Even during the worst of times, it's not always easy to tell how many MLB pitchers are feeling. That's not the case with left-hander Will Ohman, who has reportedly agreed to a two-year, $4 million deal with the Chicago White Sox (pending the customary physical). When an opposing hitter puts one in the seats vs. Ohman, or even simply draws a walk or dribbles an infield single down the line, out comes the Scowl. A facial expression so sharp and embittered that it's been known to enhance the flavor of three-day old pizza and may cause intense pain when it comes in contact with a paper cut, the Scowl is unmistakable and unforgettable -- as many Cubs fans will tell you.
Yes, Ohman was drafted by the North Siders in the eighth round of the 1998 MLB draft, making his debut with the team on Sept. 19, 2000. The southpaw reliever was eventually released by the team in late October of 2003 but re-signed a few months later as a free agent. He was more or less a full-time member of the Cubs bullpen between 2005 and 2007, earning the nickname "The Human Scowl" by many a jocular fan (OK, maybe just me), before being traded to the Atlanta Braves during the 2007-08 off-season.
Like many left-handed relievers, Ohman didn't have an easy time under Lou Piniella's watch. After an April 2007 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, Sweet Lou remarked in not-so-sweet fashion, "And then I bring in the reliever who's throwing 30- or 40-foot curveballs to boot ..." That reliever was Will Ohman.
But don't take Lou's word for it -- this deal isn't all bad for the White Sox. Truth be told, Ohman is one of the more effective left-handed one-out guys (LOOGYs) pitching today. In his career, he's thrown 131 innings against left-handed batters, striking out 146 of them and holding the rest to a .205 batting average. His problem, like so many lefty relievers, is walks. His career walk rate (base on balls per nine innings) is 4.52 -- way too high for a guy coming in late in the game to presumably shut down an opponent's rally. And, even against only left-handed hitters, his walk rate remains 4.05 for his career.
So, if used in that LOOGY role, Ohman could absolutely be a plus for the Sox bullpen as long as he can keep the walks to a minimum or at least pitches his way out of them with a well-timed K. But that's where things get complicated. Manager Ozzie Guillen doesn't have a particularly heartening history of limiting his use of such lefty specialists to their ideal match-ups (i.e., left-handed batters). Plus, multi-year deals for such minimally used hurlers generally aren't something to celebrate, though Ohman's contract is still pretty manageable at only two years.
Of greater concern or interest, depending on how you want to look at it, is how Ohman's signing could affect the future of the Sox young phenom Chris Sale. Also a left-hander, Sale would now appear free to join the team's rotation with the more tenured Matt Thornton moving into the closer's role and Ohman stepping in as the pen's aforementioned lefty specialist. (Recently signed Jesse Crain, formerly of the Minnesota Twins, profiles as the Sox primary right-handed set-up guy.) Problem is, pitching coach Don Cooper has already come out once again as being expressly opposed to using Sale as a starter. So much uncertainty remains as to how Ozzie will structure both his bullpen and his rotation. (For some more in-depth discussion of how the Ohman deal could affect Chris Sale, check out this poston South Side Sox.)
One thing's almost for certain, Sox fans will likely have to endure a few scowls this season when Ohman can't find the strike zone or fails to miss a bat. But if he can keep his smile-to-scowl ratio high enough, this deal will pay off as mildly beneficial to the South Siders.