GLENDALE, Ariz -- A year ago Chris Sale was living in a dorm room on the Florida Gulf Coast University campus. "If you told me then that I'd be here, in this position, now," says the White Sox's left-hander and potential difference-maker in this year's AL Central race, "I would have said ,'You're crazy.'"
Sale was standing at his locker at White Sox camp one recent spring training morning. Seeing him in person, you understand why Baseball America says Sale resembles "a facsimile of future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson." Sale is 6-foot-5 and rail-thin --- he slings high-90s heat from a near-sidearm delivery --- and was brilliant as a reliever after his August callup (with a 1.93 ERA and 32 Ks in 23 1/3 innings).
"He went after guys right, whether it was Shin-Soo Choo or Joe Mauer," says White Sox assistant GM Rick Hahn. "We were in the race when he joined the club. He was pitching in high-leverage situations, and despite all that, he didn't flinch."
There's no question that Sale has the talent to be one of the most dominant relievers in the American League this year. He and Matt Thornton are in the running to replace Bobby Jenks as closer.
The big question is this: Is the Baby Big Unit being wasted in Chicago's bullpen?
"Look, there's no doubt he has the stuff to start," says Hahn. "He has the aptitude to start. But in 2011, we need him in the bullpen. Long-term, yes, I believe he does give us more value as a starter. Ultimately, I think that's where his future will be. For this year, it's certainly not a clear-cut decision, but we think it's the right one."
The phenom conundrum is something facing not only the White Sox with Sale but also the Reds (with Aroldis Chapman) and Rangers (with Neftali Feliz). Dusty Baker has already declared that Cincy's $30 million Cuban Missile belongs in the bullpen for now, but in Texas, where the Rangers have always envisioned Feliz as a starter, the jury's still out on the fate of last season's Rookie of the Year, who will audition as a starter this spring.
"In our mind, it's very clear cut that 200 innings of Feliz, even if it's a slight degradation from the level of performance he had throwing 70 innings, is much more valuable," Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine says. "We have philosophically embraced the idea of breaking some of these guys into the big leagues in the bullpen. The problem is when you have what he did last year, when he then throws up a 40-save season, when you get to a point when the manager is very comfortable with him throwing the last three outs of the game."
Levine adds, "Our payroll is increasing this year, but no matter what your payroll is, the highest-value player in the game is the premier starting pitcher. There's such a finite number of top-of-the-rotation players. ... The question is, how many levels of degradation is it going to be with him becoming a starter? Typically there's some for a guy making a move like that, so if it's one level of degradation, we're embracing it. If it's more than one, you have to start really looking at it. From a scouting standpoint, we feel like he really needs to be a No. 3 starter or better. If he's a No. 1 or a No. 2, he's undeniably better as a starting pitcher. If he's a No. 3, it's a bit of a toss-up; if he's a No. 4 or No. 5, we'd rather keep him in the bullpen. The bottom line is, we want to give him a chance."
This spring, Chapman is not even getting that chance and, if he takes over as closer at some point this season and becomes entrenched in the role, it's possible he may never get that chance. In Texas, where Levine says "we have a bigger need in the starting rotation, as most teams do," Feliz will have just a handful of spring training innings to convince manager Ron Washington that he would be more valuable to the team as a starter. (Fangraphs recently pointed out that "even though Neftali Feliz had a great season out of the bullpen, he produced the same WAR as both Bronson Arroyo and Chris Narveson.")
"There's no doubt Feliz is a tremendously talented pitcher," says an AL GM. "I think it's pretty clear he'd thrive in any role. But as someone that has to face them" -- the GM laughs -- "I'd prefer them to keep him in the bullpen."
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Sale, meanwhile, is undoubtedly one of the White Sox's most exciting prospects in years. He was a starter in college, but Chicago targeted him in the 2010 draft because they saw him as a pitcher who could immediately help their bullpen. In the weeks leading up to the amateur draft, "[Chicago GM Kenny Williams] asked our scouts if there was anyone who could help us out this year," says Hahn. "Kenny said, 'Give me a name. I don't care about signability; ideally, he'd be a left-handed arm for our bullpen.' And, coincidentally, there was one player who fit that bill, and it was Chris Sale. And fortunately, he fell to us [at pick No. 13]."
The White Sox say they still see Sale as a starter long-term, but they recently announced that the 21-year-old was headed back to the bullpen without having seen Jake Peavy pitch this spring. Peavy, who over the summer had a muscle beneath his right shoulder reattached, is far from a sure thing to start the year healthy, and Chicago's options to fill his slot in the rotation (Phil Humber? Lucas Harrell? Jeff Gray? Charlie Leesman?) aren't exactly inspiring. Would the White Sox give Sale a chance as a starter if Peavy has a setback this spring? What if, say, Edwin Jackson struggles to start the season?
The White Sox know that the longer their phenom stays in the bullpen, and the more he excels, the more difficult their decision becomes. "I hope 12 months from now, we're debating this again," Hahn says. "I hope we're asking the same questions the Rangers are about Feliz -- that a year from now, we're saying, 'My goodness, this guy was so good in the bullpen, had such a fine year as a closer or in a variety of roles, what are we going to do with him? Keep him in the bullpen, or make that move?'"