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"Chris is gonna be fine."
The words rolled out of pitching coach Don Cooper's mouth as though he was saying, "Looks like we're in for a stretch of good weather," just as the temperature was dropping last week and hail stones began to fall.
Any time I hear that someone is going to be "fine," I cringe. Check that. On occasion I get tremors. The implication is that the person in question isn't "fine" in the present. Ahh, but don't worry about the future because things are going to be "fine."
In this case, we're talking about Chris Sale. He's not fine? Even with a 3-1 record, a 2.81 ERA in 32 innings having allowed just 24 hits while striking out 29 and walking a mere five batters? Opponents are hitting .205 against him. He's reduced entire lineups to nine Brent Morels. But he's not fine?
Sale burst on the Sox scene not unlike Jack McDowell and Alex Fernandez - albeit they were righties while Sale is a lefthander - in the early '90s. Fernandez was just 20 years old when he threw his first pitch for the Sox, while McDowell and Sale were 21. In the division-winning season of 1993, McDowell won 22 games and Fernandez 18. I'm not alone thinking that Chris Sale has that kind of upside.
So the decision to yank Sale out of the rotation last week and install him as the new closer - "We're not making this decision based on what's best for the team," said Cooper - indicates that the kid is fragile and quite possibly hurt. He admitted as much when he disclosed that his arm is "tender, sore." Then he added, "Once I get going, it's just fine." There it is again, the f-word.
Let's take a look back. Sale was the Sox's 2010 first-round draft choice out of Florida Gulf Coast University, where he had just finished his junior season. He was 11-0 that spring and pitched 103 innings. You won't find FGCU listed among collegiate powerhouses, but Sale made his mark against elite college competition the summer of 2009 in the Cape Cod League. As a starting pitcher, he was voted the league's best with a 4-2 mark and a 1.47 ERA in 55 innings.
So impressive was Sale after the Sox signed him that he pitched just 10-plus minor-league innings before being promoted to the big squad on Aug. 6, 2010. After 79 relief appearances in 2010-11, Sale was named a starter in Robin Ventura's rotation this spring.
I can understand the Sox's concern about Sale's well-being. Why else would they be making this change to the bullpen?
What I wonder about - and I readily admit this is hindsight - is the correlation, if any, between young pitchers' arm problems and the amount of time spent in the minor leagues. The most prominent recent example is the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg, the top draft choice in 2009 out of San Diego State. Strasburg had a short 55-inning minor league introduction before his first big league start on June 8, 2010. He did great. Struck out 14 and beat the Pirates. However, by the end of August, he was being prepped for Tommy John surgery. Strasburg was inactive for a year but has been outstanding in six games so far this season.
I've heard people compare Chris Sale to a young Randy Johnson. Maybe Johnson has more meat on his bones, but both guys are tall lefthanders, and Sale's fastball and sharp breaking pitches remind some observers of Johnson. The future Hall of Famer - winner of 303 games - broke in with the Montreal Expos in 1988 at age 24 and pitched until 2009. But Johnson had ample preparation, pitching 400 innings in the minors before making his big league debut.
Another lefthander, still pitching today, is CC Sabathia. He was just 20 when he first appeared in a Cleveland uniform, but CC had already spent three seasons in the minors, compiling 226 innings. As far as I can tell, he's never been on the disabled list.
Another young pitcher in Chicago who is turning a few heads is the Cubs' Jeff Samardzija. Now 27, he is solidifying a spot in the team's rotation after appearing in 75 games last season, all in relief. He pitched splendidly in 2011, recording a strikeout an inning with a very favorable hits (64) to innings (88) ratio.
Like Sale, Samardzija came to spring training with the idea of converting to a starter. Unlike Sale, Samardzija had spent parts of five seasons in the minors, appearing in 112 games, 86 as a starter.
Pitchers such as Sale and Strasburg are clearly special. They have unique talent. The sky's the limit. They engender excitement and anticipation. Unfortunately, there is no way to judge their ability to remain healthy at the professional level. Short of giving Sale a couple weeks' rest on the disabled list, the Sox must think they have an answer since Cooper said that pitching in relief is "the best way to keep [Sale] healthy and strong."
I'm not convinced. Is it more dangerous for a young arm to throw 100 pitches every five days or up to 20 pitches two to four times a week, usually in a pressure situation? A closer also throws a lot of pitches in the bullpen, some even on days when he doesn't enter the game. Allegedly Sale will throw more fastballs and sliders and fewer changeups coming in from the bullpen, but I'm not sure where it says that that repertoire is friendlier on the arm.
My hunch is that Kenny Williams and his aides will take a different approach with the top pitching prospect in the Sox system, Nestor Molina. The 23-year-old Venezuelan came over from Toronto in the Sergio Santos trade and is pitching at double-A Birmingham. In five seasons in the Blue Jays system, Molina compiled a sparkling 27-7 mark, but all of it was at low classifications.
Molina has pitched well so far this season. I suspect that the Sox will move slowly with him as Molina learns more about his craft, displays the ability to pitch 200 or more innings, and gains confidence. The way things are going, his presence probably won't make a difference for the 2012 White Sox, but he could be a factor beginning in 2013.
Just please, please, please don't tell me he's going to be fine.
What is just fine is the documentary Baseball Has Been Very, Very Good to Me that my friend Tom Weinberg is creating on Sox great Minnie Minoso. In my mind, Minoso was the most exciting player ever to wear a Sox uniform. He looked good even when striking out.
My hope is that Tom's documentary will come to fruition so that people who never saw Minoso play can come to appreciate the contributions he made both on and off the field.
Being the first black player in Sox history - and one of the first in the American League, having signed with Cleveland in 1949 - Minnie endured the ugliness of prejudice and racism that regularly reared their heads in his day.
Well into his 80s - there is a bit of confusion about his age - Minoso remains an ambassador of the game while retaining the gratitude he feels to have had the opportunity to play in the big leagues. There truly has never been another player quite like him.
Tom is a lifelong friend, and I was interviewed about my memories of Minnie. Since Weinberg is an independent producer, the documentary won't be seen unless Tom can raise the cash to produce what would be an hour-long TV show.
Tom has been working on the project for more than a year and has gathered lots of footage and wonderful interviews. He is using Kickstarter to raise $20,000 in order to advance into the post-production stage.
The deadline is Saturday, and so far Tom has raised two-thirds of the goal. If nothing else, check out the preview sample of what the show would look like. You will find it absolutely entertaining, fun, and moving. Making a donation also would be "just fine."
Roger Wallenstein is our man on the White Sox beat. He welcomes your comments.
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