White Sox

James Shields makes 2017 debut, Nate Jones hurt in White Sox victory

James Shields makes 2017 debut, Nate Jones hurt in White Sox victory

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The White Sox want James Shields to erase last season from his memory and start anew in 2017.

The veteran starting pitcher took the first steps toward the regular season on Wednesday afternoon when he allowed a run and two hits in two innings in his spring debut.

Despite later losing Nate Jones to a bruised knee, the White Sox rallied for a 3-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Camelback Ranch. Jones, who leaves to join Team USA for the World Baseball Classic next week, is day to day after he took a comebacker off his right knee in the sixth inning.

“I guess one of the best attributes for a baseball player is to have amnesia,” Shields said. “But I’m not really worried about last season. I’m focused on right now and the work I put in this offseason, the work I’m putting in during spring training now. So far I feel really good, and hopefully we’ll move forward and progress as we go.”

Shields’ struggles in 2016 were well documented. He went 4-12 with a 6.77 ERA in 22 starts for the White Sox after he arrived in June 4 trade from the San Diego Padres. Included in that run was a 21.82 ERA over Shields’ first three starts. Shields allowed 40 home runs on the season between San Diego and Chicago.

The White Sox are hoping for better production from Shields, to whom they owe $22 million through 2018. The Padres are on the hook for the remaining $22 million on a deal Shields signed before the 2015 season.

“This is a fresh start,” manager Rick Renteria said. “I don’t think it’s changing any other thing than it’s a new year. He’s obviously a gentleman that’s been in the game quite a while. He’s had some really good success over his career and I think he just wants to go out there and be himself again, try to just command the zone as he has in the past, be able to sequence his pitches and execute.”

Shields hit 91 mph on the radar gun and sat between 88-90 in a perfect first inning. He struck out two batters and walked none.

Jones had recorded two outs in the seventh inning before he took a one-hopper off his right knee and immediately limped toward the dugout. The right-hander was attended to for several minutes in the dugout by athletic trainer Brian Ball before he headed to the clubhouse. Jones’ gait was visibly improved as he walked off the field.

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Closer David Robertson allowed a run in his lone inning for the White Sox. Cory Luebke struck out three in two scoreless innings. Downers Grove-product Zack Burdi struck out two and didn’t allow a run in his inning while Jake Petricka pitched a scoreless sixth.

Nick Delmonico homered and singled in two trips. Courtney Hawkins also drove in two runs and singled twice, including once to setup the game-winning rally. Leury Garcia singled in the winning run.

Michael Kopech hasn't had a good June, but that hasn't changed White Sox optimism regarding top pitching prospect

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AP

Michael Kopech hasn't had a good June, but that hasn't changed White Sox optimism regarding top pitching prospect

It wasn’t long ago that the question was: “Why isn’t Michael Kopech pitching in the major leagues?”

The question is now firmly: “What’s wrong with Michael Kopech?”

The new script is of course a reflection of how quickly opinions change during a baseball season, when “what have you done for me lately?” tends to drive the conversation more than looking at the entire body of work.

But the body of work doesn’t look too awesome for the White Sox top-ranked pitching prospect these days. He carries a 5.08 ERA through 14 starts with Triple-A Charlotte. But it’s the recent struggles that have folks second guessing whether he’s ready for the big leagues.

The month of June hasn’t gone well for Kopech, who has a 9.00 ERA in four starts this month. That features two especially ugly outings, when he allowed seven runs in two innings and five runs in three outings. But for a guy who’s got blow-em-away stuff, it’s the walks that are of the utmost concern to box-score readers: He’s got 21 of them in 16 innings over his last four starts. That’s compared to 20 strikeouts.

More walks than strikeouts is never a good thing, and it’s been a glaring bugaboo for White Sox pitchers at the major league level all season. Kopech wasn’t having that problem when this season started out. He struck out 68 batters and walked only 25 over his first 10 starts. But things have changed.

With director of player development Chris Getz on the horn Thursday to talk about all of the promotions throughout the minor league system, he was asked about Kopech and pointed to Wednesday’s outing, which lasted only five innings and featured four more walks. But Kopech only allowed two earned runs, and Getz called it a good outing.

“Last night I was really happy with what he was able to do, and that’s really in comparison looking at his last probably four outings or so,” Getz said. “He did have a little bit of a hiccup, getting a little erratic. He was getting a little quick in his delivery, his lower half wasn’t picking up with his upper half. The command of his pitches was not there.

“But last night, although the line is not the best line that we’ve seen of Michael this year, it was still a very good outing. He was in the zone, commanding the fastball. His body was under control. He threw some good breaking pitches, a couple of good changeups. He was back to being the competitor we are accustomed to. We are hoping to build off of this outing. I know he’s feeling good about where he’s at from last night and we’ll just kind of go from there.”

It’s important to note, of course, that the White Sox are often looking for things that can’t be read in a box score. So when we see a lot of walks or a lot of hits or a small amount of strikeouts, that doesn’t tell the whole story nor does it count as everything the decision makers in the organization are looking at.

Still, this is development and growth in action — and perhaps a sign that the White Sox have been right in not yet deeming Kopech ready for the majors. Kopech perhaps needs the time at Triple-A to work through these issues rather than be thrown into a big league fire.

As for how these struggles will affect his timeline, that remains to be seen. The White Sox aren’t ruling anything out, not promising that he’ll be on the South Side before the end of this season but certainly not ruling it out either.

“If he builds off of what he did last night, commanding his fastball, his breaking pitches continue to kind of define themselves, I think we’ve got a chance to see him,” Getz said. “He’s going to find his way to the big leagues. He’s going to be an impact frontline type starter. I’m very confident in that.

“Now just like a lot of great players, sometimes it’s a meandering path. And to say that he’s gone off track is not fair because it’s only been a couple of outings. I think he’s in a really good spot. If he builds off of this, I don’t think it’s unfair to think he’ll be up here at some point.”

Dylan Cease promoted to Double-A as he continues to impress White Sox: 'He's more or less forced our hand'

Dylan Cease promoted to Double-A as he continues to impress White Sox: 'He's more or less forced our hand'

Rick Hahn’s been saying it all year: The good ones have a way of forcing the issue.

Consider Dylan Cease one of the good ones.

The pitcher acquired alongside top-ranked prospect Eloy Jimenez in last summer’s crosstown trade with the Cubs was one of the more than a dozen players promoted within the White Sox farm system Thursday. He put up stellar numbers during the first half with Class A Winston-Salem and because of it is on his way to Double-A Birmingham.

While many rebuild-loving fans could’ve forecasted Jimenez’s rapid journey through the organization, Cease’s acceleration is one that even the White Sox are considering a “pleasant surprise.”

“There’s definitely been some pleasant surprises,” Chris Getz, the White Sox director of player development, said Thursday. “For one, I think Dylan Cease was a guy, heading into the season, his first full year with us, the focus was: every fifth day, a full season’s worth of innings. He’s more or less forced our hand.

“He's really come on, he’s pitching with four pitches, four plus pitches, he’s commanding the ball, very mature kid. And he’s certainly ready for the next challenge at Double-A.”

Cease turned in a 2.89 ERA in his 13 starts with Winston-Salem, striking out 82 batters in 71.2 innings. Considering he made just 25 starts above Rookie ball during his time in the Cubs’ organization, the dominance in his first taste of High A is quite the positive for the White Sox.

The team’s starting rotation of the future is a mighty crowded one, with roughly a dozen different guys competing for those spots: current big leaguers Carlos Rodon, Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito; Triple-A arms Michael Kopech, Carson Fulmer, Jordan Stephens and Spencer Adams; Double-A hurlers Cease, Alec Hansen and Dane Dunning; and Class A pitchers Lincoln Henzman and Blake Battenfield, both of whom earned their own promotions Thursday.

There’s a lot of time before the White Sox have to settle on which five will make up that future starting staff. But Cease could be doing the work of making a name for himself, something that hasn’t been easy to do. With all the love he’s getting, he’s still the organization’s fourth-ranked pitching prospect. Heck, thanks to Jimenez, he wasn’t the top-ranked guy in his own trade.

But Cease is getting attention now, and if he keeps pitching like this, he could keep forcing the White Sox hand.