Santos offers White Sox relief, flexibility
Right-hander comfortable with pressure in struggling 'pen
CHICAGO -- It takes a village to turn an infielder into a reliever over one year's time.
Or in the case of Sergio Santos, it takes a general manager, manager, pitching coach, numerous other instructors and members of the White Sox organization and a carefully laid-out plan to produce a true bullpen force through the season's first 32 games. Not to mention Santos himself, who has not only embraced the change but has also relished and reveled in the opportunity.
But as the White Sox -- sitting eight games out of first and in third place of the American League Central -- embark on a crucial seven-game road trip to Minnesota, Kansas City and Detroit, the training wheels, so to speak, are about to come off for the upbeat right-hander.
This sort of higher-pressure opportunity sits "just fine" with Santos.
"Whatever I can do, whatever small part I can be to help this team win," Santos said. "I had a talk with [pitching coach Don Cooper], and he said, 'We want to get you into some good situations and see where it takes you.'"
"The best way to describe it is we have been trying to help him come along and bring him along," said Cooper. "We've been picking spots for him early on. There's got to be a plan here because this is unprecedented, but the next step is to get him more and more into prime-time action."
Could that "prime-time" role come as closer for Santos? It would seem a bit far-fetched, with the 26-year-old having just started his pitching career last April within the White Sox Minor League system.
Then again, if manager Ozzie Guillen brings a player to the big leagues, he pretty expects him to be ready for anything.
This closer controversy doesn't figure to last long. Bobby Jenks blew a save against Toronto on Sunday, when Jenks faced four batters and all four reached base and eventually came around to score, leading to a heartbreaking 9-7 loss for Chicago. That stunning showing helped turn a two-run lead entering the ninth into a 3-4 homestand, the White Sox fourth series loss in six played at U.S. Cellular Field and seventh series loss out of 10 overall.
Jenks' blown save Sunday was his first in six opportunities this season, and he has consistently exhibited good stuff. His velocity, which took on such focus when it dropped in the past few years that Jenks stopped talking about the matter, has consistently returned to the 95-97 mph range.
Maybe the burly closer was on the money when explaining he simply became a better pitcher and his success wasn't predicated solely on a high-octane fastball. Location has been the problem for Jenks, who has made just two appearances without giving up a hit or issuing a walk out of 13, and after Sunday, Guillen might give him a mental-health break to regroup.
If that change is made, Matt Thornton would be the logical replacement. The hard-throwing southpaw has a 2.35 ERA in 14 games and has struck out seven of the past nine hitters faced. Thornton also stands as one of the most valuable relievers in the game as the White Sox setup man, working as much as two innings at times, so Guillen might not want to mess with success.
J.J. Putz and his 103 career saves could move from the right-handed setup role to closer, or Santos legitimately could get the call. Through 13 appearances covering 12 1/3 innings, Santos has allowed one earned run on five hits and five walks, while fanning 16.
A streak of 12 scoreless appearances and 12 innings without allowing a run to start his career gave Santos the franchise record in that particular category. Even if Guillen decides to keep the closer's job with Jenks, a strong possibility, Santos could be moving up into prime late-inning opportunities with the watchful eye of the organization still upon him.
"They obviously want the communication to stay open as far as how I feel," Santos said. "I'll be ready to go every day or as often as I can."
"Right now, over there [in the bullpen], nobody has a role," said Guillen, speaking before Sunday's loss, but echoing those same sentiments after the game. "Whoever I call up there, he gets loose, he's going to be there. I'm really not afraid to put [Santos] in the setup position and he has no fear. He's not afraid of anything, any situation, any hitter."
Through the first five weeks of the 2010 regular season, the White Sox have operated under the "Santos Rules" when using this phenom. If Santos warms up in the bullpen, he always comes into a game. He has not pitched more than 1 1/3 innings in any one outing, and Santos' back-to-back efforts have been limited to one scoreless inning against Cleveland on April 8 and facing three Minnesota hitters on April 9.
"Everything that goes on with him, I promise you, is calculated," Cooper said. "Each time we are going a little further so he's going to have more and more opportunities in more critical situations."
"My arm has felt fine and held up," Santos said. "I'm doing a lot of cardio and doing everything I can off the field to make sure I can stay on the field and pitch."
That April 9 effort against Minnesota -- one of three organizations previously played for by the 27th overall pick in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft -- involved Santos entering in the seventh inning with the bases loaded and striking out Delmon Young to end a threat. Santos recorded that strikeout with a slider and not his 97-mph fastball.
Command of and confidence in his secondary pitches has made Santos a pitcher and not just some interesting position-change act to follow. That same confidence could give Santos a chance to close, as one of MLB's best stories for the 2010 season continues to build.
"Hopefully, it will be an inspiring story," said Santos, who doesn't allow himself to think about this amazing achievement. "Not just for people in baseball, but in general.
"You keep that perseverance and keep that confidence, anything is possible. Anything can happen in this game or in this world. I hope it serves as an inspiration to anybody who wants to do better for himself."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.