Chris Sale moves back to the pen, takes over as White Sox closer

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Now this one is a real shocker: Chris Sale, who has been very impressive in opening the season 3-1 with a 2.81 ERA in his rotation debut for the White Sox, will move back to the pen and take over as the team’s closer, it was announced Friday.

Health concerns are the obvious reasoning behind the switch, though the White Sox indicated he’d be ready to pitch out of the pen right away. It’s a bizarre move if it’s completely preemptive. If it’s not and he is hurting now, then it’s still bizarre, since it’d make sense to give him at least a week or two off.

From a performance standpoint, Sale’s move to the rotation couldn’t have possibly gone any better. Not only was his record sterling, but he had cut down on the walks and become more efficient with his pitches. On April 25, he needed just 101 pitches — 71 strikes — to get through eight innings against the A’s. In his win Tuesday, he threw 88 pitches in six innings against the Indians.

This also certainly isn’t a case of the White Sox needing Sale more in the bullpen than in the rotation. Hector Santiago had struggled in the closer’s role, but he never figured to be more than the team’s fourth or fifth best reliever anyway. Addison Reed, who has all the makings of a long-term closer, still hasn’t given up a run in 8 2/3 innings this year. Matt Thornton has a 2.38 ERA.  Jesse Crain, though hurt at the moment, is another quality arm.

Meanwhile, the White Sox are likely taking a big downgrade in the rotation by promoting Dylan Axelrod into Crain’s spot. Axelrod was a great find for the team after being let go by the Padres, but he’s not going to open eyes with his stuff. He’s probably going to be a long-term middle reliever, as opposed to a decent fourth or fifth starter.

All in all, it seems like a very odd choice from the outside looking in. Still, if the White Sox think this is the best way to keep Sale healthy, we’ll just have to trust them on that for now. It is a real shame, though. Sale was looking like a legitimate No. 2 starter, and he’s never going to produce that kind of value out of the pen.

Report: Rangers agree to six-year extension with Rougned Odor

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The Rangers have reportedly agreed to a six-year, $49.5 million extension for second baseman Rougned Odor, according to Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports and Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News. The extension comes with a club option for a seventh year, Heyman adds.

It’s close to the six-year, $52.5 million extension Jason Kipnis netted with the Indians in 2014, a sum Odor was rumored to be seeking during contract negotiations over the last two years. Granted, the circumstances are a little different this time around. Both players signed extensions on the cusp of their fourth year in the major leagues, but at 27 years old, Kipnis was coming off of an All-Star campaign and a career-high 4.5 fWAR performance. Odor, meanwhile, saw mixed results in 2016, batting 33 home runs and putting up 2.0 fWAR while struggling to stay consistent at the plate and exhibiting poor defense.

According to MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan, Odor previously agreed to a $563,180 salary for 2017. Depending on when the extension kicks in, it should cover all three of Odor’s arbitration-eligible seasons and two seasons of potential free agency. The team has yet to confirm the extension.

2017 Preview: Minnesota Twins

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Minnesota Twins.

Which iteration of the Twins will we get in 2017? The second-place contenders of 2015, blazing their way through the standings with 83 wins and a handful of hot prospects? The burnouts of 2016, flopping to the bottom of the division with 103 losses and a lineup held in place by Brian Dozier and, well, Brian Dozier? Or something in between?

Finishing dead last has its perks, namely a first-round draft pick and the feeling that things can’t be quite as bad as they were the year before. Unfortunately for the Twins, the only major preparation they made for the 2017 season came in the form of a front office shakeup. Derek Falvey assumed control of the club in October, bringing GM Thad Levine into the fold in November as the club assumed a more analytics-friendly approach toward the rebuilding movement.

When it came to roster revisions, however, there wasn’t much moving or shaking this winter. Third baseman Trevor Plouffe, catcher Kurt Suzuki and left-handers Tommy Milone and Pat Dean vacated their spots on the roster. Falvey avoided some of the bigger bats and bullpen arms in free agency and opted to sign backstop Jason Castro and journeyman reliever Ryan Vogelsong instead.

By and large, the core of the Twins’ roster remained the same. Center fielder Byron Buxton, infielder/outfielder Michael Sano and right-hander Jose Berrios still form the nucleus of the club’s top prospects. Middle infielder Brian Dozier will also return in 2017, though he appears to be on borrowed time with the Twins after putting up monster numbers in the second half of 2016. Ervin Santana will head the rotation again, accompanied by fellow veterans Hector Santiago, Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes, while right-handed relievers Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Pressly and Matt Belisle and rehabbing lefty Glen Perkins attempt to prevent another bullpen collapse in 2017.

Without any major additions to the team (and, excepting the departure of Trevor Plouffe, any major subtractions), the Twins will look to their existing cadre of players for significant improvements in 2017. Miguel Sano is expected to take over third base in Plouffe’s absence, which will bring a welcome end to his short-lived and wholly unsuccessful experiment in right field. Brian Dozier, Jorge Polanco and Joe Mauer should round out the infield, with Byung Ho Park and Kennys Vargas currently vying for a spot as the team’s designated hitter.

The lineup is still four or five or six sluggers shy of formidable, but if Dozier can be counted on to repeat his 42-homer, 5.9 fWAR performance from 2016, there will be at least one Twin worth intentionally walking in 2017. Neither Miguel Sano nor Byron Buxton have quite found their footing against big league pitching yet, and another year spent struggling in the majors could mean another year of sub-optimal run production for the team as well. Jason Castro, who grades as an above-average defender behind the plate, is unlikely to provide any additional pop for the Twins at the plate after slashing just .210/.307/.377 through 376 PA with the Astros in 2016.

The pitching department also leaves a little to be desired in light of the league-worst 5.09 ERA they amassed last season. A veteran-heavy rotation could get a boost from the addition of fifth-starter candidate Jose Berrios, who is thought to be the favorite after fellow rotation candidate Trevor May underwent Tommy John surgery earlier this week. Right-hander Tyler Duffey and 23-year-old southpaw Adalberto Mejia are also waiting in the wings. Both have made convincing cases for their inclusion on the pitching staff this spring, but Duffey is coming off of a 6.43 ERA in 2016 and Mejia lacks some of the polish that Berrios offers. Still, stockpiling young pitching depth isn’t a bad thing, and could give the Twins a cushion in the event of injury or collapse down the stretch.

The bullpen outperformed the rotation in 2016, which is saying… something, though maybe not a lot. They still finished the year with a cumulative 4.63 ERA, good for last place among their American League rivals, and delivered just 2.1 fWAR while taking on the fourth-most innings in the league. The standout performer was 28-year-old righty Ryan Pressly, who worked a 3.70 ERA, 2.7 BB/9 and 8.0 SO/9 in 75 1/3 innings last year. In light of Ryan Vogelsong’s recent departure from the club, the Twins will round out their bullpen with left-hander Craig Breslow, who turned in a 4.50 ERA with the Marlins in 2016 and is looking for a bounce-back season of his own after reworking his delivery at age 36.

For now, it looks like Falvey and the Twins’ front office are taking a wait-and-see approach to the coming season, which bodes well for their long-term vision (assuming most of their young prospects pan out) and not so well for their chances of moving up in the division in the next year or so. That could change by the trade deadline if they can secure a worthwhile return for Dozier, though given the rumors of their understandably high asking price, it could take more than a few months to get a deal in place.

Even assuming that all the chips fall in the Twins’ favor in 2017 — prospects start hitting consistently, the rotation solidifies, and Falvey loosens the purse strings enough to net more established contenders — it’s difficult to imagine anything more than a fourth-place finish for the club as they continue to rebuild and regroup. Barring any major improvements on the inconsistent, if occasionally productive, lineup of 2016, another last-place finish feels imminent.

Prediction: Fifth place, AL Central.