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It begins, ends with Peavy and Sale

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

It always comes down to pitching.

So for all the talk about the White Sox’ beefed-up lineup with Adam “Big Donkey” Dunn plugged into its middle and jacked-up optimism about the team’s chances of overtaking the Minnesota Twins in 2011 because of it, Dunn can’t deliver a postseason payoff if the Sox don’t pitch well.

Manager Ozzie Guillen knows this. One of his first statements after he arrived in Chicago last month to meet with reporters underscored it.

“Our pitching staff has a very big responsibility,” Guillen said. “Our pitching staff has a lot of work to do. Our offense should be fine, but we have to pitch well and better than what we did last year.”

Pitching is a dicey commodity, even for the most stable of pitching staffs, and the Sox’ staff, though good on paper, has its share of issues to resolve. The wild card is right-hander Jake Peavy, who has made only 20 starts since general manager Ken Williams traded for him in September 2009. Peavy will have to overcome an unusual operation below his right shoulder to live up to his staff-ace reputation and $16 million salary.

With Peavy, the Sox have one of baseball’s deepest rotations with John Danks, Mark Buehrle, Edwin Jackson and Gavin Floyd. Without him, and there’s a good chance Peavy won’t be seen in a regular-season game until May at the earliest despite his gung-ho eagerness to contribute, Guillen and pitching coach Don Cooper will be auditioning candidates for the fifth starter’s spot.

Cooper mentions right-handers Lucas Harrell, Phil Humber, Jeff Gray and perhaps Tony Pena in the pool of prospects to watch during spring training.

And what about left-hander Chris Sale? Based on last year’s late-season showing in relief and his college background as a starter, could he step in and shine?

Pencil him into the closer’s role.

The Sox will keep their bullpen options open, as well they should with their depth and flexibility — Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain, Sergio Santos and Sale all have the stuff to get the last three outs — but it says here that Sale is the guy they envision in the closer’s role.

The stuff Sale displayed in getting four saves in four closing auditions late last season was eye-popping.

Peavy’s most telling statement during his media teleconference last week was what he offered about Sale: While Peavy was with the Twins’ Joe Mauer during the offseason, Mauer went on and on about Sale’s dazzling stuff. Mauer is one of the game’s best pure hitters.

Enough said.

“Chris Sale is going to be a starter,” Cooper told a radio audience Thursday. “I am just not sure it’s going to be right now. When Kenny makes the decision to start Sale, it’s going to be to stay there.

“People say, ‘Let Sale start.’ Well, what if Peavy is ready in three weeks? Now we move Sale [from the rotation to the bullpen]? It’s a little much for anybody, let alone a rookie, to jump from role to role.

“When the decision is made for Chris Sale to start, I welcome that challenge to get him over the hump as a starter. But he has already shown that he has a chance to be a real quality reliever.’’

In the meantime, Cooper will have to get a fifth starter ready, unless Peavy makes a near-miraculous return to starting fitness at breakneck speed. All the Sox need is five innings from the fifth guy, then rely on what should be a deep and flexible bullpen to finish the job.

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