Even though there aren’t many roster spots up for grabs, Chicago White Sox manager Robin Ventura has quite the to-do list. And we’re not just talking about shoring up a porous defense or working on improving the White Sox’s base running with fundamental drills.
It runs much deeper than that.
Ventura’s work begins at the back end of the bullpen. Specifically, Ventura needs to find the team’s next closer. It is a competition that Colleen Kane from the Chicago Tribune termed “one of the most pressing competitions this spring.”
That may be an understatement, actually, because replacing Addison Reed will be quite difficult. He is one of the best young closers in the game and has the steely-eyed demeanor that is required to withstand the mental demands of the role.
And on a team that figures to be involved in more than a few close ballgames, having someone who is able to get the final three outs is going to be a critical component to any success the team finds. The good news is that the White Sox have three relievers—Nate Jones, Matt Lindstrom and Daniel Webb—with the stuff for the job.
Now the front-runner would appear to be Jones, but he has a career .311/.382/.494 slash line against runners in scoring position, according to Baseball-Reference. Webb, meanwhile, is a power arm, but he is young and unproven. Lindstrom saved 23 games for the Houston Astros in 2010 but finished with a 1.650 WHIP and gave up 11.5 hits per nine innings that season.
Each has a strength. Each has a weakness.
This spring—regardless of what inning it is—Ventura has to throw each of them into as many high-leverage situations as possible to see who has the best composure. The worst-case scenario is that Ventura is forced to alter the bullpen’s structure one month into the season because whoever won the job during spring training failed miserably. It is imperative that the decision the coaching staff makes is an educated one.
The hot corner is another position that will require Ventura’s attention. See, unlike last season when Jeff Keppinger was the anointed starter, there is a competition to become the Opening Day third baseman this year. And the outcome of that competition has implications across the roster.
For example, if the newly acquired Matt Davidson makes the club out of spring training, then the utility infielder will assuredly be Keppinger. That will limit the types of late-game substitutions Ventura is capable of making due to Kepp’s lack of speed and defensive limitations. It would also mean that the White Sox risk losing Conor Gillaspie, who is out of minor league options, per CSNChicago.com’s Dan Hayes.
If, however, Davidson begins the season in the minor leagues as I expect him to, another item on Ventura’s to-do list suddenly becomes a little more complex. Namely, how is he going to manage the multiple platoon systems the White Sox will employ this season?
There will be shared at-bats in left, at first base/designated hitter and at third. Setting the lineup each day will come down to more than just whether a right-hander or a left-hander is on the mound.
If you had your druthers, who is the White Sox closer in 2014?
Other mitigating factors include getting the regulars a day off, making sure that the lineup is balanced and avoiding a station-to-station batting order. To be sure, this is a temporary situation, but if the White Sox hope to show marked improvement in 2014, Ventura is going to have to find a way to make it work this spring.
While the lineup, closer and third base are some of the higher-profile decisions the manager must make during spring training, they’re not the only ones. The final composition of the bullpen is entirely unknown, and even though Felipe Paulino was ostensibly signed to be a starting pitcher, there is no way of being certain he is healthy enough. And if he isn’t, Ventura must choose between guys like Andre Rienzo, Charles Leesman and Eric Surkamp, according to Kane’s article.
So while the 40-man roster appears to be in better shape than it was at this time last year, Ventura’s to-do list is a bit longer.
No pressure, Robin.
All statistics, advanced or otherwise, are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.