Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010
By Brett Ballantini
To no ones surprise, on Thursday the Chicago White Sox non-tendered closer Bobby Jenks, ending his South Side career just 29 saves short of the Bobby Thigpens franchise record.
All signs pointed to todays move, as Jenkss rising salary, declining conditioning, and sour attitude were all supporting evidence of the decision.
Jenks didnt get along well with manager Ozzie Guillen, who doesnt mask the fact that he believes Jenks doesnt take his job seriously (conditioning) andor exaggerates injury to miss time. And in speaking for a half-hour with pitching coach Don Cooper on Wednesday, Coopclearly still appreciative of his fireballing protgdidnt bring up Jenkss name once.
But most importantly are the thoughts of the man who offers the contracts, and GM Ken Williams was pointed in his remarks about Jenks in his final address of the 2010 season: Jenkss return is something we have to evaluate strongly, because Ive been disappointed on a number of levelsand there are certain things that Im not going to talk about right now.
So between the lines and emblazoned on the marquee, the writing on Jenks was there: He gone.
However, cutting Jenks loose without a true backup plan could spell doom for the White Sox. The offseason attention is being paid to the return of Paul Konerko or the acquisition of Adam Dunn, but breaking camp with the dominoes still scattered after Jenkss dismissal would be catastrophic.
Did Jenks have a down 2010, arguably his worst yet in the majors? Absolutely. Via arbitration, he has become far too expensive, and as a player hes turned increasingly fragile and relatively unreliable. But unless there is a serious problem with Jenks that both the reliever and the team have kept well sequestered, hes due for a major bounce-back. Jenkss price for 2011 will still be high, but the cost of selling him off low (in his career arc, at least) could be a terrible mistake.
The case for Jenks is already made rather handily by my colleague J. Jonah Stankevitz, but the summary is that of all the serious factors listed above that can be used as reasons not to keep Jenks on board, the burly fireman was more a victim of bad luck and a corresponding lack of confidence than anything.
Take Jenkss batting average on balls in play (BABIP). In 2010, hitters safetied at a .368 clip vs. Jenks, which was a far higher rate than any other season in his career (his career average BABIP is more than 60 points less, at .306). So more balls were falling in on Jenkssomething he could not control.
Bad luck isnt entirely new to Jenks. In his first two seasons batters posted a BABIP of around .340 against him. However, those were Jenkss salad days, when even a superstar like Jeff Bagwell would soil his shorts over not just the Jenks heater, but a curveball that made vendors selling popcorn jump back and spill.
Jenks has lost confidence in his deathly yakker, and must regain it to become an elite closer again. He threw it just 7.4 of the time in 2010, the lowest of his careerand often replacing it is his most hittable pitch, the slider.
And its not as if Jenks has lost his stuff, with a sweet K rate (10.42 K9, second best of his career). His Fielder Independent Pitching (FIP, essentially an ERA-type figure taking fielders out of the equation) was as good as any in his career, at just 2.52. And his ground ball-to-fly ball ratio, which must be high to ensure success in a microwave like U.S. Cellular Field, was a career-best 2.80, indicating that Jenks, for all his woes, is keeping the ball down and mastering the ability to pitch in his tricky home park.
So a strong case can be made that Jenks is due for a strong, if not stellar, bounce-back season. Sabermeister Bill James envisions (not entirely because of but largely due to better luck, a BABIP trimmed to .307) a 32-save season and a 3.12 ERA.
But theres an equally-important reason why Jenks, sans a doable Plan B involving a player outside the organization, needs to return: the domino effect.
Talking with Cooper yesterday left no indication, as many (including me) have speculated, that Sergio Santos will get much of a sniff at closing in just his second major-league year. Coop talked of Santos repeating and improving on his great 2010, but in a context that pointed to another season setting up.
J.J. Putz could return to the South Side, re-inked with a promise to get a chance to close. But he would be wise to refuse that option, given his relative success last year in a lower-pressure role vs. his awful work as a substitute closer. While unstoppable as a fireman in 2006 and 2007 for the Seattle Mariners, Putz has battled to just a .588 save percentage over his last three seasons, including just .429 last year in seven chances.
That leaves lefty All-Star Matt Thornton as the likely closer in 2011. Great, right? Thornton was all but unhittable in 2010 and has been building a case to close for years now.
But shifting the only viable lefty in the pen to closer is the capper of a terrible domino effect. Santos could well be left as the only proven bullpen short manand hes been proven for just a single season. There are no obvious reinforcements in the minors, and the sole promising lefty in the pen, Erick Threets, went down with a torn ligament in his elbow in August and was non-tendered along with Jenks on Thursday.
An argument can be made that Jenks himself, with his self-immolating series vs. the Minnesota Twins to open the 2010s second half, started the clock ticking toward his demise. Believe me, as a diehard following the team daily, it was tempting to measure the what-me closers neck for the guillotine. But imagine Jenks being lost for the season in spring training, and the train wreck of a pen that would have been unleashed on fans from April on. Like it or not, even in Jenkss worst year, he was the linchpin of the pen.
The speculative 2011 White Sox bullpen sans Jenks lists Thornton as closer and Santos as his setup man, Scott Linebrink in a mop-up role and possibly a returning Tony Pena in long reliefand theres not a supporting lefty arm within hollering distance.
Chris Sale certainly could be the answer, even as the teams closer. But Sale was drafted to pitch a solid innings load, as a starter. Inasmuch as hes the sixth-man in a five-man rotation right now, the White Soxs best chance to improve via trades would come in swapping a proven armsay, the revitalized wing of Edwin Jackson. And regardless, injuries will occur (no one knows if Jake Peavy will be ready in April) and Sale cannot be expected to start the season in short relief and stretch out to sub in the rotation on the fly.
As for Jenkss cost becoming prohibitive, well, if the White Sox valued him properlyespecially in light of the Threets injury, which ironically may have set the dominoes falling months agochances are a deal lowering his salary, but adding years, could have been secured. Ensure Jenks is your top-salaried reliever (say 5.6 million to top, ack, Linebrink) for two or three seasons, and the White Sox would have seen a return on the investmentin five full seasons, Jenks gave 31.1 million in value to the White Sox per FanGraphs, an average of 6.2 million per season.
At the moment, speculative perceptions and hazy projections have run Jenks out of town. Who replaces him, and how can the 2011 possibly be as strong as it was in 2010?
Brett Ballantini is CSNChicago.com's White Sox Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnik on Twitter for up-to-the-minute White Sox information.