Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Crain Train to the South Side

Jesse Crain's contract with the Chicago White Sox was finalized Monday — three years, $13 million.

That was too long and too much for the Twins, as was Matt Guerrier's deal (three years, $12 million) with the Dodgers. (For all the talk about the Twins becoming a big-budget team — and their payroll did mushroom with Target Field — they were still outspent by both the Sox and Detroit last season, and the Sox at least appear certain to have a bigger payroll in 2011 as well.)

Jesse Crain with the Twins:
Seven seasons, 376 games, 33-21,
3.42,  72 holds, three saves.
The Sox, like the Twins, are reconstructing their bullpen. Gone are closer Bobby Jenks and right-handed set-up men J.J. Putz and Scott Linebrink. Chris Sale, the lefty rookie who supplanted Jenks in the ninth-inning job down the stretch, might remain in the 'pen, or might be called on to fill out the starting rotation; just as the Twins cannot be certain about Joe Nathan's return, the Sox don't know what Jake Peavy's capable of providing.

Right now, Ozzie Guillen's late inning options feature Matt Thornton, Crain, maybe Sale. Then comes Sergio Santos, the former Twins minor league shortstop who did well last season in his first real season of pitching. (Santos converted to pitching during the 2009 season, in which he worked 28-plus innings on four minor league levels with an ERA above 8.) They have Tony Pena in a long-relief/swingman role.  That's four or five pieces of the puzzle, with two or three to be determined.

Crain's history with the Twins, as we well know, is marked with drastic swings in performance. For example:

In 2009, he got demoted to the minors in mid June; his ERA at the time was 8.15, and he had allowed a run or more in four of his previous six outings. He returned about a month later, spluttered for much of July and August, then got it going in the final month (1.13 ERA in 13 innings).

In 2010, his ERA stood at 7.31 after the game of May 18. After that, he had just two games until September in which he allowed any scores. Then he gave up seven runs in September/October's regular season (almost a fourth of the runs he allowed for the year) and got lit up in his playoff appearance against the Yankees. At one point, his ERA was under 2.50; he finished at 3.04.

The Crain the White Sox are familiar with is the Crain who owns Paul Konerko; they don't know the Crain who got the derisive nickname "Crain Wreck." If the White Sox are serious about using him to close games — and it's not easy for me to imagine Guillen opting for a bullpen by committee approach all season — those lows are going to string.

Crain's 2010 resurgence has been linked to a greater reliance on his slider, which he threw as much as 50 percent of the time. There have been relief pitchers who thrived with that kind of approach, or even greater reliance on the slider — Sparky Lyle, Mike Jackson, Larry Andersen — and maybe Crain can sustain it. Or maybe his late-season fade had something to do with the league realizing that he was "pitching backwards."

The Chicago Tribune piece linked in the first sentence takes the attitude that the departures of Crain and Guerrier are major blows to the Twins. If so, they are blows the Twins expected, even intended, to accept this offseason.

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