White Sox move Sale from rotation to closer
Potential for injury cited as defining reason for surprise switch
DETROIT -- Chris Sale's time as a starting pitcher lasted one month and 32 innings.
But the White Sox view the left-hander's move from the rotation to the team's closer, as announced by manager Robin Ventura prior to Friday's 5-4 walk-off loss in Detroit, not as a disappointment but more as a move to preserve Sale's career.
The 23-year-old had been experiencing a mixture of soreness and tightness in his pitching elbow, according to Ventura. So Ventura met with Sale on Friday and the decision was made.
Sale left the meeting wearing a compression sleeve on his elbow. While he has talked before about enjoying the thrill of closing, an emotional Sale expressed disappointment in losing the starting opportunity in which he feels most comfortable. He even made a failed attempt at trying to persuade Ventura and his staff not to make the change, but ultimately understood the thought process.
"At the end of the day, when you got professional guys who have been there and done that and know what's going on, there's really not much to fight," said the soft-spoken Sale. "I was more upset with myself and more disappointed in myself letting the team down.
"They kept reassuring me I wasn't letting the team down. It's something that kind of happens with stuff like this, but it's a tough pill to swallow."
As Ventura pointed out, Sale is not hurt and still could probably go out and start. Ventura added that Sale is tough enough to handle the starting rigors, but Ventura would feel terrible if Sale got hurt in the process.
"It's not disappointing to us," said White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper of the change. "It's disappointing to him because this was something that he's always wanted to do."
In what could be his first and only year as a starter, Sale has a 3-1 record with a 2.89 ERA during five trips to the mound, with 29 strikeouts and eight walks over those 32 innings. He threw at least 100 pitches in each of his first four starts, before being pulled with 88 pitches after six innings against Cleveland on Tuesday.
With Sale having thrown on Tuesday, he won't be available to work out of the bullpen until Monday in the doubleheader at Progressive Field against the Indians.That Cleveland start, in particular, didn't trigger the debate involving Ventura, his staff and the White Sox front office over what was best for Sale. Instead, it was reports Ventura had received from the training room that helped formulate the final call.
By Sale's estimation, the soreness began with his start at Oakland on April 25. It wasn't so much pain as just being tender.
"Once I get it going, it's fine," said Sale of his throwing elbow. "It's getting it going, and it's a day-to-day process trying to keep up and maintain. It's just something we've kept a close eye on. I came in today and they made a decision on it. And here we are."
Cooper understands the White Sox have lost a starter with ace-like stuff. This call was made with Sale in mind.
"Listen, we're not making this decision based upon what's best for the team," Cooper said. "In this case, obviously he's starting and doing well. It would be a wonderful thing to keep him in [the rotation].
"We're doing it because we feel it's best for him, his career and his health. It's the best way to keep him healthy and strong. It gives us the best opportunity to do that. It's easier to maintain that and keep tabs on this in the bullpen than it is as a starter. We already know he's a good left-handed reliever. That's been proven over the past 1 1/2 years.
"Now we'll be trying to make him one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball, not just in the American League," Cooper said. "That's all we're at with it. Chris is going to be fine. He was upset. He wanted to continue to do this. But sometimes we have to make decisions based upon what we feel is best for that individual, and that's what we did."
This Sale move obviously affects alignment for the rest of the staff.
Hector Santiago, who recorded four saves as the White Sox closer, will move into a middle-relief role with the South Siders now having four left-handers in the bullpen. Dylan Axelrod gets the start in Sunday's series finale against the Tigers and will have the first chance to hold on to that fifth spot.
"Heck, he's pitching Sunday, so certainly we got faith in him to go out there," said Cooper of Axelrod, who was 1-0 with a 2.89 ERA during a 2011 callup, during which he made three starts in four appearances. "We've seen him in the big leagues last year and he did a fine job, and there are going to be opportunities knocking on Axe's door and he's going to get that chance to show more what he can do."
There wasn't a complete feeling of permanence with this Sale move, as both Cooper and Ventura espoused a "never say never" attitude. But the 13th pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, who had a 2.58 ERA over 79 career relief appearances coming into the 2012 campaign, not to mention 12 saves, will be working with less pitches per outing as the White Sox closer for the foreseeable future.
"He is much more important to the White Sox organization with a uniform on and pitching," Cooper said. "And we are not going to put that at a greater risk, or jeopardize that."
"Without a doubt, I know 100 percent these guys have my best interests in mind," Sale said. "I respect that and I'm just going with the plan. I've said it once and I'll say it again, this is not about me. This is about this team and whether that's starting, finishing or somewhere in between, I'm here to help this team whatever way I can."