale to split time at this formative stage of his career, supporting a sentiment Cooper expressed to MLB.com about this matter in early November. So, that split job for Sale seems presently unlikely.
As far as becoming a full-time starter, Cooper believes it's primarily about approach in regard to what Sale needs to change for a move to pitching every fifth day.
"You won't see him coming out for just one inning," said Cooper of Sale's mound mindset adjustment coming over from the bullpen. "He would use the changeup more and he would use both sides of the plate with his fastball. A lot of things have to happen differently for him as a starter."
Those changes are part of the reason why Cooper prefers Sale to have one defined role for the 2011 campaign. So if Sale steps into the rotation at the season's outset while Jake Peavy continues his rehab from a season-ending detached latissimus dorsi muscle and succeeds, there's a chance Sale won't leave the rotation.
An abundance of White Sox starting riches could lead to a six-man rotation for a short time when Peavy returns, or general manager Ken Williams might look for a potential rotation trade to strengthen another area of the team. As far as questions about Sale's mechanics holding up under the change in job description, Cooper doesn't believe any questions really exist.
Sale has a deceptive delivery, made seemingly a bit more disruptive to the naked eye by the gangly nature of the 6-foot-6, 180-pound hurler. Cooper has learned a thing or two about mechanics during his more than two decades as a pitching coach, as shown by the White Sox excellent track record of pitching health during his tenure, not to mention Cooper's ability to make slight tweaks and turn pitchers such as Esteban Loaiza, Matt Thornton, Sergio Santos and Bobby Jenks, to name a few, into productive hurlers upon their Chicago arrival.
Cooper also was one of the first people who pointed out potential problems in Steven Strasburg's delivery late last July. That pitching education translates into Cooper feeling confident in Sale doing more than surviving a potential switch, even with his high-water innings-pitched mark checking in at 136 last season.
"No, I think we are OK," said Cooper, when questioned directly as to whether Sale's mechanics needed to be altered. "He does some things, he's a low three-quarter guy, so I don't see anything there. But listen, he's going to have to get stronger.
"I know the delivery and what to look for, and with the way we do things with the White Sox, we've been doing it well here for a long time. I work hard to get this information. I see nothing with Sale that throws up a red flag."
All of Sale's talent and Cooper's backing of his mechanics doesn't necessarily translate into Sale immediately winning 18 games with a sub 3.00 ERA if the White Sox use him exclusively as a starter. Cooper watched John Danks go through growing pains during 2007, finishing with a 6-13 record and a 5.50 ERA in a manageable 139 innings and 26 starts.
Danks has emerged as a rising star among Major League starters. He posted three straight seasons with at least 30 starts, 195 innings pitched (over 200 in each of the last two) and an ERA below 3.80, to go with a combined 40-31 record.
"If we decided to start Sale, I'm ultra-confident we would get him to have a solid season," Cooper said. "But I also look back on Danks and when we had Clayton Richard, where you know in a guy's rookie season there will be times he trips and falls and times he does well. It takes time and patience for us to get a guy on the line of a Danks.
"We took some lumps and gave some lumps," added Cooper of Danks' inaugural starting effort. "But we were not going anywhere as a team in 2007."
In 2011, the White Sox have gone "all in" toward a potential American League Central title and beyond. Cooper didn't need the addition of an established closer such as Rafael Soriano to already view his bullpen as a solid force. He likes the balance of the three lefties -- Sale, Thornton and Will Ohman -- with the right-handed trio of Santos, Jesse Crain and Tony Pena.
Pena might have to step into the fifth-starter's spot if Peavy is not quite ready to start the season, but Cooper wouldn't rule out Peavy's potential Opening Day return at this point either. The White Sox pitching coach speaks of Sale strictly as a reliever, but much could change over the next 2 1/2 months concerning the immediate future of the team's top pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft.
"He has lots of things to get better on for him to be a starter," said Cooper. "I mean, you are throwing 120 pitches per outing instead of 15. But he has the makings of a good left-handed pitcher, and if the organization said make Chris Sale a starter, we roll up our sleeves and go to work."