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Position/Role Battles: The White Sox Closer

With Sergio Santos now in Toronto, the White Sox find themselves looking for another regular closer.  Two veterans and one very promising young arm stand out as the top candidates to take over as Chicago's new ninth-inning man, so let's break down their cases and fantasy value...

Matt Thornton: After years of quality set-up work out of the White Sox bullpen, Thornton got his shot at the closer's job in the wake of Bobby Jenks' departure last winter.  Unfortunately for Thornton, his promotion was short-lived.  He suffered through a horrific April, posting an 8.36 ERA in the month and blowing his first four save opportunities, not actually racking up a save until May 11.  By that point, Santos had emerged and Thornton returned to his usual setup role.

The good news for Thornton is that for the last five months of the season, he was as dominant as ever --- a 2.45 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings from May 3 to Sept. 28, holding opposing hitters to just a .574 OPS.  It's very possible that April 2011 was just a poorly timed rough month for the southpaw, rather than a sign that he can't handle closing.  New Chicago manager Robin Ventura may share this opinion, recently noting that Thornton was "probably" the leading closer candidate going into Spring Training (though pitching coach Don Cooper was a bit surprised by Ventura's statement).

On paper, Thornton seems like the most capable ninth-inning option for the White Sox.  I would guess he'll at least start the season with the job and get every opportunity to prove that last April was just a fluke.  Though Thornton is 35 years old, he has been consistent enough in recent years that a sudden drop off the cliff performance-wise would be unlikely.  Thornton will probably get a second crack at closing, barring a huge Spring Training from...

Addison Reed: The 23-year-old Reed has been nothing short of dominant in his short pro career. A third-round pick in the 2010 draft, Reed has quickly shot through Chicago's system after posting a 1.41 ERA, an 0.74 WHIP, and 155 strikeouts (against just 20 walks) in 108 1/3 innings pitched over two minor league seasons.  Reed's dominance earned him a call to the Major Leagues last September, where he recorded a 3.38 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings of work.

It's easy for Sox fans to be tempted by the thought of a dominant rookie seizing the job and becoming the team's closer for the next decade-plus, but while Reed has looked great in his two years as a pro, it's still just two years of experience.  Chicago has no particular need to rush Reed into a major role right away and might even think Reed's development would be better served closing games in Triple-A rather than staring the season in the big leagues.

Keep an eye on Reed during Spring Training, since if he's blowing away the Cactus League as easily as he did the minors, he may force Chicago's hand.  And, needless to say, if you're in any kind of keeper league or futures league, Reed is a must-buy if he isn't locked up on someone else's roster already.

Jesse Crain: Last winter, Crain said that the chance to close games was one of the reasons he chose to leave Minnesota and sign with the White Sox. In Crain's limited opportunities to close in 2011, he struggled badly in the role, blowing six of seven possible saves.  This was the only statistical black mark on an otherwise very solid year for Crain (a 2.62 ERA and a career-best 9.6 K/9 rate in 67 games) but it continues a disturbing trend that stretches back to Crain's time with the Twins. In 23 career save opportunities, Crain has converted just four saves --- a ghastly 17% conversion rate.

In fairness to Crain, he has never been asked to close in his eight-year career. If you believe in "the closing mentality," Crain's change in mindset and preparation knowing that he would be the first choice with a ninth-inning lead could do wonders for him.  Still, Crain seems like an emergency option who would only find regular closing chances if Thornton and Reed both struggled.

Fantasy outlook: No matter who wins the job, the White Sox closer should clearly be the #2 saves option in your fantasy bullpen. Draft a more proven, stable closer as your top saves-getter to give you the breathing room to take a bit of a flyer on Chicago's closer.  Thornton is the favorite at this point but the situation is definitely fluid.

Unlike some of our other Position/Role Battle cases, the Chicago closing battle isn't a zero-sum game, especially if you're in a league that tracks holds. Your ideal "holds guy" is a pitcher who not only collects holds but also racks up strikeouts and has other strong peripherals.  Thornton has been one of baseball's best and most consistent setup men over the last six seasons, averaging 20 holds a year and a 3.29 K/BB ratio in that stretch. Crain's overall career numbers are a bit more hit-and-miss, but he's been stellar the last two years, and Reed's minor league potential speaks for itself.  If you draft Thornton or Crain and they don't end up as the closer, you'll have the nice consolation prize of owning a solid holds guy.  The same goes for Reed unless the White Sox send him back down to Triple-A.

The other x-factor is that we don't yet know how Ventura (a rookie to not just the Major League managing ranks but to any level of pro coaching) intends to deploy his bullpen.  Will Ventura use the standard practice of having one primary closer, or could he mix things up?  Between Thornton and Crain, the possibility exists for a lefty-righty closing platoon depending on matchups, so Ventura has some room to be creative with the closer's job. 

This, of course, might be great for Chicago's chances of winning games, but it's not what you want from the standpoint of fantasy stability.  If Thornton wins the closer's job and you draft him, don't hesitate to also pick up Crain or Reed as a handcuff.  Best-case scenario, you get both a top closer and a top holds guy, mirroring those shrewd fantasy owners who handcuffed Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters last year.

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