Three-for-all: White Sox have closer options
Thornton, Crain, Reed in competition for the role
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Runners on second and third, two outs in the ninth and the game is on the line with the home team protecting a one-run advantage before a frenzied sold-out crowd.
In comes the closer, who works off one part intimidation, one part short memory span and even one part crazy. There's also the matter of a 100-mph fastball, which he leans back and fires three times for a game-ending strikeout. The raucous celebration ensues.
It's the situation every fan envisions from his or her last line of pitching defense. It's how every young closer imagines finishing off of a victory. But it's not exactly the prototype for the 2012 White Sox closer.
"When I look around, we don't have that guy that comes in and blows away everyone else," said White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper of his 2012 closing options. "We are looking at the guy who gives us the best chance and then shows us."
Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain and Addison Reed stand as the three White Sox closing options in what shapes up as their most compelling Spring Training battle. All three have spots locked up on the roster traveling to Texas in early April, and none of the three are campaigning for the job. But it's the remaining decision to be made by manager Robin Ventura and his staff that could have the most significant influence for the upcoming season.
Each one of these hurlers possesses plus-fastballs, ranging anywhere from 94-97 mph. They also understand the value of not relying on one pitch to close out the game.
Take Thornton's scoreless inning Tuesday in Tempe, Ariz., against the Angels. The southpaw, who works off his fastball, mixed in three breaking balls among his pitches. Two of them had good life and one kind of flattened out and stayed up, but Thornton still got a swing and a miss. He'll be working in those offspeed pitches more as Spring Training progresses.
"You want to keep people off set, and that way when you do miss with the fastball, it's not as drastic as if you were just throwing one pitch and you miss," Thornton said. "You really have to make your pitch when you are only throwing one pitch."
White Sox closer Bobby Jenks had the ability to throw four or five pitches in the ninth inning when the game became tight, although he also arrived on the scene with that 100-mph fastball bringing excited gasps from the U.S. Cellular Field crowd. Having an extended repertoire past one or two pitches has not been lost on Reed, who has been refining a changeup to add to his fastball and slider.
Since the changeup is a feel pitch, Reed gets more comfortable the more he throws it and gains a better feel as to how it comes out of his hand. He also places a focus on keeping his arm angle up, using the same arm slot as the fastball.
"Just don't do anything different than you do on your fastball," said Reed of the changeup. "But the more pitches you have, the better off you are and getting that changeup down would do nothing but help me.
"I mean, you could go out there and throw fastball, slider, but eventually they will catch on. If they know you have that third pitch, it's something to put in the back of their head, especially if you can throw it for a strike. It gives you another weapon to use."
General manager Ken Williams said as far back as SoxFest at the end of January that if the White Sox can hit, they will contend. There are some who believe that the South Siders actually will be driven by a steady bullpen. Thornton, Crain, Will Ohman and Reed, to some extent, stand as more of known commodities, but Brian Bruney and Eric Stults are the only true veterans in the mix to fill the final three relief openings.
To get the ball to whomever is chosen for the ninth, the White Sox bullpen first much protect a lead in the seventh and eighth. Having valuable setup forces such as Thornton and Crain could land Reed as the closer, a challenging proposition for a rookie with only 7 1/3 big league innings, but one that gradually might be gaining some steam.
"We are trying to get him solidified to be a Major league reliever first," said Cooper of Reed. "That would be one heck of a job to do what he does, if we can say by the end of Spring Training that he's the guy."
That intimidation factor won't be outwardly present from Reed. He doesn't consider himself a lock to be on the team, let alone tackling questions dealing with him being the team's best closer candidate or popping up on numerous top prospect lists (sitting at No. 99 for MLB.com).
Crain and Thornton don't exactly feature that menacing style either, although Thornton has grown a beard during Spring Training.
"Right now, it's long enough where it can be a pain in the butt to shave," said Thornton, pointing to laziness more than fear as the reason for the beard.
Instead, the White Sox have a group of top-notch competitors working to close the opposition with as many options as possible.
"Say what you want about people's look and demeanor, but look at their stuff," Thornton said. "Great closers have great stuff. Mariano [Rivera] is one of the nicest, most clean-cut guys in the game, but he never makes a mistake, it seems like. It's about pitching, not look."