White Sox pitcher Hector Santiago entered the 2012 season as the team’s closer, a very surprising decision at the time. After struggling to shut the door by blowing two saves in six opportunities, Santiago was removed from the closer’s role as April ended. For most of May and June, Santiago was used primarily as a set-up man and middle reliever. Having not pitched more than 2.2 innings in an appearance for the first three months of the season, Santiago saw his role shifted once again to more of a long-relief pitcher. During July and August, Santiago pitched at least three innings in five of his eleven appearances, thus showing the White Sox that he had the stamina to possibly be a starter. In September, Santiago got his first shot to start, and the lefty made four starts in the final month of the season. Since his arm was not fully stretched-out for his first few starts, Santiago was only able to pitch 12.1 innings in his first three starts. Obviously, that is not the type of production the White Sox would want from a starter, but Santiago did have to build up his pitch count in order to go deeper in games. On October 1st, Santiago made his final start of the season, and he showed the White Sox what he is capable of doing over the course of a game. That day, Santiago pitched seven scoreless innings, giving up just one hit, one walk, and striking out 10 Cleveland hitters. That performance highlighted Santiago’s short “audition” as a starter, where he compiled 26 strikeouts in just 19.1 innings pitched. Santiago ended the stretch with a 2-0 record and a 1.86 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP, showing the White Sox that he is fully capable of being a starter in the future.

Heading into spring training in 2013, the White Sox were still hoping to have a healthy John Danks join Chris Sale, Jake Peavy, and Gavin Floyd as the team’s first four hurlers. Many people, including myself, believed that Santiago should have a shot to compete for the fifth starter’s spot with Jose Quintana. Here’s an excerpt from a blog that I wrote in February:

“Peavy, Sale, Danks, and Floyd should lead the White Sox starting rotation, but a fifth member is needed to round out the staff. Last year, lefty Jose Quintana came out of nowhere to secure a starting rotation spot throughout most of last season. Quintana pitched extremely well over his first two months of action, but leveled off in the 2nd half of the season. Considering he was claimed off waivers from the New York Yankees, I would expect Quintana to be closer to the average pitcher we saw late in 2012, as opposed to the all-star caliber starter we saw early. Either way, Quintana still can be effective enough to be a fifth starter in the American League. In 2012, lefty Hector Santiago was a closer, set-up man, long reliever, and a starter. This season, Santiago will have a chance to win the fifth starter’s spot. Santiago made a few starts down the stretch in 2012, and was able to strike out 26 batters in 19.1 innings as a starter. Santiago throws a little harder than Quintana, and in my opinion he also has better off-speed pitches. With Santiago’s ability to throw in the low to mid 90s, an above average change-up, and a nasty screwball (that acts as a right-handed pitchers’ slider), he appears to be better suited to put away hitters from both sides of the plate than Quintana. It will be interesting to see how both southpaws perform in the spring, and who ends up winning the job.”

After the first month of the season, it appears that sticking with Quintana was a wise choice. I was worried about his 5.01 ERA in 79 innings after the all-star break, but so far Quintana is proving his doubters wrong. With a 2-0 record, 3.58 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and a 22:7 K:BB ratio, Quintana seems to be on his way to having a fine season. If this pace continues, I will be the first to admit I was wrong about Quintana.

As spring training progressed, it became more apparent that John Danks would not be able to join the White Sox rotation to begin the year. The obvious choice to fill-in for Danks was Santiago, but Dylan Axelrod’s strong spring gave him a chance instead. With Danks’ status uncertain, manager Robin Ventura may have opted for Axelrod to keep the rest of his pitching staff’s roles more permanent. Instead of having Santiago begin the season as a starter and shift back to the bullpen once Danks returned, Ventura likely went with Axelrod to keep Santiago’s role the same. That way, when Danks was ready to return, the White Sox could simply send Axelrod to the minors. In essence, the Sox would only be changing the role and status of one pitcher, as opposed to two. Once again, with how Axelrod has performed, I can’t complain with the decision. While Axelrod is still winless on the year, his 3.60 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 35 innings indicate that he has been a quality starter more times than not.

Regardless of the success of Quintana and Axelrod, Santiago was still passed up to be a starter twice. But, due to another injury to the starting rotation, the third time may prove to be the charm. With Gavin Floyd out indefinitely, and Tommy John Surgery very likely, Santiago has found himself in the rotation alongside of Quintana and Axelrod for the time being. Santiago’s first start was a successful one, pitching 5.1 innings of one-run ball versus the hard-hitting Texas Rangers. He allowed only four batters to reach base, and struck out six to pick up the victory. Danks is currently on a rehab stint and may be back in the rotation in a couple weeks, so Santiago’s opportunity could be short-lived once again. The White Sox could choose to insert Danks in Floyd’s spot and keep Axelrod in the rotation. However, Santiago still has a chance to make an impression and leave Robin Ventura with a difficult decision. Given his skills and success as a starter early his career, I fully expect Santiago to force Ventura’s hand to leave him in the starting rotation for good.

Either way, Santiago has already proven to be a valuable member of the White Sox pitching staff with his versatility and overall effectiveness.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Follow me on Twitter @etichel07