White Sox

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.

White Sox Talk Podcast: Class A manager Justin Jirschele, youngest manager in professional baseball

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White Sox Talk Podcast: Class A manager Justin Jirschele, youngest manager in professional baseball

27-year-old Justin Jirschele made quite an impression in his first season as manager of the White Sox Class-A affiliate in Kannapolis. He helped lead the Intimidators to the South Atlantic League championship, and was named White Sox Minor League Coach of the Year. Jirschele came on the podcast to speak with Chuck Garfien about how he went from playing minor league baseball with the White Sox to coaching in their system. He talks about how growing up with a dad who was coaching minor league baseball helped mold him as a manager who is wise beyond his years. Jirschele also gives a report on some of the top White Sox prospects he managed last season such as Jake Burger, Alec Hansen, Dane Dunning and Miker Adolfo.

After baseball punishes Braves, one ranker says White Sox have game's best farm system

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USA TODAY

After baseball punishes Braves, one ranker says White Sox have game's best farm system

The White Sox farm system is baseball's best, according to one of the people making those rankings.

In the wake of Major League Baseball's punishment of the Atlanta Braves for breaking rules regarding the signing of international players — which included the removal of 12 illegally signed prospects from the Braves' organization — MLB.com's Jim Callis tweeted out his updated top 10, and the White Sox are back in first place.

Now obviously there are circumstances that weakened the Braves' system, allowing the White Sox to look stronger by comparison. But this is still an impressive thing considering that three of the White Sox highest-rated prospects from the past year are now full-time big leaguers.

Yoan Moncada used to be baseball's No. 1 prospect, and pitchers Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez weren't too far behind. That trio helped bolster the highly ranked White Sox system. Without them, despite plenty of other highly touted prospects, common sense would say that the White Sox would slide down the rankings.

But the White Sox still being capable of having baseball's top-ranked system is a testament to the organizational depth Rick Hahn has built in such a short period of time.

While prospect rankings are sure to be refreshed throughout the offseason, here's how MLB Pipeline's rankings look right now in regards to the White Sox:

4. Eloy Jimenez
9. Michael Kopech
22. Luis Robert
39. Blake Rutherford
57. Dylan Cease
90. Alec Hansen