Carlos Rodón hasn't felt like this in years. And that's a good thing.
"It feels normal," he said Sunday. "It feels like when I first got here, that's the way it feels. It feels like I'm kind of brand new."
Bedeviled by arm injuries in recent seasons, Rodón was hit with the big one last May, requiring Tommy John surgery that knocked him out for more than a year. Not how the No. 3 pick in the 2014 draft drew things up.
But if baseball's months-long layoff due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had any silver lining for Rodón and the White Sox, it's that the recovering pitcher, believed in March to be a potential mid-season addition to a pitching staff in need of some depth, can now be a full-season addition with the 2020 campaign squeezed down to a 60-game sprint to the postseason.
"I was fortunate enough to have this little layoff. No one wants this pandemic to happen, but it gave me time to catch up," Rodón said. "Obviously, having arm trouble as a pitcher is a pretty big issue. The best way to put it, I would say, is when there's a little hesitation between pitches, 'Is this going to hurt? Is this one going to hurt when I throw it?' That's not there anymore. Being able to just pick up a ball and say, 'Hey, I don't feel anything. I can just throw the ball like a kid again.'
"Durability's a big part for pitchers or any player in this game, and luckily, hopefully, I've found it again."
That will be the key for Rodón, not just being here but showing he can stay healthy and showing he can turn the flashes of brilliance he's shown in his big league career into consistent performance. Rodón's bouts with arm injuries turned him from a future ace into a huge question mark for a White Sox team on the rise.
The White Sox appear positioned for long-term success with team-friendly contracts and recent free-agent signings keeping a vast majority of the team's promising collection of talent under control for years to come. Rodón doesn't quite fall into that category. He's slated to hit the free-agent market following the 2021 season, meaning he's got a short time to show he deserves to edge out the other young hurlers on this White Sox team for a starring role in the rotation.
Rodón was the team's Opening Day starter just last season. But after Lucas Giolito's All-Star campaign in 2019, the addition of a Cy Young winner in Dallas Keuchel, the flamethrowing potential of Michael Kopech and the young promise of Dylan Cease, Reynaldo López and Dane Dunning — with even this year's first-round draft pick Garrett Crochet needing to be accounted for — how does Rodón fit?
He's hoping to show the White Sox exactly how this year.
"I feel like there's some stuff I need to prove," Rodon said. "The last few years have not gone the way I wanted them to, obviously. It's kind of unfortunate, injuries and underperforming. This 60-game season, I feel like it will do a lot for guys. Not just me, but other guys around the league — or on this team — wherever, can prove themselves in those 60 games, and I think it will do a lot."
Of course, these unusual circumstances mean the pieces could fit together in a much different way in 2020. Rick Renteria hasn't given anything away when it comes to how he'll handle his pitching staff, and it's likely he needs some more time during "Summer Camp" to figure out what roles every pitcher is capable of playing. But the skipper left all the options on the table last week, when he mentioned the possibilities of using openers, expanding the rotation or "piggybacking" multiple starters in the same game. It wouldn't be outlandish to guess that some starters could find their way into bullpen roles of any number of descriptions.
Rodón gets that. In fact, the numbers make it pretty obvious. Unless Renteria is planning an eight-man rotation, he's going to have to find different ways to use the likes of Rodón, Kopech, Dunning, Jimmy Lambert and Gio González — not to mention all his relievers.
"This season's pretty unique, obviously, with a 60-game schedule," Rodón said. "I think a lot of us are going to have to encompass different roles. Plus, we have a surplus of arms that we'll get to use, and I think there's some creative ways we could go about using them. I think all of us are pretty willing to step into any role we can to help this team win. We have a chance just as much as anyone."
That expanded pitching depth is a big reason why the White Sox look capable of competing right alongside the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians for AL Central supremacy. At the very least, it makes the July version of the White Sox look better than the March version.
While Rodón's fellow starting pitcher Keuchel opted to shine the spotlight on the team's revamped lineup Saturday, Rodón likes what he sees from the arms. And that even includes the newest of newcomers, a guy who's not even in camp right now but is looking to make a quick leap to the major leagues.
"Well on paper, of course, let's start there, we look pretty good," Rodón said. "We have a surplus of arms, a lot of young arms that are hard-throwers. New draftee lefty (Crochet) that can throw the crap out of it, obviously, as we know. I think a lot of people are excited to watch him. Hopefully we get to watch him this year a little bit, see how he throws.
"We've got a lot of young arms, man. A lot of young arms that we need to develop, and I think, hopefully, they get a shot to pitch this year."
But even with so much swirling around him — his returned health, proving he's the pitcher he knows he can be, helping the White Sox reach the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade — Rodón's emotions have been pretty simple these last few days. The guy who hasn't pitched in a big league game in 14 months was back on a big league mound Sunday, throwing live batting practice at Guaranteed Rate Field.
"First day coming back, it's a good feeling. It feels like home, right?" Rodón said. "You see the stadium off 90/94 and pulling in, turning on 35th. I was just happy to walk on a field that's an actual stadium instead of being in Arizona on the backfields. It's like we're actually playing Major League Baseball.
"It's a good feeling to step back on the mound today here because it feels like home."
The White Sox are going by the book.
And while that book is unproven in its effectiveness to this point, the White Sox — and the other 29 teams around Major League Baseball — are trusting that it will keep players safe and allow the 2020 season to happen in the middle of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The White Sox announced Sunday that two players tested positive for COVID-19 during the team's intake period prior to the beginning of "Summer Camp" workouts on the South Side. They're handling the situation according to the league's extensive health and safety protocol, which dictates that the players be isolated and monitored and that they must test negative twice before they can return to work. Also according to the protocol, as well as existing laws, the players will not be named, as they requested privacy.
It's not that no one saw this coming, with manager Rick Renteria saying just a day earlier that he'd be "foolish" to suggest infections wouldn't happen. But certainly the White Sox hoped they wouldn't be on the list of teams with players who tested positive.
Their plan of attack from here on out? Stick to the letter of the law.
"The testing is done. It obviously works," Renteria said Sunday. "They were identified. And the appropriate measures are being taken to continue to monitor and make sure they are, first of all, feeling healthy and clear of any effects of it, and then they will continue to be tested till they are negative and able to come back to us. Again, it was more in the pre-entry (testing), so everything that was supposed to be done before guys got here was done. And so it works. The testing is working."
As news of positive tests comes in from around the league — like the four Atlanta Braves whose positive tests were revealed Saturday, a group that included All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman — certain players continue to evaluate whether they want to play this season or whether they'd rather avoid the health risks and opt out. Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher David Price became the biggest name yet to opt out when he did so Saturday. The names could get bigger, though, with Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, the game's best player, and San Francisco Giants star catcher Buster Posey still weighing their options.
Other players are wondering if it's a good idea or even possible to play the season at all.
Andrew Miller: "I think there's still some doubt that we're going to have a season now. By no means is this a slam dunk. We're trying, we're going to give it our best effort, but for me to sit here and say 100 percent would be a lie."— Anne Rogers (@anne__rogers) July 5, 2020
Meanwhile, Washington Nationals relief pitcher Sean Doolittle, asked if he thought there would be fans in the stands this season, took a big-picture approach to describing how baseball and other sports fit into the United States' response to the pandemic, telling reporters:
"We're trying to bring baseball back during a pandemic that's killed 130,000 people. We're way worse off as a country than we were in March when we shut (the sport) down. And look at where other developed countries are in their response to this. We haven't done any of the things that other countries have done to bring sports back.
"Sports are like the reward of a functioning society, and we're just trying to bring it back, even though we've taken none of the steps. ... We can't just have virus fatigue and keep thinking, 'Well, it's been four months, we're over it, this has been enough time, right? We've waited long enough, shouldn't sports come back now?' No, there are things we have to do in order to bring this stuff back."
Players around the league are obviously and understandably anxious over the idea of playing during a pandemic, with the virus now known to be affecting their fellow players and, in some cases, their teammates.
According to Renteria, though, no White Sox players have spoken with him about potentially opting out. The skipper reported Sunday that he believes his players are feeling comfortable back on the field, even while the numbers around the country are as worrisome as they've been.
"I haven’t had (a conversation about opting out) and neither has anyone approached me about any of that in regards to the coronavirus," Renteria said. "Everyone has to make their own assessment and take the decisions they make seriously and everybody has to respect them. This thing that’s going around, as much as it's maybe been downplayed a lot, it affects a lot of people. ... We’re doing everything we can to minimize it, and I haven’t had any conversations with anybody in regards to opting out because of it.
"You subtlety continue to remind (the players) of the measures we need to take in order to minimize potential infection. But they look very comfortable. The level of comfort probably comes because they believe they are doing what they're supposed to do to minimize it. ... I think they're feeling a little more comfortable with it, knowing that we're still trying to be very mindful and they're actually following those measures of protocol that allow us to hopefully mitigate any chances of it getting us.
"There's no guarantee, man. But we're doing everything we can to minimize it."
While Doolittle brought up additional concerns to reporters, saying his team hasn't received personal protective equipment and that some players are working out while waiting on the results of their tests, it seems that Major League Baseball is taking seriously the health and safety element of trying to get this season off the ground. The measures are numerous and in many cases quite strict. Ballparks have been significantly reconfigured to allow for safe, socially distant workouts. Coaches wear masks on the field during workouts. Pitchers bring their own balls to their bullpen sessions. And there are hand-sanitization stations everywhere.
But in the end, the biggest mystery is what happens when players are away from major league ballparks. The responsibility lies with them to be smart about their movement at home and on the road. It's up to them to avoid situations where they could expose themselves — and by extension, their teammates and coaches — to the virus. The White Sox are confident their players will act responsibly, with certain ones even stating that their plan is to go home from the ballpark and play video games while waiting for the next day's work.
Renteria has on multiple occasions used his platform to encourage the public to engage in similarly responsible behavior, and he did that again Sunday.
"Honestly, you guys see me with a mask on now. I think that even throughout the whole time that we've been down, I know I've encouraged my family and friends to be mindful. And because I am doing so, I think I'm doing everything I can to minimize the chances of it occurring to us. It doesn't guarantee it, but I do not take it lightly," Renteria said. "There are things that lead you to understand that this is real, so I take it seriously. This is not for any of us, whether you're a child or an adult, this is not something to be taken lightly.
"I hope that we continue to do what we can for each other. I do look at it as a responsibility to take care of my fellow man by doing my part. ... Just do what's right by each other. We're here to serve each other, and that's all I've got to say on that."