CHICAGO -- Is Chris Sale a starting pitcher? Is Sale a reliever? Is the young left-hander the White Sox 2011 closer?
All of these topics were thoroughly debated this past weekend during SoxFest 2011 at the Palmer House Hilton in downtown Chicago. And what decision was arrived at by White Sox fans, management and players alike?
Sale's immense ability leaves him qualified enough to accomplish any or all of the above, even at 21 years of age, with limited big league experience. That talent also earned the southpaw spot No. 25 on MLB.com's list of Top 50 Prospects, officially released on Tuesday night. Sale was the lone White Sox prospect on the list, coming in just behind fellow 2010 draftee, Baltimore's Manny Machado.
As the 13th selection overall in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, Sale became the lone player to reach the Majors from that particular class. The idea arrived upon shortly after the pick was to use Sale as a big league reliever just months after he was anchoring the Florida Gulf Coast University rotation, although his future was as a starter. This potential promotion came with the assumption he could prove his mettle during Minor League stops at Class A Winston-Salem and Triple-A Charlotte, and Sale gave up six hits and struck out a combined 19 over 10 1/3 innings thrown for the Dash and Knights.
In 21 games for the White Sox, Sale posted a 1.93 ERA. He yielded just 15 hits over 23 1/3 innings, fanning 32 and walking 10. He added four saves in four opportunities, giving rise to the idea how Sale could close, with Bobby Jenks now having moved on to Boston as the Red Sox's setup man.
White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen admitted this past weekend that Jenks was healthy enough to pitch during the season's final homestand, confirming an assertion made by Jenks to MLB.com, after the former closer missed most of September due to ulnar neuritis. But with the White Sox eliminated from postseason contention, Guillen wanted to get a look at what Sale could do in these pressure situations.
Other stories have added to Sale's short but impressive professional baseball career. His Major League debut on Aug. 6 at Camden Yards consisted of Sale walking Brian Roberts and allowing Nick Markakis' single, so he never registered an out.
Life would get easier for Sale, who was touched up for just one earned run in nine August appearances. His most famous trip to the mound came on Aug. 18 at Target Field, when Sale fanned Orlando Hudson, Jim Thome and Joe Mauer in one inning of work. The Mauer strikeout came on three pitches.
"He made Joe Mauer look infantile," said White Sox radio play-by-play broadcaster Ed Farmer during a SoxFest seminar, although general manager Ken Williams quickly asked Farmer not to give bulletin-board material to the game's best hitter after that one at-bat.
"I say it all the time, I was very fortunate to come to a veteran team of guys who have done it before and who showed me the ropes," said Sale at SoxFest, addressing the help he received as part of his short Major League experience. "They are a good group of guys. They are good at what they do and have been doing it a long time."
Possibly the most telling piece of information about Sale came after the White Sox had drafted him. Williams and director of amateur scouting Doug Laumann, who runs the First-Year Player Draft, were sitting in the White Sox war room and watching tape of Sale pitch in college.
At that same time, White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper was working with a left-handed reliever in the bullpen well before the start of that night's game. Williams looked at the unnamed reliever, who clearly wasn't All-Star Matt Thornton, looked back at the Sale tape, looked at the reliever again and called Laumann over. Williams pointed out that there was a problem when the young man just drafted already was better than the guy they had working through kinks in the bullpen.
Figuring out Sale's role for 2011 seems pretty straightforward after many offseason assessments. If Jake Peavy is not quite ready to return from season-ending 2010 surgery to repair a detached latissimus dorsi muscle in his posterior right shoulder, then the lanky southpaw with the deceptive delivery most likely will move temporarily to the starting rotation and then return to the bullpen when Peavy returns from his injury.
Cooper has spoken out against such a split-responsibility for Sale at this formative age. But Williams believes he can handle the change, as Sale prepares this offseason as a starter.
"You will have to fine-tune, have three pitches you can throw for strikes at any time," said Sale of moving to starter. "Last year, I was more of a fastball-slider guy and really didn't incorporate the changeup too much.
"If I was a starter, like Coop said, 'We'd have to throw the change. We'd also have to get a little better to both sides of plate with the fastball.'"
Williams doesn't believe age should matter on the importance of a 2011 role given to Sale. He engaged in a humorous dispute with one of the White Sox beat writers during SoxFest on this concept, asking the writer if he would feel better if Sale was 26 instead of 21.
Basically, if you've got it, you've got it at any age. Williams left little doubt where he sided on the question of if this Top 50 Prospect had the necessary talent.
"Hasn't that been answered?" said Williams with a smile. "When you can do it, you can do it. He's shown he can do it."