Thornton a compelling option to Jenks
Reliever's dominance has some thinking he should close
CHICAGO -- Prior to the start of the 2008 season, Matt Thornton paid a visit to Ozzie Guillen's Spring Training office in Tucson to deliver a message.
"I said, 'Look, I want you to know I'm ready for anything,'" said Thornton, recounting the past conversation in the White Sox clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field on Wednesday. "I told him, 'I'm ready to throw one inning, to one hitter, three innings or whatever you need.'
"That struck true to this year," Thornton said.
With nine games remaining in the 2009 regular season, the 33-year-old Thornton closes out a campaign that has elevated him to one of the best setup men in the game. His 24 holds tie Thornton for third in the American League, to go along with his 2.65 ERA amassed over his career-high 68 innings pitched.
Thornton has fanned 81, walked 16 unintentionally and yielded just 55 hits. The White Sox hold a $2.25 million option on the hard-throwing left-hander for 2010 that they almost certainly will pick up, but now the question jumps out as to what role Thornton will hold within the bullpen for the upcoming season?
Will he continue to save games in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings for the White Sox? Or will the White Sox decide to trade Bobby Jenks, one of the steadier and frequently spectacular closers in the game over the past 4 1/2 seasons, and move Thornton into this role?
When asked about the future closer possibility on Wednesday, Thornton certainly didn't want to speculate.
"It's out of my hands," Thornton said. "I mean, whatever they need me to do, I'll do. I care about one thing and that's winning baseball games. I don't care about personal records, tributes, whatever you want to call it."
Jenks, 28, sat one save away from his fourth straight year with at least 30 when he pulled a right calf muscle before Tuesday's game against Minnesota. That injury shut him down for the remainder of 2009, a season that by Jenks' own admission, wasn't as good as he had hoped.
Six blown saves matched Jenks' career high, which previously happened in 2007. His ERA of 3.71 ranks second-worst to the 4.01 he posted in 2006, but the truly eye-catching number was the nine home runs given up by Jenks over 53 1/3 innings. That total is one less than Jenks allowed over the past three seasons and the total of 196 1/3 innings.
A ninth-inning mishap on Sept. 17 in Seattle pretty much summed up Jenks' recent struggles. Trying to protect a 3-1 lead, Jose Lopez homered to open the frame off of the right-hander. Two outs later, Bill Hall homered to tie a contest the White Sox would lose in heartbreaking fashion in 14 innings.
"I've had plenty of opportunities to help this team get closer to first place," Jenks said. "And my home runs being up so high are a main reason as why my season definitely could have been better.
"Maybe it's a lack of concentration or focus. It's just frustrating, going out there in the bullpen and having good stuff and then not having the same stuff when you are out there during the game."
Rumors of possible trades involving Jenks started freely circulating during the past Hot Stove period, although never confirmed by the team. Jenks earned $5.6 million in his first year as an arbitration eligible player and figures to get an increase going into 2010.
Combining that potential pay bump with Jenks' 2009 showing, along with Thornton's presence, and Jenks suddenly becomes trade bait who could bring back talented young players in return. To Jenks' credit, he handles this sort of talk the same way he handles a rare blown save -- face it on the day it happens and then move on. The Jenks family is expecting its fourth child this offseason, so the closer has more important things on his mind.
"Would I want to stay? Absolutely, yes, of course. I would be sad if I'm not here," Jenks said. "But on the other hand, it's out of my control. There's always going to be another team out there looking for pitching. It would be very unfortunate because I love it here, but it is part of the game."
Asked Wednesday if he still had confidence in Jenks, White Sox general manager Ken Williams answered with a direct, "Yes."
"Bobby Jenks is under contract and he's here," Williams said. "It's not something I need to discuss or entertain right now."
Providing analysis for a move to the closer's role doesn't mean Thornton is campaigning for the job. In fact, Thornton staunchly defended Jenks' 2009 season, talking about how Jenks had set the bar so high by saving the deciding game of the 2005 World Series, posting back-to-back 40-save seasons and retiring an astonishing 41 consecutive batters in 2007 that this solid season seems sub-par.
Nonetheless, Thornton will have the chance to close in these next two weeks due to Jenks' injury. It is still to be determined if that job will extend into 2010.
"If I get in that situation, so be it," said Thornton, who is 1-for-6 in save opportunities this year, but only one blown save came in the ninth. "At the same time, we need to have a strong bullpen next year. You can't just go get rid of everyone. It's up to Kenny, [White Sox chairman] Jerry [Reinsdorf], Coop [pitching coach Don Cooper] and Ozzie to decide who is back next year. Bullpen strength, as we've seen in 2007, is very important.
"I've enjoyed the time throwing in the ninth inning. It's fun. It's exciting. It's definitely a little different. The crowd is really into it."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.