Bullpen For Sale

The habitual reader will note that we here at Getting Blanked often chide the management of poorly run baseball franchises with regularity. Slowly, the tide has been changing and finding these poorly run teams is getting more and more difficult. Progress and all that.

Fortunately for those of us that find pleasure in the unintentional comedy provided by bad baseball management, Kenny Williams is still running the Chicago White Sox.

Yesterday, the team announced (or rather, manager Robin Ventura announced) that 23-year-old lefthander Chris Sale would be moved out of the starting rotation and back into the bullpen where he will serve as the team’s closer. The main reason seems to be that Sale is experiencing some discomfort in his pitching elbow.

Sale was drafted by the White Sox with the 13th overall pick in 2010 and made only 11 relief appearances in the minor leagues before being called up by the big club in August of that year. Since then, Sale has become one of the better lefthanded relievers in baseball.

Ahead of this season, the White Sox decided that wasting an arm like Sale’s in the bullpen was probably not in the best interest of the team and so they decided he would start. To this point in the year, it could not have worked out better. In five starts, Sale has thrown 32 innings and has allowed just ten runs. He managed to improve his walk-rate over last year and was still posting solid strikeout numbers.

Everything looked ducky. And now the Pale Hose have decided their need for a back-end bullpen arm is great enough that they’re going to sacrifice what appears to be a top-end rotation arm to get it.

Fools!

The White Sox have maybe the worst farm system ever known to man, but they do have some talent on the Major League roster and given that they play in baseball’s weakest division, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility to see them contend this season. Moving one of your best starters to the bullpen where he’s going to throw one-third of the innings (or less) borders on insanity.

And it’s not as if the White Sox have no depth in their bullpen. Matt Thornton and Addison Reed have the raw ability to be one the better lefty-righty tandems in baseball and indeed this year, they’re off to excellent starts. Thornton has walked one batter in 12 innings and has a 10.00 K/BB ratio. Reed meanwhile, hasn’t even surrendered a run in his 8.2 innings and has struck out 11 while walking three in that span.

Jesse Crain and Zach Stewart are also capable arms, as are supplanted closer Hector Santiago and fellow lefty Will Ohman. Then there are young fireballers Nate Jones and Dylan Axelrod. The White Sox are not hurting for bullpen depth.

If indeed Sale is experiencing problems with his pitching elbow, moving him to the bullpen is not the answer. Perhaps skipping a start or two, or placing him on the DL would be a more reasonable solution. I’m no doctor, but continuing to let him pitch through the pain even in a reduced role seems only capable of ending in disaster.

Moving him back and forth from the bullpen to the rotation is unlikely to help him developmentally as history has shown us with pitchers like Joba Chamberlain. Then again, the White Sox aren’t who you think of when you think about developmentally-sound management.

The practice of starting out potential starters in the bullpen is one that has been employed a long time, perhaps first (or at least most effectively) by Earl Weaver in the late 60s and early 70s with the Orioles. Today, the Rangers are doing it with Neftali Feliz, the Cardinals with Lance Lynn, the Red Sox with Daniel Bard and up until now, the White Sox with Sale. It appears to be a growing trend as team’s figure out that their best arms are best served in the rotation where they have a greater chance of affecting the outcome of a game.

If Sale was getting hammered in the rotation, this move would make at least some sense. If he’s hurt, moving him to the bullpen is unlikely to change that and it’s clear that his highest long-term value is in the rotation.