CHICAGO -- Having Chris Sale as part of the White Sox pitching staff presents the ultimate 2011 X factor for the South Siders.
Make that a very talented X factor, with a fastball velocity regularly touching the high 90s.
The White Sox selected the lanky left-hander at pick No. 13 of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, and two months later, following just 10 1/3 Minor League innings, Sale was setting down hitters out of the White Sox bullpen. But this overall Sale blueprint called for the Florida Gulf Coast University standout to become a starter, a plan general manager Ken Williams told MLB.com in September would be followed through for Spring Training '11.
Sale, 21, would serve as an insurance policy for Jake Peavy's recovery from surgery to repair a detached latissimus dorsi muscle in his right posterior shoulder. If Peavy needed April to build up full strength, Sale could slide in at the rotation's fifth spot and then move back to the bullpen upon Peavy's return.
Pitching coach Don Cooper certainly wants Sale working at the big league level, after watching him dominate to the tune of a 1.93 ERA and four saves over 21 games. But Cooper doesn't know if the plan for Sale to serve as an April fill-in and then once again provide relief best fits his development.
"I would have to hear the reasons to start this guy for a month," said Cooper of Sale. "I don't think a kid like this needs to be bounced around. I like him in the bullpen for the 2011 season.
"In my mind, Sale and [Matt] Thornton are two really good lefties I would like to have in the bullpen. I do seem him as a starter long range. I'm just not so sure that range is in April."
Williams clearly pointed out that under the Sale spot-starting plan, the health of the other starters would be examined when Peavy returned. He added a six-man rotation then could become a possibility, "to make sure everyone is strong throughout the season."
With starting pitchers being creatures of habit, growing accustomed to primarily working on four days' rest, that second option seems unlikely. Basically, Williams provided scenarios in which a spectacular Sale could remain as a starter past what might be needed in April.
A versatile hurler such as Tony Pena seems more likely to fill a temporary rotation void, having been used in both the long-relief role and in three starts last season. Pena earned $1.2 million in 2010 and stands as arbitration-eligible, so the White Sox have to decide if they want to make an increased financial commitment to the right-hander.
Of course, if the White Sox decide to trade a starter such as Gavin Floyd, Edwin Jackson or possibly John Danks to strengthen another area of the team, Sale would slide nicely into the rotation.
"Whatever the organization decides to do with Sale, we'll go with," Cooper said. "If they say he's starting, we'll get him ready to do it. I have no problem with that."
As for Peavy, Cooper has heard nothing but positive things about the right-hander's recovery and plans to check in with him this week as Peavy starts playing catch and throwing. A valuable lesson about Peavy's recovery could be learned simply from watching Jose Contreras' comeback in Spring Training '09.
Contreras seemed physically well ahead of schedule during his return from a ruptured right Achilles and broke camp with the team. The right-hander was then pounded in five straight starts, briefly returning to the Minors to straighten things out with an 0-5 record and 8.19 ERA.
It really just took a while for Contreras to get game ready. So, Cooper is not expecting miracles from the current White Sox ace.
"Going into it, I'm thinking [Peavy] is not going to be ready, while having an idea of what we might do to plug that hole," said Cooper. "If he's ready, it will be a very pleasant surprise and we'll welcome him with open arms. I'm no doctor. And it's such a rare injury, there is no case study on it. I don't know how anyone could know.
"Optimistically, I'll go into it thinking Jake will be ready. Realistically, I'll believe it when I see it."
That absence leaves Sale as the logical next choice in line. Sale has expressed no preference either way, knowing he was targeted as a starter, but having thoroughly enjoyed his relief role.
Sale's Major League enthusiasm leaves him ready to start on Tuesday and relieve two or three days later. Clearly, that situation won't play out with the White Sox prized prospect. In fact, much like Danks' first year as a starter with the team, when he pitched just 139 innings in 2007, Sale's totals would be limited in his inaugural effort.
All Cooper seems to want is a steady definition of responsibilities for Sale, regardless of where he falls.
"He's going to be on the team in some capacity for me, and I would want Sale on our team to try to win a championship," Cooper said. "By my count, we have Floyd, Danks, Jackson, [Mark] Buehrle and Peavy as starters.
"If Peavy ain't ready, I'm not sure the best thing for a young kid is to start for X amount of days and weeks and then move him to the bullpen. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for Sale to be in the bullpen and get more experience and then make him a starter. Years ago, that's the way a lot of organizations did it."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.