Closing Time: Hector Santiago, closer in trouble; Al Aceves sneaks through, Javy Guerra doesn’t

By any objective measure, the White Sox bullpen has been excellent in 2012. Chicago's relief ERA is 2.64, seventh-best in the majors. The group has 50 strikeouts against just nine walks over 45.2 innings. Lefties are hitting a mere .211 against this bullpen, and righties are at .213. Smiles, everyone, smiles.

Not so fast, Hector Santiago. You're the one guy messing things up. There's nowhere for your 8.53 ERA and 1.89 WHIP to hide, and it's time for fantasy owners to start speculating about your eventual closing replacement.

Santiago suffered his second blown save of the year in Wednesday's matinee loss at Oakland, allowing three runs in the bottom of the 14th. A couple of the hits were cheap (especially the game-winning dunk from Kila Ka'aihue), but there were some sharp knocks as well. And the signature play from the inning was this rocket off the bat of Yoenis Cespedes. Nothing flimsy about that one.

Mind you, there's no panic in the Chicago clubhouse. Santiago, for one, didn't think he was pitching so badly in Oakland. Here's what he told

"I thought I made a great pitch to Cespedes right there, especially going fastball away and then offspeed changeup and he was out in front," Santiago said. "From the video I saw, he was out in front but he got a hold of it. He swings real hard, you know."

Time for a closer controversy? Manager Robin Ventura shook his head.

"Stuff happens, but we're still going with him," said Ventura of Santiago. "He's going to be fine."

Enough with the Chicago spin, gamers. Now's the time where we read between the lines and try to figure out where this save chase is going. Ventura's quote can't be taken at face value — he has nothing to gain by throwing Santiago under the bus there, or indicating that change is imminent. There's no need to go Full Valentine on the situation. Regroup, fly back to Chicago, re-evaluate. You've got a four-game series with the Red Sox, and their strong lineup, opening Thursday night. 

There are two distinct reasons why I can't see Santiago holding the job much longer, barring a miraculous turnaround in his results. First and foremost, he's not keeping the ball in the park. It's one thing to get nicked for a run here and there, but when four of 19 right-handed batters have taken you deep, you shouldn't be pitching in high-leverage situations. And even if Santiago starts getting luckier with the fly balls he allows (his bloated HR/FB rate will surely come down), the mere volume of balls in the sky has to concern us. Santiago's fly-ball rate is a whopping 60 percent.

And secondly, Chicago has a bevy of strong candidates who seem capable of taking over for Santiago. This might be the deepest bullpen East of Arlington (that depth in Texas, podner, is ridiculous). Consider who's siting in the Pale Hose bullpen every night:

-- Veteran lefty Matt Thornton has been nails through 11 appearances, fashioning a 0.93 ERA and 0.83 WHIP. He's stuck out eight and hasn't walked anyone. He racked up three strikeouts in a dominant inning Wednesday.

-- Addison Reed, the 23-year-old righty with the closer-of-the-future tag, has cruised through 7.1 scoreless innings. Two walks, ten punchouts, a zesty 0.82 WHIP. His average fastball checks in at 93.9 mph.

-- Jesse Crain hasn't pitched since Friday because of an oblique injury, but when heathy, he's been effective (2.57 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, one walk, 10 strikeouts). He has allowed a couple of homers, though.

-- No one thinks of late-blooming Nate Jones as a closing candidate, but he's another rookie making good. The 26-year-old has eight scoreless innings to his name.

You have to wonder if the White Sox were bamboozled by Santiago's snappy camp (11 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 6 BB, 13 K). But who is this kid anyway? He had 5.1 major-league innings to his name before this season. He was a starter in A and AA ball last year, combining for a 3.60 ERA and a 2.21 K/BB ratio through 127.1 innings. Intriguing, sure, but this wasn't anyone's hot prospect.

Santiago is doing some things well. He has 10 strikeouts against just one walk over 6.1 innings, and he's getting plenty of swinging strikes (11.9 percent, well above the league average). Perhaps he's been around the zone a little too much, and he could use a way to get batters to chase pitches out of the strike zone. But we can all agree that there's some ability here.

That said, the White Sox won't wait forever. Santiago might be one blown save away from losing his foothold in the ninth, and who knows — maybe Ventura will opt for a different save-chasing reliever in the upcoming Boston series if he doesn't like the matchup Santiago presents. I take no joy out of documenting Santiago's struggles — heck, he's on a couple of key teams of mine — but when there are dark clouds overhead, you need to get your umbrella. This is one of those times.

If you're hedging against Santiago, here's my hit list: look for Thornton first, Reed second and Crain third. I won't argue with you if you prefer Reed first — pitching coach Don Cooper was around for Thornton's failed closing run last spring, though Juan Pierre's fielding woes had a lot to do with it. Bottom line, it boils down to this: I don't think Santiago will finish the year with the most saves in this bullpen, and I expect a change to come down fairly soon. In the most competitive save-chasing leagues, you have to react before the baton changes hands; after the move is made, it's too late.

Place your bets, and we'll continue the discussion in the comments. As for the rest of this CT, we're going to be in the bullpen for a while — the seas are getting choppy.

Nothing comes easy for the Bobby Valentine Red Sox of 2012, be it before the game (you're such a clown, skip) or in the ninth inning. Although the Red Sox just completed a three-game sweep at hapless Minnesota, two of the games were one-run victories that had New England biting its nails.

Alfredo Aceves had a smooth save Monday but he was back to the high-wire act in Wednesday's 7-6 victory. The problems started with a one-out walk to Trevor Plouffe (the 3-1 pitch wasn't remotely close) and continued with a sharp Ryan Doumit single. After an harmless (if disputed) infield out, Aceves uncorked a wild pitch that surely would have tied the game, except that the wayward toss made contact with batter Alexi Casilla. You take the breaks where you get them. Aceves regrouped to strike out Denard Span, ending the game and allowing the Red Sox to exhale.

Daniel Bard is returning to Boston's rotation for Friday's game at Chicago, but there's a good chance he'll be back in the bullpen — and maybe the ninth inning — soon enough. Bard struggled during his starting stints in the minors (not to mention this spring), and he's already cut his teeth as a high-leverage, late-inning reliever. While you respect why Boston wants to try Bard in the rotation — you always want to find inning-heavy roles for your best pitchers — there are all sorts of logical flags against the move.

Bard is long-gone in all of the blood-for-save leagues I'm in, but he's currently owned in a modest 36 percent of Yahoo! leagues. There's time to get in on this one. You don't want to stream Bard for the Friday start, but there's an excellent chance you'll want him on your roster come the middle of May. Start looking for a place to stash him. And if you can get anything of modest value for Aceves (I tend to doubt it), move on that as well. Perhaps you can promote his two recent saves, find a buyer. You know your league context better than anyone else.

• Javy Guerra was cruising through a dreamy season just a couple of weeks ago, but he's hit the skids over the last nine days (three losses, two blown saves). The Braves got him for five hits and three runs Wednesday, flipping the game in the ninth inning. And talk about taking a punch: Brian McCann's liner struck Guerra in the right jaw. The closer was allowed to stick in the game, but he didn't retire any of the next three batters.

Guerra refused to blame the liner to the face for his subsequent unraveling. "I saw it coming," he told beat writer Ken Gurnick of "It is what it is. More than anything, I'm just upset."

The 25-year-old righty is now 28-for-32 in save chances over the last year and change, which is why Don Mattingly was whistling an unworried tune after the game. Here's what Donny Baseball told Gurnick:

"I have confidence in the guy," Mattingly said of Guerra. "If he has trouble, then we'll get him in a different spot. At this point, I'm not getting into a big closer thing. After two outings, if you think I'm going to flip-flop things, I'm not."

Kenley Jansen, the second-in-command for Mattingly's bullpen, looms menacingly. He's sitting on a 2.84 ERA and 0.87 WHIP through 12.2 innings, with 20 punchouts against five walks. And he was electric last year as the eight-inning steward. If Guerra's slump continues and a change has to be made, Jansen sure looks ready to take the opportunity and run with it. I'm surprised Jansen is still out there in 35 percent of Yahoo! leagues, though in some shallow mixers, his lack of save chances might push owners away. He can pitch for my fake teams anytime.

Josh Lindblom has settled into the No. 3 role in this bullpen, collecting 11.1 strong innings to his name (5 H, 1 R, 4 BB, 9 K). If all hell broke lose and Guerra and Jansen both lost their way, this is the next name to know.

Although Jarrod Parker and Chris Sale had to settle for no-decisions in their matinee matchup, both kids passed the eye test. Parker perhaps didn't pitch as well as his line (6.1 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 5 K) would indicate — the White Sox botched what could have been a big inning in the second — but he's capable of being a difference maker in any league with 12 owners or more (and perhaps at the 10-owner level, too). Sale is already a proven commodity in my eyes, someone I'll use in just about any matchup. The Shuffle Up for starting pitchers is slated for later on Thursday; come back and see how these guys rank.

Last call on Jose Altuve, rotoheads. The Houston powder keg landed in the No. 2 slot Wednesday at Milwaukee and crushed it, going 4-for-5 with three runs scored and one driven in. He'll probably be 25-steal guy by the end of the year, with a plus average and 8-10 homers. His ownership level stands at 43 percent, and it's quickly rising. Houston's lineup is a lot better than many realize; the Astros currently rank sixth in the majors in runs scored. You need to know all 30 markets in deep mixed leagues, inside and out.

I've been mocking Pedro Alvarez all spring, so let's be fair in the coverage: he was on his game in the doubleheader with Colorado. Alvarez homered in both matches (in addition to a double), and he had a fourth bid for a hit that was run down in the gap. The slash line is still downright ugly, but with four homers over 45 at-bats, he'll get a chance to play through the growing pains.

The Bucs face a right-handed pitcher (at least in the probable listings) for nine of their next ten games; that's good news for the lefty would-be slugger. Can the No. 2 overall pick from the 2008 draft get it together? Do you feel lucky? Alvarez is owned in just four percent of Yahoo! leagues. If you need some video proof to push you along, here's the first homer from Wednesday and here's the shot from the nightcap. The first tater came on a Juan Nicasio meatball, but the second one looked like a nice piece of hitting.

Speed Round: If you came for the Michael Pineda dirge, Andy Behrens has you covered here. It's an interesting coincidence that the Pineda news came down on the same day Jesus Montero acquired glorious catching eligibility. … I can't bash Phil Hughes too much for his messy turn in Arlington, but he's been unimpressive in four consecutive turns. He better get it together quickly, because Andy Pettitte's return isn't that far off and the Yankees will have to make room. Hughes draws Baltimore for his next start. … It's no surprise to see Ryan Roberts phased out in Arizona; he posted a .238/.320/.404 slash against right-handed pitching last year. That screams out "bench player." He's not worth owning in standard mixers. .… I know market confidence must be collapsing on Ubaldo Jimenez because he was offered to me in three separate trades last week. I quickly walked away from each proposal; I see the diminished velocity and the messy mechanics, too, just like everyone else. Whenever you come across a pitcher with more walks than strikeouts, just say no. Jimenez was up-and-down in his Wednesday turn, allowing four runs in six innings and freeing the Royals from their hellish losing streak. … Maybe a move to the leadoff spot will get Dustin Ackley going. He posted a 3-for-6 line at Detroit, scoring a run and knocking in three. … We're over 2,200 words, so it's time to ship this to the printers. Feel free to add your sharp observations and nuggets in the comments, and we'll keep the conversation going.

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