White Sox seeing bullpen depth in Winiarski, Cleto

Young relievers impressive during first camps, seeking 2014 debuts

White Sox seeing bullpen depth in Winiarski, Cleto

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Reaching big league camp with the White Sox seemed to be somewhat of an impossible dream for Cody Winiarski just a few years ago.

And that faded chance had nothing to do with his pitching ability.

The right-hander missed the entire 2012 season when he had a rib taken out in relation to Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, where that rib and his collarbone were pinching a vein just under his shoulder and caused a blood clot. Before the surgery took place, Winiarski was told by his doctor that it was good he got his education because he might never throw again.

"I was like, 'Oh, no. What do you mean?'" said Winiarski with a laugh, recounting the story recently in the White Sox clubhouse. "They were like, 'We aren't sure.'

"It's [a surgery] getting more common these days, but it's not like Tommy John or anything. You don't know the comeback process."

Luckily for Winiarski and the White Sox, that comeback process brought him back into baseball during the 2013 season. The 24-year-old right-hander posted 13 saves and 85 strikeouts over 66 2/3 innings between stops at Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham, eventually closing out the Barons' Southern League title by recording the final out in Game 5 against Mobile.

Now, Winiarski has emerged as one those frequently seen Spring Training surprises, impressing scouts and White Sox brass alike. Winiarski doesn't envision breaking camp with the team, not with six of the seven bullpen spots basically decided.

He certainly has proven himself as a future relief option, and future as in potentially later during the 2014 campaign.

"There's a possibility," said White Sox director of player development Nick Capra of Winiarski's quick rise. "I mean, he's got velocity. He's got movement. He's got offspeed pitches. Just keep getting better and better. From where Cody has come from in that injury and surgery to where he is now, I think we are getting more velocity out of him now because of the surgery."

"We like him as an organization. The stuff coming out of his hand is Major League stuff," White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said. "We've seen the pitches. Now, we need to see more."

Maikel Cleto joins Winiarski in that surprise category, after the White Sox claimed the 24-year-old off waivers from the Royals on Feb. 26. It's a surprise only in that the White Sox didn't completely know what to expect from the right-hander.

Cleto always had good stuff, with a fastball that can touch 100 mph, but consistency within the strike zone has eluded him. With Triple-A Memphis last season, Cleto fanned 53 over 53 1/3 innings, but also walked 53.

Cooper has made an adjustment in Cleto's release point during side sessions, with his delivery coming more over the top. While he has only thrown in two games, those who have watched Cleto throw like what they see.

"Obviously, the velocity is a tremendous weapon for him," said White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers of Cleto, whom he caught in a game and during his first bullpen season. "In the game, he was dynamite. Fastball command was very good. I was able to set up more thirds, and once we got ahead, I went corners. He ate up some lefties, which is hard to do.

"His confidence is a big thing right now. After that [first] outing, he felt very confident and felt good. Hopefully, he can continue to progress and throw as many strikes as he can. With his kind of stuff, his slider and changeup on top of it, he could be a special weapon in the pen."

What does the emergence of these two relievers mean for the 2014 White Sox, aside from good stories to be told during the waning weeks of Spring Training? With Cleto out of options, he could have an edge for that final relief job behind Nate Jones, Matt Lindstrom, Scott Downs, Ronald Belisario, Donnie Veal and Mitchell Boggs.

There still are a few overall decisions to be made in regard to the White Sox bullpen.

• Lindstrom made progress with a strained left oblique via a Thursday side session, but can't afford another setback.

• Is it a certainty that the White Sox break camp with two left-handers? Most likely, yes.

• Will a long reliever become an early season option?

A pitcher such as Winiarski isn't worried as much about these roster permutations as he is focused on picking up whatever he can during Spring Training.

"This is my first camp," Winiarski said. "So I just kind of got out there trying to get associated with the big league guys, getting my name out there, getting to know them more on a personal basis, so I can be more comfortable moving forward.

"They have a lot of information to teach me. I'm not at that level yet, so they are trying to perfect me into that pitcher they want me to be. It has just been a good experience hanging out with the guys and learning a whole bunch."

If baseball doesn't work, as Winiarski once thought might happen pre-surgery, he still can fall back on a chemistry degree from the University of Virginia. Winiarski would like to make nutritional supplements if he went down that avenue.

His current goal is to turn this strong Spring Training effort into a Major League arrival.

"I've got nothing to complain about at all," said Winiarski, who added a changeup during instructional league work to his fastball and slider. "It's awesome."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Merk's Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.