Heading into Monday, it seemed a lock that Nate Jones would be the White Sox’s opening day closer. Spring training had done nothing to dispel this notion as Jones appeared in eight games, striking out eight batters, giving up two runs and walking just three. Nevertheless, manager Robin Ventura named veteran Matt Lindstrom as the closer to begin the season. Lindstrom had appeared in just three games this spring, and while the 33-year-old had been effective over that extremely small sample size, he had done nothing to distinguish himself either.
So where do we go from here?
Well, the former Rockie, Astro, Diamondback, Oriole, Marlin and Met went out and got an opportunity right away and received credit for a save on opening day. AL only-league owners are already lining up now to chase Lindstrom with some serious FAAB on the off-chance he somehow holds the job down all season. It is not completely out of the question. Lindstrom was originally groomed to be a closer and did in fact pitch in that role, albeit poorly, in 2009 and 2010.
The 6’3” 220 pounder is actually coming off one of the best years of his career, obtaining his career high games pitched of 76 while posting a 6.8 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9. Lindstrom still throws plenty hard too. His fastball is regularly in the mid-nineties and combines that with a solid slider. However, the righty has never been a truly dominant strikeout artist.He's not bad at it, he's just not great at it. Instead Lindstrom has gotten the job done by keeping the ball on the ground (over 50% of the time each of the past two years), a good skill to have in a home run hitter friendly park.
Lindstrom’s nemesis, however, is the left-handed batter. In 2013, they batted .313/.400/.378 against him and quite similarly have a .280/.357/.394 line against him for his career. In other words, absent a new weapon to combat left-handers, it would appear likely that this career trend will be exposed over time and a return to a more specialized middle relief or setup role is more in keeping with his skills.
Still, it must be noted that Lindstrom does indeed have opportunity, and while your expectations and bids should be tempered, a weak bid will not obtain his services.
First off, there is of course Jones himself. No Jones owner, barring those in the more shallow mixed leagues, should by any means consider dropping him. The 28-year-old may have struggled with his left-on-base percentage (63%) and BABIP (.330) last year, but was otherwise lights out as he produced a 10.3 K/9 and .30 BB/9 while generating a 51% ground ball rate. In contrast to Lindstrom, Jones did not show a significant split last year and in fact was more effective against lefties than righties.
The reason Jones is not the guy is due to inexperience as a major league closer. The last save Jones recorded was in Double-A. Jones has the high voltage (97 mph fastball) stuff and the ability to control it, but still needs to refine his command within the zone more and perhaps show he can be relied upon in high leverage situations with some consistency. The opportunities should come, but patience is needed.
Lefty Scott Downs has been considered a closer candidate at times, but he has really settled into a lefty specialist role over the past eight seasons and has never recorded more than nine saves in a single season. A career .213 opponent batting average against lefties will keep him in that role.
That brings us to former Dodger Ronald Belisario. Like Lindstrom, Belisario pitched in a career-high number of games in 2013 (77) and was non-tendered for those efforts. Also like the current closer, Belisario throws consistently around 94 mph, but generates even a higher rate of ground balls (over 60% each of the past two seasons). The righty has acceptable, though far from pinpoint control and misses a fairly low amount of bats for a reliever (6.4 K/9). Barring a bounce back to an out of career context 8.8 K/9 of 2012, middle relief is Belisario’s most likely role.
That brings us to our last viable option, Daniel Webb, who is something of a mild sleeper/dark horse candidate who has just nine games of prior big league experience. A former Blue Jay, the 24-year-old Webb has been in the White Sox organization since 2012 and was very quickly converted to full- time relief after his acquisition from the Jays. Webb is primarily a fastball/slider guy who tosses in an occasional changeup from his days as a starter, though that pitch did earn average and even plus reviews back in those days, so it is possible he’ll throw it more frequently once he’s in the Majors for a longer time period. Webb averages around 95 mph, but has reached as high as triple digits. The one issue with Webb will be his command. In Double-A last year, he produced a 2.2 BB/9 only to fall apart in Triple-A, where he posted a 5.6 BB/9. So do not be surprised if he needs some time transitioning to the Majors. With the exception of that one short stay, Webb’s control and command have been fairly solid over his past few minor league seasons, so there is cause for optimism.
Right now, Lindstrom is the guy, Jones is someone to hold and Webb is someone to stash in deeper leagues.