Carlos Rodon

As Noah Syndergaard heads for Tommy John, White Sox are thankful those days are behind them

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USA TODAY

As Noah Syndergaard heads for Tommy John, White Sox are thankful those days are behind them

The only thing that seems to be happening in baseball right now? Some of the best pitchers in the world are headed for Tommy John surgery.

Last week, former White Sox ace and current Boston Red Sox lefty Chris Sale joined the lengthy list of hurlers who need the procedure, and this time, it’s New York Mets star Noah Syndergaard.


With the 2020 season a complete and total unknown, there's a silver lining for pitchers slated to miss the next year of baseball due to Tommy John: No one is playing baseball for the time being. So while a year of their prime is still lost, at least they won’t miss as many games as they normally would have. Their absences will be less impactful on their teams’ chances at winning a championship.

But as we glance over at the White Sox rotation, you’ll notice that most of these pitchers have already had the surgery.

Michael Kopech is ready to return from his lengthy Tommy John absence. Carlos Rodon along with pitching prospects Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert will be good to go at some point this season, too. Lucas Giolito already had Tommy John surgery. And so has Dylan Cease.

While it’s not unheard of for pitchers to undergo a second Tommy John surgery or to be waylaid by another serious injury (just ask Rodon, who had shoulder surgery at the end of the 2017 season), the White Sox can certainly add this to the list of reasons the future looks so bright. Their young fireballers have been through these long recoveries already.

Take the Mets, who had plans to compete for a championship in 2020. And why wouldn’t they? They have some impressive young hitters, like reigning NL Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso, and a menacing 1-2-3 in the rotation with Jacob de Grom, Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman. But now, Syndergaard won’t pitch at all in 2020, and that pokes a pretty huge hole in the team’s ability to compete.

To make matters worse for New York, Syndergaard is only under team control for another two seasons. And if his recovery extends into 2021 (as Passan hinted it could), that turns a two-year window for the Mets to capitalize on Syndergaard into as little as a few months.

In the case of the White Sox, they’re looking at a four-year window in which they’ll control Giolito, Kopech and Cease. Kopech is under team control for five years, Cease for six, and the clocks haven’t even started on Dunning and Lambert yet. And every single one of those pitchers has a Tommy John surgery in the rear-view.

Obviously, the hope would be that no player ever needs Tommy John surgery. But for the White Sox, the silver lining here is that they have a long period of time in which they control young, hard-throwing pitchers who are already over the Tommy John hump. Which means it’s way less likely that the injury will derail a potential World Series-caliber season.

Anything can happen, but the White Sox should be extremely relieved that they'll likely be able to keep their contention window open for as long as it’s contractually scheduled to be.

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White Sox say Carlos Rodon is a long-term starter, but his 2020 role is far less certain

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USA TODAY

White Sox say Carlos Rodon is a long-term starter, but his 2020 role is far less certain

Carlos Rodon does not want to move to the bullpen.

“In my heart, I think I’m a starter,” Rodon told MLB.com’s Scott Merkin earlier this month. “I’m not a bullpen arm.”

In the long term, his team very much agrees with him. The White Sox view Rodon as a member of their rotation in 2021, the next season in which he’s scheduled to pitch a full complement of games, after his recovery from Tommy John surgery is complete sometime in the middle of this season.

“We view Carlos, long term, as a starter,” Rick Hahn said last week. “Certainly a year from right now, I expect to be talking about him as one of the five guys in the rotation.”

But what does that mean for Rodon in 2020?

“Over the course of this season, let him finish up his rehab, let us see where we’re at as a starting rotation, let us see where he is from a stamina and endurance standpoint and how we project him the rest of the year, and then we’ll figure out how to best bring him back to the big leagues,” Hahn said. “Long term, Carlos Rodon’s a starter. Let’s get him through his rehab, and then we’ll talk about his role for the balance of the 2020 season.

“I also know Carlos has said repeatedly, whatever we want him to do to help the team win, he’s there for. So long term, starter. Short term, we’ll figure out once he’s healthy where he’s at.”

Rodon won’t be back from his recovery until summer, so don’t worry about trying to wedge him into the rotation for the first few months of the campaign. The Opening Day starting five seems well set, even while Lucas Giolito and Gio Gonzalez work their way back from nagging springtime issues: Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Reynaldo Lopez, Dylan Cease and Gonzalez.

Michael Kopech will be waiting in the wings, the White Sox opting to slow-play his return to a big league mound after his own Tommy John recovery. He hasn’t pitched in any game above instructional league since September 2018, and logic points to him starting this season at Triple-A Charlotte until he’s ready to return to the bigs in a way that allows him to pitch meaningful games in September.

That’s when the White Sox hope to be in the middle — or, in a perfect situation, far out in front of — a playoff race. And Rodon could certainly factor into the chase for the first bout of October baseball on the South Side in more than a decade.

“I don’t know what’s in store,” Rodon told Our Chuck Garfien on the White Sox Talk Podcast. “I’m just trying to be ready by whenever they need me ready. There’s a lot of things that go into making a move. Make a move for me, you’ve still got to take somebody off the 40-man, send someone down. There’s a whole lot of correlating moves to that. What the timing is for that, I don’t know. Maybe the guys are doing well and I’m not needed yet.

“Whatever it may be. I don’t know what it is. But when it’s my time, I’ll be ready to go, I know that.”

Rodon can throw pretty darn hard, something that intrigues those wanting to stick him in the ‘pen and call on him to get a few batters out rather than soldier through six or seven innings. But White Sox fans are plenty familiar with what he can be when he’s healthy and at his best, the kind of starter who can mow down opposing lineups.

Either role would be a valuable midseason addition for a team in the playoff hunt. You’d have to figure that this is a bridge the White Sox will cross when they come to it, meaning that Rodon will likely be deployed in whatever area he’s needed.

A wrinkle in all this is that Rodon is not under the same kind of long-term team control as many of his teammates. He’s slated to hit free agency after the 2021 season, giving him a shorter amount of time to show he deserves to be part of the White Sox long-term planning.

Though with the team that drafted him on the verge of making the transition from rebuilding mode to contending mode, Rodon said he wants to be a part of the glory days after living through the darkest days of the rebuild.

“I definitely don’t want to go anywhere,” he said. “I’ve gone through the losses. It’d be so rewarding to chip away slowly, maybe make a playoff game, make a wild card game, who knows. I don’t know what’s in store for our future. But start there. It would be super rewarding for me.”

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Will fortunes of White Sox first-rounders change in 2020?

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Will fortunes of White Sox first-rounders change in 2020?

The book now closed on the 2010s, the list of the White Sox first-round draft picks from that decade is a mixed bag.

That’s not to say it’s bad, of course. No list of first-round picks that includes one of the best pitchers in baseball and a batting champion could ever be considered bad. Rick Hahn has been fond of pointing out how much WAR (Wins Above Replacement) White Sox draftees produced during the 2010s to back up the idea that, in fact, it’s quite a good list.

That argument isn’t necessarily representative of the White Sox draftees on the whole, with much of that WAR coming from Chris Sale (45.3 of it, per the Baseball Reference metric) and Tim Anderson (10.2). But failing to hit on every top pick is a baseball-wide problem, not one unique to the South Side. Hence the mixed bag.

Critics will point to the misses that were Keenyn Walker, Keon Barnum and Courtney Hawkins. But even in more recent, more difficult-to-assess drafts, there’s inarguably been a lot of bad luck.

No one is more representative of that than Jake Burger, the 2017 first-rounder who twice tore his Achilles tendon prior to his first full season as a pro, then suffered some setbacks during his recovery. He still hasn’t returned to game action.

“We’re optimistic that an offseason of rest and recovery will finally get these issues behind him,” Hahn said last month. “Those of you who've been fortunate enough to spend some time around Jake, you probably feel a little bit extra for the kid because it's not only the unfortunate health path that he's been on for any professional athlete, but certainly one that you hate to see in a great kid who just wants to be back out there playing.”

Burger is not alone. Being a White Sox first-round draft pick of recent vintage has, at times, been like being a drummer for Spinal Tap.

Zack Burdi, a first-round pick in 2016, has been saddled with injuries in recent years. 2014 first-rounder Carlos Rodon, despite plenty of time in the majors, has had multiple surgeries in recent seasons, including the Tommy John surgery he’s currently recovering from. Carson Fulmer, the 2015 first-round pick, has been healthy but ineffective, routinely thumped by opposing hitters every time he returns to the big league mound.

The jury remains out on Zack Collins, Burdi’s fellow 2016 first-rounder, who had two brief stints in the majors last season after hitting tremendously well at Triple-A Charlotte. But he’s been bumped behind a pair of All Stars on the 2020 catching depth chart, and it’s a question as to whether he’ll make the team out of spring training.

All that said, 2020 could be shaping up as the year in which that string of bad luck for White Sox first-round draft picks comes to an end.

The most obvious reason would be the approaching arrival of Nick Madrigal, the No. 4 pick in the 2018 draft who tore up the minor leagues while playing at three levels in 2019. As advertised when he was drafted, Madrigal does not strike out, doing so just 16 times in 532 trips to the plate last year, and plays excellent defense at second base.

It sounds like Madrigal has an uphill battle to make the Opening Day roster, with Hahn saying last month that Madrigal “hasn't necessarily answered all the questions we have for him in the minor leagues.” But he is expected to be the White Sox second baseman for the majority of the 2020 campaign, and the team has high hopes that he’ll join Anderson as a productive first-round position player on the infield.

Not far behind Madrigal is Andrew Vaughn, who the White Sox chose with the No. 3 pick in last summer’s draft. He’s not expected to reach the major leagues this season, but he’s getting a ton of love from talent evaluators across the game. MLB Pipeline just ranked him the No. 16 prospect in baseball.

"He's a very talented kid, and he's talented for a lot of different reasons," White Sox director of player development Chris Getz said during SoxFest. "When you look at the physical ability, especially in the frame that he has, and what he's able to do to a baseball, it's pretty fun to watch.

"But when you sit down and talk to Andrew Vaughn about hitting, that is the most impressive thing. I sat down, and I just wanted to listen and learn from him. It's like talking to a 10-year vet. I say that because he knows exactly what he needs to do to have success. He has a very advanced approach, and I don't think he'll ever waver from it. He knows exactly what he needs to do on a daily basis to have success against a particular pitcher.

"So Andrew Vaughn's a good one. We're happy to have him."

But even if Vaughn doesn’t make it to the South Side in 2020, this season could see a wave of impact performances from recent first-rounders.

Collins might not be in line for much action behind the plate with Yasmani Grandal and James McCann ahead of him on the depth chart, but he still swings a powerful left-handed bat, which Rick Renteria could find valuable off the bench.

Rodon might miss a good deal of time while still in recovery mode, but he’ll return to the mound at some point and could provide a midseason jolt for a starting rotation that while improved would greatly benefit from some added depth.

Burdi struggled in 2019, with a 6.75 ERA pitching mostly at Double-A Birmingham. But should he return to the performance he was delivering prior to his own Tommy John surgery, he could factor into the big league bullpen mix.

Fulmer, too, has the opportunity to pitch out of the major league bullpen. If he can rediscover what made him a top pick in the first place, he would be a prime candidate to fill the role of long man in a White Sox relief corps that doesn’t have one right now.

Again, Madrigal has the best chance to end this string of bad luck — one that might not be as bad as it seems considering Anderson, the team’s first-round pick in 2013, is fresh off a major league batting title — but these guys could all make impacts of some kind during a 2020 campaign with high hopes and realistic playoff expectations. And if they do, that will change the story surrounding the success of the White Sox first rounds in recent years.

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