While projecting the White Sox 2020 roster has become a favorite pastime of South Side baseball fans, finalizing the 2018 roster is a much different exercise.
Most of that group is somewhat locked into place as carryovers from 2017. Welington Castillo, the lone position player added so far this offseason, figures to have brought the everyday lineup into focus, joining Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson and Yolmer Sanchez on the infield. The outfield looks to shake out like this: Avisail Garcia in right field, Leury Garcia in center field and Nicky Delmonico seeming likely to get the first crack in left field.
Rick Hahn has already added four guys to the mix out in the bullpen: Joakim Soria, Luis Avilan, Thyago Vieira and Jose Ruiz. They’ll join the likes of Aaron Bummer, Danny Farquhar, Jace Fry, Gregory Infante, Nate Jones and Juan Minaya in competing for those relief spots.
Three starting-rotation spots seem set with James Shields, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez all back from last season. And Hahn said at the Winter Meetings that pending any further additions Carson Fulmer would likely be a part of that five-man unit, as well. With Carlos Rodon’s health status up in the air, however, that last spot in the starting rotation is a bit of a mystery.
So here are five guys who might round out the starting rotation:
As referenced, Rodon's return date is unknown at this point as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery. According to Hahn both in September and last month at the Winter Meetings, Rodon might be ready by Opening Day or he might not be ready until June. It's yet to be determined when he'll be back on a big league mound.
If Rodon can recover in time for the season-opener, great. The fifth-starter mystery is solved. Not only would that best-case scenario go a long way in alleviating some of the long-term questions about Rodon's health — it’d be much better optically than a second straight year of missing the first two months of the season — but it would give the White Sox the top-of-the-rotation pitcher they think Rodon can be from Day 1 of the season.
Rodon showed flashes of brilliance when healthy last season. He recorded double-digit strikeouts in three of his 12 starts, including an 11-strikeout performance in four innings against the Cubs. And coming off of that game, he posted a 3.00 ERA over his final seven starts before getting shut down with the injury.
But that injury also has the potential to keep him out well into the season. He made his 2017 debut on June 28, and it seems that could repeat itself in 2018. If he’s healthy, he’ll 100-percent be a part of the rotation. But at this point, Rodon being healthy by the start of the season is anything but 100 percent.
While the White Sox will likely let Kopech continue to develop at Triple-A Charlotte to start 2018, what if the guy who was baseball’s top pitching prospect at one point last season blows the competition away in spring training? Can he crack the 25-man roster out of camp?
Such a performance wouldn’t necessarily be surprising after the jaw-dropping numbers he put up in the minors last season. In 22 starts with Double-A Birmingham, Kopech turned in a 2.87 ERA and struck out 155 hitters in 119.1 innings of work. He jumped up to Charlotte at season’s end and struck out 17 guys in three starts there.
Though Hahn & Co. surely have a plan in place for Kopech, it’s well within the realm of possibility that the guy who shattered that plan for 2017 could do so again in 2018, have a dynamite spring and make the team.
Heck, it doesn’t sound at all crazy to suggest that Kopech could right now be the best pitcher at any level in the White Sox organization. So why not give him a shot? The answer, of course, is that there’s no rush — both from developmental and financial standpoints. But if he’s good enough, he could force the White Sox to change their timeline, as he's done already since joining the team last winter.
The internal options get a little less exciting from here. Covey was not great last season. He posted a 7.71 ERA over his 70 big league innings, obviously not what he and the White Sox wanted in his first year in the majors.
Covey started in 12 of his 18 appearances, but his numbers weren’t drastically different as a starter and a reliever: 7.76 ERA as a starter, 8.04 ERA as a reliever.
Thing is, there's not much else to choose from on the active roster, and if the White Sox head to Glendale with what they've got — and decide to keep Kopech in the minors and Rodon's not healthy yet — Covey seems to be a logical option.
That being said, he might have shown all he can show at this point. In his last four starts of 2017, he was repeatedly tagged for runs by opposing lineups, combining to give up 16 runs in 21 innings for a 6.86 ERA. Even if the White Sox are planning on the bulk of their future rotation to still be developing in the minors this season, performances like that — seen far too often from the likes of Derek Holland and Mike Pelfrey last year — will have damaging effects on the rest of the pitching staff, impacting the bullpen safety net for guys like Giolito and Lopez, who still have some developing to do at the major league level.
This seems to be the likeliest option.
The free-agent market has been ridiculously, unbelievably slow this winter, meaning there's been little indication of which guys will be available for the White Sox come the later stages of the offseason. But signing a veteran starting pitcher with the option to trade him later in the season makes too much sense for a rebuilding team like the White Sox. They tried it last year with Holland and Pelfrey, and their performances made midseason trades impossible. Remember, though, that the White Sox did flip Miguel Gonzalez, a move they could make with a veteran starter sometime this summer if everything pans out.
Obviously, with so few free agents signed across baseball, there are tons of options. During the Winter Meetings, I made up a list of 15 guys who fit the bill. Well, only two of those guys, Jhoulys Chacin and Yovani Gallardo, have signed since. That leaves Clay Buchholz, Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, Scott Feldman, Jaime Garcia, the aforementioned Gonzalez, John Lackey, Francisco Liriano, Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez, Hector Santiago, Chris Tillman and Jason Vargas all available, not to mention plenty of others not on that list.
Like they did with Holland and Pelfrey in 2017, the White Sox could sign a couple veterans, bring them to spring training and insert them into the rotation. The best-case scenario is a strong few months that makes the veteran an attractive trade candidate and could fetch Hahn another piece or two the further the rebuild. The middle-case scenario is the veteran eats up innings, keeping the bullpen healthy enough to support still-developing pitchers like Giolito and Lopez. The worst-case scenario is the veteran pitches like Holland and Pelfrey did last season but does so during a campaign in which the White Sox aren't expected to compete for a championship, keeping the seat warm for one of the many young arms developing in the minor leagues.
Again, going that route seems to make too much sense for the White Sox not to do it. But the winter freeze on the hot stove needs to thaw before we find out who that veteran starter is.