White Sox

Erik Johnson looks to win spot in White Sox starting rotation


Erik Johnson looks to win spot in White Sox starting rotation

GLENDALE, Ariz. — There are plenty of potential distractions this spring, and Erik Johnson sounds as if he wants to block them all out.

The right-handed pitcher said Friday he feels great, motivated and is excited to be in White Sox camp. And in the face of what could be a heated competition for a spot in the rotation, one in which he could very well end up on the outside, Johnson said his focus is solely on improvement.

Once thought to be a good bet to make the starting five, Johnson is now likely the underdog in a battle after the White Sox signed free agent Mat Latos earlier this month. Jacob Turner is also in the mix for the final spot in the rotation. Both Johnson and Latos have minor-league options left, but the former’s contract would play him $2 million-plus fewer than the latter.

“It’s really noise to me,” Johnson said. “You go through your routine, you do what you’ve got to do, and you control what you can control.

“At this point, I think it’s getting through those four days off the mound. But for me, the objective doesn’t change.”

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A similar approach last year resulted in a fantastic 2015 campaign.

Johnson rebounded from a dismal 2014 season and was named the International League pitcher of the year after he went 11-8 with a 2.37 ERA in 23 games (22 starts) at Triple-A Charlotte. After a promotion to the big leagues, Johnson continued his run with a 3-1 mark and a 3.34 ERA in six starts for the White Sox.

Had it not been for a 2014 season in which he had a 6.46 ERA in five starts with the White Sox and a 6.73 ERA at Charlotte, those numbers might not have been considered as much of a surprise. A former second-round pick, Johnson made a huge splash in 2013, one he rode all the way to the majors that September. He performed so well that Johnson was all but guaranteed a spot in the rotation headed into 2014.

And then his performance bottomed out.

“He should be proud of how far back he came, of how hard he had to work and how he really capitalized on the opportunity to get back to Chicago last year,” pitching coach Don Cooper said. “He was in a place that you don’t want anybody to be in. He kind of fumbled the ball really, fumbled his first opportunity. And he’s lucky enough for another opportunity to come around. Sometimes that doesn’t happen.

“He made good on his next opportunity, and he should be proud of that. He worked hard to get back to where we all knew he was when we drafted him. And now he’s about to try to make the next step in his process.”

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Though he briefly discussed his personal triumph, one that Cooper said has him back on the map, Johnson shifted the focus back toward this season.

“That’s who I am,” Johnson said of his rebound. “That’s my character. I don’t think I shy away from anything.

“Aggressiveness, that’s what I preach. I’m going after whatever goals I have set. I write them down. I look at them. I see them in my mind. That’s what I’m doing. That’s what I’m going after.”

Johnson has been just as aggressive in a quest for knowledge in the offseason. For a second straight year, the Cal product used an outside pitching coach. But Johnson described the information he gains from Cooper and bullpen coach Bobby Thigpen as “huge.” He looks at the offseason work as a complement to his work with the White Sox.

Armed with that additional knowledge and upbeat after last season, Johnson is determined to make himself a factor in the battle for the starting rotation. The distractions, the aspects he can’t control, he intends to pay them no mind.

“It’s my routine, it’s what I’ve got to do to get on the field and I take care of my daily non-negotiables,” Johnson said. “I’m ready to go. I want to be that guy. I want to be here. I want to pitch in the big leagues. I want to have success.”

Daily White Sox prospects update: Gavin Sheets hits his first homer of 2018


Daily White Sox prospects update: Gavin Sheets hits his first homer of 2018

Here's your daily update on what the White Sox highly touted prospects are doing in the minor leagues.

Class A Winston-Salem

Gavin Sheets hit his first home run of the season in a 12-4 loss. While it's taken him this long to hit his first ball out of the park, Sheets has a .380 on-base percentage and his 24 walks make for one of the top 10 totals in the Carolina League. Blake Rutherford doubled in this one, while Sheets, Rutherford, Alex Call and Luis Alexander Basabe combined to draw five walks.

Class A Kannapolis

Luis Gonzalez and Evan Skoug each had a hit in a 9-3 win.

Triple-A Charlotte

Charlie Tilson had two hits in a 9-3 loss.

James Shields is having a stellar May and making comeback wins possible for the White Sox


James Shields is having a stellar May and making comeback wins possible for the White Sox

If you haven’t checked in with what James Shields is doing in a while, your opinion of the veteran pitcher’s performance might need some updating.

Shields didn’t exactly win the confidence of White Sox fans during his first two seasons on the South Side. After arriving in a midseason trade with the San Diego Padres in 2016, he posted a 6.77 ERA in 22 starts, during which he allowed 31 home runs. He followed that up with a 5.23 ERA and 27 home runs allowed in 2017.

And the 2018 season didn’t start out great, either, with a 6.17 ERA over his first five outings.

But the month of May has brought a dramatic turn in the vet’s production. In five May starts, he’s got a 3.27 ERA in five starts, all of which have seen him go at least six innings (he’s got six straight outings of at least six innings, dating back to his last start in April).

And his two most recent starts have probably been his two best ones of the season. After allowing just one run on three hits in 7.1 innings last Thursday against the Texas Rangers, he gave up just two runs on five hits Tuesday night against the Baltimore Orioles.

The White Sox, by the way, won both of those games in comeback fashion. They scored four runs in the eighth against Texas and three in the eighth against Baltimore for a pair of “Ricky’s boys don’t quit” victories made possible by Shields’ great work on the mound.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said after Tuesday’s game. “It’s our job as starters to keep us in the game as long as we possibly can, no matter how we are hitting in a game. At the end of the game, you can always score one or two runs and possibly win a ballgame like we did tonight.”

The White Sox offense was indeed having trouble much of Tuesday’s game, kept off the scoreboard by Orioles starter Kevin Gausman. Particularly upsetting for White Sox Twitter was the sixth inning, when the South Siders put two runners in scoring position with nobody out and then struck out three straight times to end the inning.

But Shields went out and pitched a shut-down seventh, keeping the score at 2-0. Bruce Rondon did much the same thing in the eighth, and the offense finally sparked to life in the bottom of the inning when coincidentally presented with a similar situation to the one in the sixth. This time, though, the inning stayed alive and resulted in scoring, with Welington Castillo, Yoan Moncada and Yolmer Sanchez driving in the three runs.

“I’m out there doing my job,” Shields said. “My job is to try to keep us in the game. And we had some good starters against us that have been throwing well. If I can keep them close, we are going to get some wins and get some wins throughout the rest of the year like that. That’s the name of the game.”

Shields’ value in this rebuilding effort has been discussed often. His veteran presence is of great value in the clubhouse, particularly when it comes to mentoring young pitchers like Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, among others. Shields can act as an example of how to go about one’s business regardless of the outcomes of his starts. But when he can lead by example with strong outings, that’s even more valuable.

“I’m trying to eat as many innings as possible,” he said. “We kind of gave our bullpen — we taxed them a little bit the first month of the season. We are kind of getting back on track. Our goal as a starting staff is to go as deep as possible, and in order to do that, you’ve got to throw strikes and get ahead of hitters.

“Not too many playoff teams, a starting staff goes five and dive every single game. My whole career I’ve always wanted to go as deep as possible. I wanted to take the ball all the way to the end of the game. And we’ve done a pretty good job of it of late.”

It’s a long time between now and the trade deadline, and consistency has at times escaped even the brightest spots on this rebuilding White Sox roster. But Shields has strung together a nice bunch of starts here of late, and if that kind of performance can continue, the White Sox front office might find that it has a potential trade piece on its hands. That, too, is of value to this rebuild.

Until that possibility occurs, though, the team will take more solid outings that give these young players an opportunity to learn how to come back and learn how to win.