Ynoa's next test: Embrace relief role

Once tabbed as the next Felix Hernandez, new Chicago White Sox pitcher Michael Ynoa would gladly take a major league relief role at this point, while insisting that his standards have not been compromised.

Ynoa (pronounced E-no-uh) currently rates as the X-factor in the December trade that also sent Jeff Samardzija to the White Sox from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for Marcus Semien, Josh Phegley, Chris Bassitt and Rangel Ravelo.

When the A’s first signed Ynoa in 2008 out of the Dominican Republic, the then 16-year-old already stood 6-foot-7 with a fastball approaching the mid 90-mph range. The sky seemed to be the limit, which is where the “King Felix” references came from, and Ynoa quickly went to work to achieve his destiny.

His $4.25 million signing bonus at the time was the most for an international player who didn't call Cuba home.

Just two years later, though, the right-hander was on the road to recovery after Tommy John surgery and things haven’t been the same since.

Switched to a relief role in the A’s system last year, Ynoa says he’s healthy now and ready to contribute wherever the White Sox see fit.

“It feels great knowing that you can do whatever you want to do in the field,” Ynoa said through an interpreter. “You can throw, you can take ground balls, you can do the same routine as the other guys and that’s good, because when you’re injured you can’t do anything. I feel great that right now I can do everything with my routine.”

Now 23, Ynoa still has plenty to prove. At Single-A Beloit in 2013 it appeared as if things were starting to take shape. Ynoa posted a 2.14 ERA over 15 starts and earned a promotion to Single-A Stockton. But he went just 1-2 with a 7.71 ERA in the California League to end that season.

Sent back to Stockton in 2014, although moved into a relief role, Ynoa posted a 5.52 ERA over 31 appearances (45 2/3 innings). The White Sox are expected to continue him on the relief path, with Ynoa still saying that he hasn’t given up on starting one day.

“I think that maybe in the future I can come back to being a starter, but my goal right now is to be healthy,” he said. “That’s the only thing that matters right now.”

The White Sox would agree, and if Ynoa can get on track it would be yet another player who got off to a quick start with his new team. Semien went 6-for-6 to kick off Cactus league play for the A's, Phegley already has three doubles in a game for his new club, and Bassitt had an impressive first start.

Samardzija was also solid in his first start with the White Sox and could be headed toward an Opening Day outing now that Chris Sale’s 2015 debut will be delayed by his foot injury.

There isn’t much of a chance Ynoa breaks camp on the major league roster, but if the White Sox can get him to buy into being a reliever and provide an environment for success in the minor leagues, they can end up with an added bonus to the Samardzija trade.

Once compared to a Cy Young winner, forced to return from a devastating arm injury and seeing his role altered means that Ynoa has been through plenty already. Where he takes things from here will be key.

“It never was difficult to be compared to Felix,” Ynoa said. “I think the most difficult thing was the injuries because that’s something you can’t control. But I think, at the same time, there is a challenge that was put in front of me and it’s time to get stronger.”