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Living For Present, White Sox Keep Sale In Bullpen

GLENDALE, Ariz.—The future became now for Chris Sale.

The White Sox originally planned for their prized lefthander to start his professional career as a reliever, help the major league club toward the end of the 2010 season before reverting back to the starting role where he flourished and enticed the White Sox to select him in the first round of last June's draft.

But the White Sox—obsessed with their American League Central rival Twins—announced in February their intentions to keep Sale in the bullpen for the 2011 season to attack formidable lefthanded hitters such as Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel and Jim Thome (as well as the Indians' Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore).

"I wanted three lefties because there are a few players in the division that really get on my nerves, and I'm tired of watching them run around the bases," said general manager Kenny Williams, hoping that newly acquired Will Ohman can help veteran Matt Thornton and Sale neutralize lefthanded foes.

This might sound like a lot to expect of Sale, who turns 22 on March 30. The measuring sticks, however, were pulled out last spring when Sale beat the likes of Wichita State and Clemson en route to an 11-0, 2.01 record for Florida Gulf Coast.

The Sox were able to entice Sale to sign early for a $1.6 million bonus with the incentive that he could advance to the majors quickly by adapting to a relief role—a duty he performed as a freshman.

"From what we saw, we thought on a long-term basis that he would project as a starter," White Sox scouting director Doug Laumann said. "But to protect him because of the amount of innings he threw in college (103), we thought about him relieving throughout the summer and then go to spring training and go ahead and make a decision."

After posting a combined 2.61 ERA with 19 strikeouts in 11 appearances between high Class A Winston-Salem and Triple-A Charlotte over a six-week span, Sale was promoted to Chicago—less than two months after he was drafted.

Any reservations on whether Sale could handle a major league relief role were answered positively after he struck out 32 in 23 innings while posting a 1.93 ERA and a .185 opponent average in 21 appearances.

"You can see why they're very high on him," Thome said after he and Mauer struck out against the 6-foot-6, 180-pound Sale on Aug. 19.

Sale's 96 mph fastball and three-quarters arm slot make him effective against lefthanders. In fact, his transition from starting to relieving is reminiscent of a similar move the White Sox made in the mid-1970s when manager Chuck Tanner transferred Rich Gossage and Terry Forster to the bullpen to provide a formidable righthanded/lefthanded late-inning combination.

About 30 years later, the White Sox claimed Bobby Jenks on waivers from the Angels and converted him from starter to reliever, and a back injury to Dustin Hermanson (a former starting pitcher) vaulted Jenks into the closer role that he punctuated by being on the mound for the final out of the 2005 World Series.

Role Player

Sale kept an open mind this winter amid the speculation on whether he would be a starter or stay in the bullpen while Jake Peavy recovers from a shoulder injury.  In fact, changing roles has been easy for Sale, dating back to his freshman year.

"My transition year was my summer after my freshman year because I was transitioning from the bullpen to a starter," said Sale, who was drafted in the 21st round by the Rockies in 2007 but didn't sign. "The thing I've learned the most through baseball is the sooner you find a program, the better off you are. That's exactly what I'm doing here. Just buy into the program. Whatever they have me doing, I'm going to do it.

"I believe it's the best thing for me because these guys have so much knowledge of the game. Obviously they know a heck of a lot more than I do about it. So whatever they throw at me, I'll just go out 100 percent and get it done because I know it's the right thing to do."

Staff ace Mark Buehrle and Edwin Jackson are eligible for free agency after the 2011 season, perhaps opening the door for Sale to return to the rotation. The White Sox plan to have Sale pitch at least one inning during his spring training outings to help keep his entire repertoire of pitches sharp—especially if he eventually reverts to a starting role.

"We want him to prepare as he did so we can expect the same guy to show up," Williams said. "That means using all of his pitches and building him up as starter. He has shown he can transfer that to a relief role. Had we said he's going to be a reliever from Day One, he might prepare as a reliever and not build his arm and legs up. We want him be the best guy we just saw."