The White Sox announced Sunday that James Shields will start Opening Day against the Royals next Thursday, an unsurprising decision given the injury to Carlos Rodon and inexperience of Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez.
The news was nonetheless met with a certain amount of consternation as Shields’ continued presence on the roster and in the starting rotation has been a disaster for most of his two seasons with the teams, and it’s tough to forget that he was acquired for now-uber-prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. in the White Sox final ill-fated attempt to contend before transitioning to total rebuild.
But Shields matters to this White Sox team, just as he did last year. And it’s not just because of his mentorship to the team’s plethora of young pitchers, as has been discussed on a number of occasions, but he matters simply because, well, someone has to pitch.
If and when Rodon returns to full health, we’ll be nearing a point where the rotation will resemble something close to what the White Sox envision long-term. Undoubtedly, the team sees a contending team featuring the trio of him, Giolito, and Lopez down the road. But Rodon has never thrown more than 165 innings in a season and is coming back from injury, Giolito threw 174 innings last year between Triple-A and the majors, which was a new high for him as a professional, and Lopez got up to 168 2/3 innings between Charlotte and Chicago, also the highest of his career.
Even if everything breaks right, Rodon comes back healthy and effective, and Giolito and Lopez solidify themselves as major league starting pitchers, it would be unwise for the White Sox, barring some unexpected brush with contention, to overextend any of that trio. And even beyond those three, there’s very little in the form of major league-ready starting pitching in the system. That’s why pitchers like Shields and Miguel Gonzalez matter.
There’s a very realistic scenario where Shields is rendered pointless before 2018 ends. Maybe Rodon, Giolito, and Lopez excel. Maybe Michael Kopech is major league ready way sooner than expected. Maybe Carson Fulmer’s spring training struggles amount to nothing more than a minor road bump. Maybe Hector Santiago regains his form. And maybe Shields fails to get out of the third inning without giving up five home runs on a regular basis. All possible!
Pitchers are fickle. Young pitchers, particularly so. Shields, if you’ll allow me a bit of rare optimism regarding his 2018 prospects for a second, had stretches of competence last year. From Aug. 5 through the end of the season — 10 starts — he made it through at least five innings each time, at least six on seven occasions, and allowed three earned runs or fewer seven times as well.
Sans Rodon, the White Sox have six candidates for rotation spots, with Fulmer v. Santiago the only spot yet to be determined. Behind that group there’s a glut of question marks for who would warrant a start in the event of injury or ineffectiveness. Tyler Danish was taken off the 40-man roster during the offseason, Dylan Covey is there, of course, T.J. House is the only one of the NRI group who has started a game in the majors somewhat recently (2015), and then there’s organizational soldier and veteran Chris Volstad. (11 shutout innings this spring!) Maybe Jordan Stephens is worth a shot before long?
The options dwindle into uncertainty fairly quickly, not that you should expect otherwise from a rebuilding team. But depth will matter for this White Sox team that has a lot of young, mercurial starting pitchers. And that’s why Shields matters.
Lead Photo Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports