The Chicago White Sox continued to add to their bullpen on Saturday, signing left-hander Will Ohman to a two-year, $4 million contract. At 33-years old, Ohman is coming off one of the best seasons in his 11-year career. While splitting time between the Baltimore Orioles and Florida Marlins, Ohman was 0-2 with a 3.21 ERA. He also notched 43 strikeouts and issued 23 walks in 42 innings.
Over the years, Ohman has evolved into strictly a lefty specialist, primarily due to his ineffectiveness against right-handed hitters (.264/.360/.400 career). However, his ability to retire left-handed hitters is true, as evidenced by his career line of .208/.298/.348.
The White Sox have now signed two relief pitchers – Jesse Crain being the other – to multi-year deals headed in 2011. If it were any other organization, this wouldn’t concern me nearly as much (although I’ll always have a problem supporting a decision to over-invest in relief pitching). But with a track record that includes Scott Linebrink’s undeserving and generally nauseating 4-year/$19 million contract in 2007, I have no choice but to reserve all expectations.
Why are the White Sox offering Ohman the largest contract of his life when they will presumably have lefties Chris Sale and Matt Thornton in the bullpen? In 2010, both Sale and Thornton were bright spots in the ‘pen, with Sale being especially impressive (4 saves, 1.93 ERA) as the team’s closer.
There is only one reason why the White Sox would seemingly go out of their way – and nearly outside of their budget – to secure to Ohman: it gives them the flexibility to insert Sale into the starting rotation.
Ever since it was announced that Jake Peavy could miss a substantial portion of the 2011 season, one of the more popular topics amongst White Sox fans has been Sale’s potential role(s) for the upcoming season. Although Peavy’s recovery from an unprecedented surgery to repair his torn lat seems to be on track, it’s unlikely that he will return until May (at the earliest).
Despite the fact that Don Cooper has made his belief well known that Sale is best suited for the bullpen, Kenny Williams appears to be in no rush to make a commitment on the issue. While Sale’s numbers obviously highlight his overall effectiveness, those who have watched him fully understand just how nasty he really is and support the pitching coach’s contention.
Still, Kenny Williams must have a bone to pick with Coop because the Ohman signing gives every indication that Sale will become the team’s fifth starter. It seems that there were two options for KW: sign a garden-variety fifth starter and keep Sale in the bullpen, or sign a left-handed reliever who can replace him.
By choosing the latter, it seems inevitable that Sale, who turns 22 in March, will start the 2010 season in the starting rotation. I would be shocked if the White Sox chose to house all three southpaws in the ‘pen — a strategy that would negate the whole idea of the left-handed specialist as a novelty. And while I absolutely believe that Sale can develop into a successful starting pitcher with time, the worst thing for him in the interim would be to bounce between the rotation and bullpen.
Now that Ohman is on the payroll – a phrase that has traditionally been followed by a series of staggering winces – it is time for the White Sox to finally determine Chris Sale’s role for the upcoming season. Frankly, it’s disconcerting that so much uncertainty still exists on the matter. I guess that it’s something we will all have to get used to considering that the White Sox clearly have no sense of urgency in making a decision.
**This article was also published on 312Sports.com