Felipe Paulino's performance last night, on the heels of his previous two starts, would normally be enough to get him immediately yanked from the rotation. The problem is, there isn't really any obvious choice to replace him. Most of the starters in AAA Charlotte have gotten off to a slow start. Andre Rienzo has been giving up hits and walks without striking anyone out. Charlie Leesman has a shiny ERA in three starts - a product of his absurdly lucky 93% strand rate - and although his profile doesn't often generate good peripheral stats, he's still walking too many hitters to be viable beyond an emergency spot start. Eric Surkamp, brought in as insurance for just this sort of scenario, is getting absolutely annihilated by minor league hitters thus far. Dipping further down into AA, the options are either prospects whose development would be destroyed by calling them up - Chris Beck, Myles Jaye, and Scott Snodgress - or pitchers who simply cannot get major league hitters out.
It's not ideal, and one wonders if the White Sox will look outside the organization to see what sort of help can be brought in.
Paulino getting lit up - and the tremendous strain on the bullpen lately - afforded us the opportunity to meet Zach Putnam, and he may be a big help in a bullpen that really misses Nate Jones. I had it in my head that Putnam was a journeyman - and I was correct - but he is a journeyman of the 26-year old variety not the Scott Atchison mid-30s type. Putnam was drafted in the 5th round of the 2008 draft by the Indians out of Michigan and was never really seriously considered as a starting pitcher. Generally, the earlier an organization abandons the idea of making a guy a starter, the lower their ceiling. Putnam started 7 games in 2010 while making 30 appearances as a reliever, and he has not started a game since.
Putnam has bounced around the minors, and this is his first year with the White Sox. Last night he managed to come in and save the bullpen by going 2.1 IP and indeed, he only needed 22 pitches (19 strikes) to do it. His arsenal appears to be an 89-90mph fastball and a splitter that he throws in the low 80s, with a slider he uses to grab strikes every now and then.
Over the course of his minor league career, his K-rates aren't very strong, and nor would they be with that kind of arsenal. The way he's going to succeed is with good control, and outside of a rough season in extremely hitter friendly Colorado Springs (and the other bandboxes in the PCL), he has generally been quite stingy with walks, and actually has posted good home run rates as well.
Coming off of 20 good innings with AAA Iowa for the Cubs last season, the White Sox gave him a long look in Spring Training. He has rewarded them for sticking with him thus far as he was not challenged in Charlotte at all, as through 6 innings he had allowed 5 total baserunners - one via the walk -- while striking out 11 and not allowing a run.
It was only a couple innings last night, but Putnam showed us how he's going to succeed (if he is going to succeed):
Putnam seems comfortable throwing his splitter to the arm-side of the plate -- in on righties and away on lefties -- going glove-side with the slider, and then pushing his fastball up and in on both sides.
Putnam got away with some meatballs - you can see them on there - and that's dangerous for guys with marginal stuff. If you miss up at the belt but it's 96-97, hitters sometimes won't have time to say, "Oh! Mistake!" and crush it. At 88-89 mph, they will. So Putnam will have to be very precise, and as we can see, there is some more room down and in to lefties/low and away from righties where he could afford to miss lower.
Looking at his minor league track record and the location of these pitches, though, he seems to have a plan and realize what he needs to do to succeed with his stuff. In a bullpen of flamethrowers who have no idea where it's going, Putnam might be a good change of pace. His aim is weak contact and avoiding walks, trying to jam hitters inside or give them a pitch low and away that looks like it can be hit harder than it can. Given that the White Sox bullpen is giving up the most walks in the majors by a LOT (6.79 per 9IP), one can see how he would help.
If nothing else, Putnam can step in like he did last night and pitch efficiently in mop-up duty, or in situations where Ventura has run out of relievers in extra innings. That would free up Daniel Webb to pitch in high leverage situations instead of coming in for 50+ pitches at a time as a last resort, which is frankly a waste.
So while the 5th starter situation has the makings of a year-long disaster, Putnam could be a guy acquired for free who winds up being a solid reliever for several years.