The White Sox were fourth in the American League in team earned run average entering Sunday, so their pitching situation was far from catastrophic. It would be helpful for all of the pitchers on this club to know their specific roles. But the season is young, and so are many of the relief pitchers.
Dylan Axelrod kept his candidacy for a starting spot afloat Sunday, with a performance that was neither overwhelmingly good nor bad, but he impressed the right people with his tenacity. Axelrod got a start because Chris Sale, the central figure in this drama, had been removed from the rotation to protect his sore/tender left elbow. Had Sale still been in the rotation, Sunday would have been his turn to pitch.
As it was, Axelrod, 26, who had been starting at Triple-A until he was recalled Apr. 27 and placed in the White Sox bullpen, produced a start that could be faulted primarily for not lasting long enough. Axelrod gave up two solo homers and departed after 4 1/3 innings, needing 99 pitches to get that far. But he kept the White Sox close against a very difficult Detroit lineup.
Chicago eventually lost, 3-1. Axelrod was optioned back to Triple-A, but White Sox manager Robin Ventura said that was because the club needed pitching reinforcements for the day-night doubleheader in Cleveland on Monday. Ventura indicated that Axelrod was still a very viable candidate for the No. 5 spot in the White Sox rotation.
"He pitched his guts out today," Ventura said. "He battled all day. That's the stuff we saw out of him all through Spring Training, and even last year.
"He didn't come up here just for one start, necessarily. It was seeing if he was going to be able to fill in that spot and pitch like he did today. You would look at it and think, 'that's a positive,' the way he pitched against a tough lineup."
It was probably a healthy sign that Axelrod was more critical of his own work than Ventura was.
"I was just disappointed not getting past the fifth inning," Axelrod said. "But they fouled off a lot of pitches and made me work. Partly that's my fault. I could have been in a little bit more of an attack mode. I was never really able to get in a rhythm. But at the same time I battled.
"I hope I can be back up here as soon as possible. It's just business right now, we've got a doubleheader. I'm not mad about it -- it's just what it is. [Monday], we need some extra pitchers. We'll see what happens."
Axelrod's performance will be measured against that of Eric Stults, who Ventura said will be called up from Triple-A to start the second game of the doubleheader in Cleveland. Stults, 33, is well beyond the prospect stage. He spent portions of five seasons in the Majors with the Dodgers, and later, the Rockies. The White Sox may also call up lefty Jose Quintana, 23, from Double-A.
Changes were necessitated when Sale developed soreness in his throwing elbow. The 23-year-old, who had pitched extremely well as a reliever in 2011 for the White Sox, wanted to make the conversion to starting. He did so successfully early this season, compiling a 3-1 record with a 2.81 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in five starts.
The White Sox pondered their alternatives with Sale, including placing him on the disabled list. But it was determined, at least initially, that they could protect his elbow, and his future, by removing him from the rotation, and making him the closer.
Lefty Hector Santiago, 24, has been the Chicago closer for most of the early season, with distinctly mixed results. When Santiago got into a jam in a save situation Saturday against the Tigers, Ventura summoned yet another young, hard-throwing reliever, Addison Reed, 23. Reed struck out Austin Jackson to record his first Major League save. That was Reed's 12th straight scoreless appearance, tying a franchise record for a rookie reliever to open a season.
So the issue isn't quality or quantity with this group, it is finding the right role for all of the involved pitchers. The talent of Sale is beyond dispute, and it is understandable that the White Sox would take precautions in any issue pertaining to the health and well-being of his left arm.
It is also understandable that cutting down the number of pitches he throws would cut down stress on his elbow. And there is no doubt that Sale has the stuff to be a top-shelf closer. But those ninth-inning game-on-the-line closing situations tend to be high in both stress and profile. Sale is expected to be available for closing duties Monday, so there will not be much of a wait for the early returns on his new job.
The White Sox still have considerable sorting out to do regarding their pitching staff. The positive in this is that, one way or another, they have enough talent to cover the spectrum of pitching possibilities.