Nathaniel Stoltz of Seedlings to Stars was kind enough to answer a few questions regarding the state of relief pitching in the White Sox minor league organization. Big thanks to Nathaniel – you rule, man!
After the trade of Sergio Santos to the Blue Jays, what do you think of the current state of the White Sox bullpen?
While the White Sox have significant concerns in a number of areas, the bullpen is not one of them. The unit ranked 4th in baseball in WAR last year, and while Santos departs, Addison Reed should step in and provide similar value in 2012. If Chris Sale does move to the rotation, that could be another hit, but there’s plenty of depth in the minors, and good relief pitching is always possible to find. They might not top 6 WAR as a unit again, but it shouldn’t be too big of a dropoff from 2011, and they can afford that—they could lose half of their 2011 WAR and still be an average relief corps.
Do you think Chris Sale to the rotation is a good idea?
This is a tough question. Usually, I come out definitively on one side or the other—I want Neftali Feliz in the rotation and Daniel Bard in the bullpen, for example. The difference between Sale and some of these other guys, though, is that his professional track record as a starter is nonexistent—he’s been a major league relief pitcher almost since the day he was drafted. He was a starting pitcher in college, but so were the vast majority of current MLB hurlers.
So Sale wasn’t forced to the bullpen like someone like Bard or Aaron Crow was—he was rushed up there like Feliz or Joba Chamberlain. At the same time, though, he never excelled as a starter like Feliz or Chamberlain did in the minors, because he hardly pitched at all in the minors, and he never started there.
Therefore, if Sale gets moved to the rotation, it’s entirely a bet that his stuff is going to translate to a role that he’s never pitched in professionally, all while adding around 100 innings to his 2011 workload. That’s a heck of a bet to make, at face value.
That said, this is a guy who turns just 23 in March, so he’s got time to grow into it; many pitchers his age are just trying to crack a Double-A rotation. Sale also isn’t just a two-pitch reliever, as he augments his good fastball/slider combination with a solid changeup. That pitch is going to be key for Sale if he’s in the rotation, because he’s got to keep righthanders at bay; they get a good look at him thanks to his fairly low arm slot.
So overall, there’s reason to want Sale in either role; I’d say that his role should probably depend on which unit—the rotation or the bullpen—needs more help. One idea might be to start him off in the bullpen and move him into the rotation midseason, which would keep his innings down and allow the team to evaluate him in both roles in 2012.
What do you think of Nestor Molina? Starter? Reliever? And how far down the road until you think we’ll be seeing him?
I really like Nestor Molina. Statistically, there’s nothing I pay more attention to than strikeout-to-walk ratio, and his performance there in 2011 was nothing short of stunning.
He has the stuff to be a very solid major league starting pitcher, with an average-plus fastball, excellent splitter, and a couple of other usable offerings. He hits his spots with aplomb as well.
There are only two reasons that I can foresee that he ends up in relief. The first is that the White Sox rush him up for bullpen help at some point in 2012 and are reluctant to ever move him out of that role if he succeeds. The second is that Molina—a converted outfielder who wasn’t a starting pitcher until 2011—proves he can’t hold up under a starter’s workload. He’s not a big guy, and there’s some effort in his delivery that you wouldn’t expect from a guy with such good command. That’s the biggest concern for Molina going forward, and it’s the main thing that could hold him back from reaching his ceiling.
Given his polish, Molina looks on track for a September callup, and if the White Sox have a hole to fill, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him any time after the All-Star Break.
Who are some guys the Sox have in the minors who are ready to take a spot in the pen right now? (Two or three are fine)
I’m not sure if Reed counts, since he spent some time with the White Sox as a September callup, but he’s more than ready. Dan Remenowsky, who owns a career 12.5 K/9, spent the second half of 2011 in Triple-A and should be a nice relief piece very soon as well. Brandon Kloess is another guy to watch; he dominated at three levels of the minors last year and then struck out 17 batters in 12 2/3 innings in the Arizona Fall League.
Who are some guys that are ready for the rotation?
Another pitcher who made waves in September is Dylan Axelrod, a personal favorite of mine. At 26, he’s certainly not going to dominate, but he’s got a very good slider and excellent command, so he should be able to carve out a career as an innings-eater. Deunte Heath struck out 117 batters in 102 2/3 innings as a Triple-A swingman; while he has some flaws in his game, there are worse ideas if a rotation need comes up than to see if he can punch out some MLB hitters.
The Twins took Terry Doyle from the White Sox in the Rule 5 Draft, but if he ends up getting returned, he basically has the same outlook as Axelrod.
Who are some guys that could be ready in the next two or three years?
Molina jumps out as the biggest guy to get excited for, and he’s the top prospect in the system. There’s a bunch of relief depth in addition to the guys I already mentioned—one reliever to watch out for is Ryan Kussmaul, a former independent league pitcher who has dominated the low minors. A quick look at the Rookie-level affiliates will turn up a number of other guys with great statlines if little else.
As far as starters go, the picture gets murkier. That’s the biggest issue with the White Sox minor league pitching: all the good pitchers seem to be relievers, and the interesting starters all face serious questions as to whether they can stay in the rotation. Jake Petricka was moved to relief in the Arizona Fall League, and there’s lots of talk that he’s going to stay there; many rated him as the team’s top starter prospect behind Molina. Andre Rienzo falls in a similar boat as a guy who pitched nicely in A-ball but may not stick as a starter. Perhaps Matt Heidenreich has a better chance than Petricka or Rienzo, but he also has lower upside and likely won’t be of higher value than the Axelrod/Doyle types.
The best starting pitchers beyond Molina in this system may be four of their 2011 draftees—Kyle McMillen, Jeff Soptic, Erik Johnson, and Scott Snodgress. But none of those four have much meaningful pro experience, so even if things go well it may be four years before they stick—and things are far from guaranteed to go well for pitchers, especially those this far away from the majors.