The White Sox are in Oakland this week, a place that's seen its fair share of rebuilding efforts.
Thanks to Moneyball and some excellent drafting, the A's, at one time, were the template for creating a homegrown contender. Before Theo Epstein and Jeff Luhnow, there was Billy Beane. And the A's found particular success when it came to pitching. Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder formed one of the elite 1-2-3 starting-rotation punches of recent memory. And if the White Sox rebuild pans out the way they hope it will, there could be a second coming of the homegrown Zito-Hudson-Mulder triumvirate on the South Side.
That trio dominated for years in Oakland, taking the A's to four straight postseasons from 2000 to 2003. Zito was still around for another trip in 2006. While the A's famously failed to do much in those postseason appearances, eliminated from the first four in the first round and then swept out of the ALCS in 2006, there's no doubting that they had one of the best rotations in baseball during that stretch. Hudson was a two-time All Star and finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting three times during his six seasons with the A's. Zito was a three-time All Star in eight seasons in Oakland and won the Cy Young Award in 2002. Mulder was a two-time All Star in his five seasons there and was the Cy Young runner-up in 2001.
Do the White Sox have three pitchers who could reach that kind of success?
The White Sox haven't drafted all their high-end pitching talent, like the A's did with Hudson (sixth round, 1997), Mulder (first round, 1998) and Zito (first round, 1999). But they do have four pitchers ranked in the top 100 prospects in baseball: Michael Kopech (10), Alec Hansen (54), Dylan Cease (61) and Dane Dunning (92). That's without mentioning current members of the big league rotation Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Carson Fulmer or the currently injured Carlos Rodon. The White Sox spent high first-round draft picks on Fulmer and Rodon, while Hansen was a second-round pick. They acquired all the others in those rebuild-launching trades with the Boston Red Sox, Washington Nationals and Cubs.
That's a heck of a lot of talent. So much talent that it produces quite the potential future conundrum for Rick Hahn, Rick Renteria and Don Cooper, who will have to figure out a way to fit all of that talent into one major league starting staff. That would be one of those problems, of course, that qualifies as a good one to have.
Now, as exciting as these young players might be — and as impressive as what they're doing in the minor leagues is — it's unrealistic to think that all of them will reach the status of big league ace. As Hahn will tell you, baseball has a cruel way of reminding that not all prospects pan out. But the White Sox are starting from a very strong position, with such a high volume of top-end talent. It betters the odds of developing a front-end-of-the-rotation pitcher, and a few of these guys are already looking capable of reaching that level.
Kopech is the obvious candidate to be that kind of pitcher. He's got blow-em-away stuff with his triple-digit fastball and is currently one of the top pitching prospects in the game. He showed signs of mortality during spring training, leaving the Cactus League with an ERA above 11.00, but he's looked good in his first two regular-season starts at Triple-A Charlotte, with an 0.90 ERA in 10 innings. When he'll be up to the major league level remains a mystery, though it figures to be at some point this season.
Hansen has equally dominant stuff and actually struck out more hitters in 2017, punching out 191 batters at three different levels of the minor leagues. He's yet to start his regular season while getting back to full health. But he's got as high of hopes as any one of these guys, and it wouldn't be at all surprising to see the 6-foot-7 righty team with two others to make an elite 1-2-3.
Who would the third guy be? Well it could be any of them, really. Cease and Dunning are off to great starts in their minor league seasons. Giolito and Lopez impressed at the end of last season, with Lopez carrying that over into the beginning of the 2018 season. Rodon still carries high hopes even as he works through recovery from shoulder surgery. And with so many options and unknowns remaining in the development of all these players, it's really possible it could be any three-arm combination — including ones without Kopech or Hansen.
In the end, the question might not be whether the White Sox can match the Zito-Hudson-Mulder three-headed monster. It might be whether or not they can outdo it.