Heading into the year, the White Sox’ starting rotation had the greatest disaster potential of any of the position groupings on the roster. There was injury risk and performance risk and not a whole lot immediately behind it. There was upside potential, to be sure, but the range of possible outcomes was vast and unfortunately, we’ve generally seen the odds break bad to date. By way of a quick recap:
- Carson Fulmer pushed his good stuff onto the scales against his horrible command, the horrible command won and now he’s walking about a batter an inning in Charlotte.
- Lucas Giolito finished 2017 well and looked great in spring training, including increased fastball velocity. Now the fastball velocity is the lowest it has ever been in the majors (91.4 on average), he’s walking 14.3% of the batters he’s facing, by far the worst rate in the majors, and unsurprisingly has an ERA above 7.00. Barring injury this is about as bad as it could have gone.
- Miguel Gonzalez, brought in to stabilize the rotation, did the thing where he tried to pitch through injury, got absolutely annihilated and is now on the 60-day DL.
The only reason the rotation is tied for last in the majors in ERA with 5.76 instead of 30th and not within shouting distance of 29th place is because James Shields has managed to muddle through admirably and Reynaldo Lopez has posted excellent run prevention results albeit ahead of merely okay peripherals. Hector Santiago and Chris Volstad are present purely as insurance policies and frankly, their presence has been absolutely necessary as they’ve combined to soak up 71.67 innings of sub-5.00 ERA ball. I’m not saying they’ve been great, but they’ve been better than a lot of the Plan A guys and without them the team would somehow be worse than 16-37. It has to get better than this, right? Well, I won’t guarantee anything, but the rotation might undergo some serious changes in the near future:
- Carlos Rodon made significant progress from his 2015 rookie season and 2016. Despite throwing to the worst framing catchers in the majors and finishing in the Top 10 for strikes called balls in the majors, he still essentially halved his walk rate over 165 innings. Then 2017 was largely a lost year due to injury, with vague throwing arm pain culminating in shoulder surgery in the 2017-8 offseason. Shoulder surgery is pretty much the last thing you want for a pitcher, but he looks to be nearing a return to the majors. On Tuesday, he threw his third minor league rehab start in Charlotte, going 5 innings, striking out 8 while allowing only 5 baserunners and no runs. Across 12.67 minor league innings he’s posted a 20:2 K:BB ratio while allowing only 1 run and walking two. Obviously, the Rodon we think we know should be doing this against the minors, but at the very least there’s no red flag in the stat line as to his health or what he’s throwing. Barring incident, Rodon should be back in the majors soon, and there’s every reason to believe he’ll be a massive upgrade for 20% of the rotation.
- Jordan Stephens has been old for every minor league stop along the way to Triple-A. That’s what happens when you’re drafted out of college while recovering from Tommy John surgery. However, he still turns 26 in September and the White Sox conservatively assigned him to Birmingham to start 2018. After 40 dominant innings there, he got bumped up to Charlotte where he hasn’t skipped a beat. After Thursday’s outing, Stephens has thrown four quality starts in four attempts for the Knights, generally limiting walks and homers well. Stephens is more of a back-end profile, but he’s polished, compensates for unremarkable fastball velocity with good carry, and boasts a nice curveball. He hasn’t been in Charlotte long, but at a certain point how do you keep down a 25-year-old pitching like this in Triple-A when your rotation is performing the way it has been?
- Of course, the elephant in the room here is Michael Kopech. The lone blemish on his stat line remains a high walk rate, as he continues to miss bats at a prodigious rate while clamping down hard on quality contact. His 3.86 ERA is sufficiently Good Not Great for the White Sox to keep him in Charlotte with a straight face, I suppose, but one has to imagine unless he gets hurt or suddenly regresses like crazy he’s going to be in Chicago before the All Star Break as the Super Two “deadline” passes. He’s even added a good curveball to his already terrifying arsenal!
With Dylan Covey suddenly returning and featuring a 93-95 mph sinker we hadn’t really seen in 2017, a flood of reinforcements is beginning to arrive. Watching White Sox games might get a whole lot more fun in short order. It’s a low bar to clear, but hope is always a good thing.
Image credit- Patrick Gorski, USA Today