CHICAGO -- When the White Sox break from Glendale, Ariz., at the end of March, manager Ozzie Guillen will have named an official closer.
That original last line of pitching defense won't serve as the team's only closer for a 2011 campaign featuring championship-caliber expectations. But this description doesn't mean the White Sox will go with a closer by committee or change from the first choice during the season.
Confused? Well, it shouldn't be too hard to figure out upon realizing the White Sox legitimately might have a closer for every inning after the fifth.
"Closers get more notoriety, but we all have tough jobs no matter when you pitch," said Jesse Crain, who joined the White Sox bullpen from the Twins via a three-year, $13 million deal, and stands in the closer's mix. "But when I'm in there, all that matters is getting outs -- whether it's the seventh, eighth or ninth."
"If you ask any guy in the bullpen, I think everyone wants that closer spot," said Sergio Santos, another right-hander in the closer's mix. "You hope to get the job, but if I don't and they think I'm not ready, I'll be the best seventh- or eighth-inning guy possible. Whatever role I have, I'll try to be the best."
Early handicapping of the closer's spot vacated by the White Sox non-tender of Bobby Jenks and his departure for Boston places Matt Thornton as the 2011 frontrunner. In limited career save opportunities, the hard-throwing left-hander has blown just one ninth-inning opportunity and certainly has the mental makeup to handle the job's pressure on a full-time basis.
But Thornton has become infinitely valuable as possibly the American League's best setup man. Try All-Star valuable, when Thornton received his first Midsummer Classic selection last year. If it's not Thornton, then rookie Chris Sale has a legitimate shot for the job.
Sale, who turns 22 on March 30, was 4-for-4 in save opportunities late last year, including 3-for-3 against the AL Central. The closer's job might not be on Sale's agenda if the team decides to temporarily move him into the starting rotation until Jake Peavy is deemed ready to return.
Let's assume Sale stays in the bullpen, with pitching coach Don Cooper pushing for the rookie to have one set role, and then we can return to that closer-per-inning philosophy. Here's an example.
Minnesota has the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth inning, trailing the White Sox by one run, and with this day's particular White Sox starter tiring. With Joe Mauer, quite possibly the game's best hitter, at the plate, Guillen walks to the mound and calls for southpaw Will Ohman.
Ohman promptly retires the left-handed threat and the Twins don't threaten again the rest of the way. Ohman earns a hold for his effort but really saved the White Sox victory, thus making him a closer in the sixth. The same could hold true for Tony Pena in the seventh or Crain and Sale in the eighth.
Basically, general manager Ken Williams and assistant general manager Rick Hahn have put together an experienced relief crew, with the perfect balance of three lefties and three righties. All of them have the ability to finish.
"Anyone who pitches in the bullpen understands you might go in for the sixth or seventh, with the bases loaded and one out or no outs, and have a bigger job than getting three outs in ninth when it might be a three-run game," Crain said. "Like I said, the closer gets the notoriety, and I would love to do it. But the most important thing is just to win games."
J.J. Putz played a valuable 2010 role as a right-handed setup man/part-time closer, but moved on to become Arizona's closer through free agency. His departure, along with Jenks' exit, left the White Sox looking at a rather young bullpen behind Thornton, Santos and Pena.
Going young didn't work for the 2007 White Sox bullpen, even with all those relievers possessing high-octane fastballs. Williams clearly learned from that mistake, quickly replacing the two missing components.
"Our bullpen, the words that come to mind are strong and flexible," Cooper said. "As I'm sitting here now, I would like to see another bullpen that has better lefties than us."
Cooper pointed out that the starting rotation really is the first line of defense for the team and the bullpen. And with durable and successful starters such as Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Edwin Jackson, not to mention a healthy Peavy, the bullpen actually might not need a "closer" until the seventh or eighth inning.
Even with the importance of each step on the relief rung, a high level of Spring Training competition will exist between the handful of White Sox closer candidates. Those candidates not selected to regularly pitch the ninth still will have a chance to close.
"Really, it's about being ready for whatever they give you," Thornton said. "I would love the opportunity to close, and I'm ready for it and proved I can do it. But if it's not the role they want for me, so be it and that's the way it is."
"At the time the starter comes out, we have to be able to finish the game and keep the lead," Crain said. "That's how we all look at it and how it should be wherever you are, whatever inning. I'm looking forward to the group we have."