Coming off a 99-loss season, the White Sox made a pair of tremendous moves to add youth to their lineup. First, they traded reliever-turned-starter Hector Santiago to the Angels in a three-team deal that netted them Diamondbacks’ center fielder Adam Eaton. Next, they sent closer Addison Reed to the Diamondbacks for third base prospect Matt Davidson, who could easily become their Opening Day starter at the hot corner.
Turning relievers into pre-arbitration assets is Rebuilding 101 and seems especially likely to pay dividends for the White Sox, who have enjoyed a lot of success in building their pitching staff through their farm system in recent years. However, it does create some uncertainty in their bullpen, where a new closer will have the chance to replace Reed and his 40 saves.
The team has declared that the closer job will have to be won in Spring Training. Some of the competition will come from a trio of free agent acquisitions. Scott Downs has reached nine saves twice in his career, most recently in 2012 with the Angels. However, as a soon-to-be-38-year-old left-hander with a sub-90s fastball, he seems the least likely of the obvious choices.
Mitchell Boggs had a brief stint as the closer for the Cardinals, but he was most recently seen sporting a higher walk rate (7.71 per nine) than strikeout rate (6.17 per nine) over 23.1 innings and two teams in 2013. Mechanical issues resulted in a loss of velocity and sink for Boggs last season, and perhaps the White Sox can fix those issues. However, with a career 5.21 FIP versus left-handed hitters, Boggs makes more sense as an earlier-inning reliever who can be used predominantly against same-handed hitters.
Ronald Belisario is the last of the new additions, and he likely has the best shot at the closer job. He has pedestrian career strikeout (7.47 per nine) and walk (3.57) rates but does have a 3.29 career ERA. His platoon splits, while not as drastic as Boggs’, are still apparent. His 4.38 career FIP versus left-handed hitters is more than a run higher than his 3.18 FIP versus right-handed hitters. His best attribute may be his one-year contract, which makes him a player the White Sox will look to trade at the deadline as they will likely be out of the playoff race. Any success as a closer will make him an attractive option for competing teams.
Matt Lindstrom is also on the last year of his deal and makes a bit more sense in the role if the White Sox are looking to prop up a reliever in order to trade him. He has 45 career saves, most from around the turn of the decade with the Marlins and Astros. In addition, his 3.12 ERA in 2013 was actually his worst mark of his last three seasons, and his career 4.03 FIP versus left-handed hitters is less extreme than Belisario’s mark.
If the team was deciding the closer battle on performance alone, then Nate Jones would be the clear choice. His 4.15 ERA in 2013 belied a tremendous season. Jones struck out 10.27 batters per nine and walked just 3.00 batters per nine. His ERA was inflated by a very low 62.9 percent strand rate, which was 22.9 percent lower than in his 2012 season. Given his stuff—Jones averaged 97.7 mph on his fastball and generated swings and misses on 13.2 percent of his pitches—that strand rate will almost certainly regress and bring his ERA much closer to his 2.64 FIP.
The lack of certainty will push Jones out of the top-20 relievers in most drafts. That makes him a nice speculative add as he is the one of the three likely competitors who could help your ratios and not just provide empty saves. In fact, Jones’ numbers from 2013 stack up favorably to those of Reed, minus the strand-rate-inflated ERA.
The one wild card in this race is Daniel Webb, a rookie-eligible relief prospect who jumped four levels in 2013 to eventually reach the majors. Marc Hulet identified Webb as the No. 10 prospect in the White Sox system. He is a hard-thrower who saw improved fastball command last season. His path to the majors is eerily similar to that of Reed, who also made a four-level jump to reach the majors. That was in 2011 for Reed, who was then the closer the next season. Should Webb follow suit, he has the stuff to be an elite closer. For me, that makes him the best add after Jones, but only in deeper formats. Webb is still not a guarantee to even open the season in the majors.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt