Ervin Santana

Was Ervin Santana's exit a potential glimpse into the White Sox future?

Was Ervin Santana's exit a potential glimpse into the White Sox future?

Whenever referencing Ervin Santana and the White Sox future, it was generally to say that he wasn't a part of it.

That was always going to be true of the 36-year-old pitcher, even before the White Sox brought a mighty quick end to his mighty brief tenure on the South Side, designating Santana for assignment Friday prior to the start of a 10-game homestand. But with his exit, the White Sox used Santana to show what the future — and perhaps a more immediate kind of future than you might think — might look like.

Without any big-picture analysis needed, it's easy to explain the move the White Sox made Friday: Santana wasn't performing at all, and they think Manny Banuelos gives them a better chance to win than Santana did.

But Santana's status as a veteran player who didn't factor into any long-term discussions perhaps made that decision easier to make. And that Banuelos, who general manager Rick Hahn said could be the kind of player who does fit into those long-term plans, was the replacement perhaps made it even easier.

It was the young and promising pushing out the old and ineffective, in a way. And in that regard, maybe that's going to happen a bit more often as the transition from rebuilding to contending gets closer.

"Ultimately, we are trying to win as many games as possible. There is no way that you can put forth the effort that the guys in that clubhouse are putting forth and not want to win every day. At the same time we remain focused on the long term and we want to give these guys the opportunity to sort of grow into these roles," Hahn said Friday.

"When you have the confluence of a veteran on a short-term deal such as Santana not performing and you have a younger guy such as Banuelos, who may well fit in for the long term and necessitating more of an opportunity, that leads to a move. Could that replicate itself again over the course of the summer? Sure, but as we sit here today we are not looking to do that. We are looking to give the young guys who deserve that the opportunities and the older types will continue to contribute and get us more 'W's.'"

Considering they're in Year 3 of this rebuilding effort, the White Sox aren't exactly rife with old guys. You can look around the diamond at the major league level and see plenty of guys who are very much a part of these long-term plans: Yoan Moncada at third base, Tim Anderson at shortstop, Eloy Jimenez in left field and Carlos Rodon, Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito in the starting rotation. Those players are going to be given every chance to continue their respective developments at the major league level, and some of those guys have flourished in the early going.

But those veterans do exist, with varying degrees of veteran-ness. The early season performances of Ivan Nova, Yonder Alonso, Yolmer Sanchez and Welington Castillo haven't exactly been unmitigated successes. None seem to be in any immediate danger of going anywhere, but as the summer moves along, there figures to be a great deal of development from the likes of Dylan Cease, Zack Collins, Luis Robert and others who could make a case they deserve their big league chances — even if there are older players blocking their way.

It's all hypothetical, of course. The White Sox have been adamant about taking their time with their highest rated prospects during the rebuild. And there's no guarantee that the slow starts for some of the veteran players won't yield to productive summers. Plus, as Hahn explained, a low batting average or a high ERA doesn't mean players aren't contributing to the team in other facets. But if the "confluence" of struggling veteran and surging youngster does happen again in the coming months, perhaps we'll see a repeat of what happened Friday with Santana and Banuelos.

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White Sox move on from Ervin Santana, but that doesn't bring an end to their starting-pitching woes

White Sox move on from Ervin Santana, but that doesn't bring an end to their starting-pitching woes

Ervin Santana wasn't getting the job done, and that's why he got designated for assignment Friday.

It wasn't that difficult to figure out for anyone who even glanced at the stat lines in his three starts as a member of the White Sox rotation. He gave up 14 runs and six home runs in 13.1 innings — that made for a 9.45 ERA — and lasted 3.2, five and 4.2 innings in his three outings, respectively.

The White Sox didn't put a whole lot of risk into their acquisition of Santana in February, bringing him aboard on a minor league deal. And though in the thick of a rebuild poor results don't matter as much as some things, Santana's inability to eat up innings wasn't helping anyone, specifically those pitchers in the bullpen who could be parts of the team's long-term plan.

As general manager Rick Hahn explained ahead of Friday's game against the visiting Detroit Tigers, the White Sox didn't see any signs that things were going to get better for Santana.

"He was a guy who had a very fine 2017. He had some injury issues last year, and our hope was that, for the most part, that was going to be behind him. Unfortunately, he still isn't quite performing at the level that we had hoped, back at the 2017 level," Hahn said. "He's a pro, he's a guy who we thought was going to be a positive in the clubhouse, which he was. Unfortunately, we didn't quite get that veteran innings-eater type out of him in that rotation spot."

It was simple as that, though certainly ridding themselves of Santana doesn't instantly cure the White Sox starting-pitching woes, and the reasons Santana didn't live up to what the team hoped he could do have been all too present throughout the rotation so far in the first month of the 2019 season. Ivan Nova has an 8.42 ERA and has had three rough starts to go along with a couple good ones. Reynaldo Lopez has a 7.46 ERA through his first five starts, the two most recent of which have been much better. Lucas Giolito has had some very bright spots already, but he owns a 5.30 ERA and is currently on the injured list. Carlos Rodon is pacing the staff with a 2.89 ERA and has had just one blip during an otherwise excellent beginning to his season.

Plenty goes into all those various numbers and performances, but a particularly glaring and repetitive problem has been the starting staff's inability to go deep into games. That's been part of the reason an overused bullpen has seen its own numbers balloon at points, and it's generally caused headaches for Rick Renteria. If you're looking for a way for the White Sox to right the starting-pitching ship, that'd be a good place to start.

"Certainly we want guys who are capable of giving you seven, eight, nine innings on the right day, but we are also realistic about the way the game's trending right now," Hahn said, talking of the increased emphasis on bullpens versus big workloads for starting pitchers. "When we're here right now as a team that's in a transition in terms of getting to that championship level, we're probably in a little different position than we're going to be in a couple of years. By that I mean there are certain guys who are still learning at the big league level and it's unrealistic to expect them to go seven, eight, nine innings, certainly, every time out. We're going to have to at times protect them and at times push them a little bit to give them that opportunity to show what they can do in those more challenging situations."

Fans hoping for an influx of new faces into this rotation might be left wanting. The White Sox will move Manny Banuelos from the bullpen to the rotation for the foreseeable future. He's pitched well this season and is coming off Monday's spot start for Giolito in Baltimore, the only game of that series the White Sox won. Hahn said the hope was for Giolito to return at some point during this homestand, restoring the White Sox full complement of starting pitchers. But should any other needs arise for a sixth or seventh or eighth arm in that rotation, whether it's due to another injury or simply poor performance, the depth remains where it was before the decision was made to let Santana go.

Banuelos' move to the rotation takes away all the potential starters on the major league roster, leaving Triple-A Charlotte as the lone area to draw from in a potential time of need. Dylan Cease is one of the organization's highest-rated prospects, though he seems to be on the same track he entered the season on, the one comparable to the one Michael Kopech was on last year, and that makes a big league debut in July or August more likely than one in May or June. And so there's Dylan Covey and not much else, Covey the only non-Cease name at Charlotte with decent numbers as a starting pitcher so far this season.

Again, that's probably not what fans want to hear, but it's the reality.

"I think all 30 clubs would tell you, let's get a little more starting-pitching depth around, just for safety's sake and the unexpected," Hahn said. "Covey's growing into that role down there. Some of the other young guys still need some time to take that next step forward. And some of our guys at Double-A are probably going to force themselves into that conversation at some point. You're never going to get me to say I feel comfortable with starting-pitching depth, and today's no exception.

"Nothing has changed in terms of our expectation that at some point over the course of this season Dylan Cease will get his opportunity at the big league level. He's had (four) starts. ... He's still developing. But he's got the arsenal that's going to force his way here, probably, at some point over the course of the summer.

"We try to plot out, before the passion of the season takes over, so to speak, a rational plan for each guy's development and not vary from that until the guy forces it. ... We all went through this last year in terms of Kopech. There was a lot of talk early in the year of, 'When's Michael coming? He had a good one last night.' But there were a few things we were waiting on. Putting the injury aside, we feel we waited till he absolutely peaked and accomplished everything he could at Triple-A and then brought him here for that next step."

Hahn had rave reviews for Banuelos before the season started, and the White Sox commitment to giving him an opportunity was illustrated in their willingness to trade for him as it is now in their jettisoning a more proven veteran after a couple weeks. Hahn referred to Banuelos on Friday as someone who "may well fit in for the long term," and there's no way to find out if that could be the case other than to trot him out there. If Banuelos does prove himself worthy of long-term consideration, then it will be easy to forget the short-lived Ervin Santana Era.

But Santana's departure has done nothing to remedy the brief outings from starting pitchers nor the lack of starting-pitching depth at the upper levels of the organization. There's no doubt he wasn't giving the White Sox what he needed to, and so it's near impossible to see Friday's move as anything but the right one. But whether they'll be able to get what they want out of the rest of the rotation remains to be seen.

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Struggles continue for White Sox starters, but there's not much in the way of alternatives

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USA TODAY

Struggles continue for White Sox starters, but there's not much in the way of alternatives

The White Sox will give Carlos Rodon, Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito every opportunity to iron out their inconsistencies this season. But the numbers have not been good for the two veteran members of the starting rotation, and considering Ivan Nova and Ervin Santana aren't part of the team's long-term plans, how long a leash the newest additions to the starting staff will have remains to be seen.

The sample sizes are small, and questioning how long these two remain members of the rotation does not come without acknowledging that neither seems to be in danger of getting cast out anytime soon. But the numbers have been downright ugly. Nova was lit up by the Baltimore Orioles in Tuesday night's 9-1 loss, inverting the damage the White Sox did against baseball's worst pitching staff a night earlier by allowing nine runs and four homers against a team that's terrorized him throughout his career. He was yanked after four incredibly ineffective innings, the third outing of his five-start season in which he's allowed six or more runs. Santana has made only two starts to this point, and one of them was fine. But his ERA is still an unpleasant 10.38, and he's given up five home runs in his 8.2 innings of work.

All told, the youngsters included with the veterans, White Sox starters own a 6.12 ERA after Tuesday night, one of the highest marks in the game.

Those numbers are not acceptable, no matter how in the thick of rebuilding the White Sox remain. Sure, the win-loss record might not be the most important thing in 2019, and Nova and Santana were not the kinds of upgrades to the starting rotation that were set to fuel a dominant staff. But they were brought in, in part, to be innings-eaters that could save a developing bullpen. Regardless of what you, the White Sox fan, thought about James Shields last season, he did eat innings, ending up as one of a baker's dozen major league pitchers to hit the 200-inning mark. If Nova and Santana aren't going to pitch deep into games — Nova's averaging only a little more than five innings per start, and Santana's averaged fewer than five innings in his two outings — their value on this roster comes into question.

Fans would surely be quick to push the button that jettisons Nova and Santana from this rotation, certainly, given the results to this point, but if the front office decides now or months from now to go down such a path, the question becomes: Who is there to fill that spot on the starting staff?

The in-organization depth is not ideal, even if Dylan Cease is one of the highest-rated pitching prospects in baseball. As well as he's started his season at Triple-A Charlotte — a 1.84 ERA and 14 strikeouts in his first 14.2 innings of the 2019 campaign — the White Sox insist that he needs to build up a significant amount of innings there before he makes what is sure to be an excitement-generating major league debut. If Nova and Santana can linger until July or August, then maybe by then Cease will be the no-brainer option as a replacement. Though if they're still taking their every-fifth-day turns at that point, then perhaps they're no longer a problem significant enough to require a replacement. Quite the Catch 22, you see.

Rick Hahn said multiple times during the offseason that Cease is on a similar track to the one Michael Kopech was on last year. Kopech debuted in late August of 2018, so the expectation could be a similar debut date for Cease. Could Cease be up quicker? It's unlikely in the event that the most compelling reason is that the big league rotation needs a boost. Hahn said throughout last season that what's going on at the big league level will have nothing to do with when the organization's top prospects make their jump to the majors. It would figure that Cease is no exception to that rule. Maybe he could beat Kopech's timeline a bit, should he continue to dominate and not go through the midseason struggles Kopech did at Charlotte last season. But it might not be so significant that it could qualify as "soon."

And so the eye turns to the rest of the Charlotte rotation, which is not well stocked with names that anyone would prefer to the veteran track records of Nova and Santana. There are some big numbers down there, too: Jordan Guerrero has a 6.87 ERA, Spencer Adams has a 8.31 ERA, Jordan Stephens has an 8.80 ERA, Donn Roach has a 9.50 ERA.

Of the non-Cease names starting at Charlotte, Dylan Covey would probably be the most logical choice to fill a vacated rotation spot at the big league level. He made the team's Opening Day roster as a bullpen arm before quickly being dispatched back to Charlotte to work on being a starter. White Sox fans have seen the Dylan Covey Show before, of course, and the reviews weren't great. As a major league starter, he has a career 6.26 ERA. He didn't last five innings in a Tuesday-night start in Charlotte but owns a 2.19 ERA after giving up a couple runs in that game.

There's Manny Banuelos, who has been pretty good for the White Sox out of the bullpen this season. He made a spot start in place of the injured Lucas Giolito in Monday night's drubbing of the Orioles, throwing four scoreless innings. He's got a 2.51 ERA on the year and could move from the 'pen to the rotation if need be, but then there'd be a need for a new long man in the relief corps. Carson Fulmer is unlikely to be moved back into a starting role after a shift to the bullpen last season in the minor leagues. He's had mixed results out of the big league bullpen this season, with a 4.76 ERA.

If you're a member of the "get rid of Nova and Santana" camp, it's unlikely you've made it this far without screaming Dallas Keuchel's name at your screen. Keuchel won the AL Cy Young Award in 2015 and was a featured player in the Houston Astros' resurgence from bottom-of-the-standings laughing stock to World Series champions just two years ago. He's also one of the two most noteworthy victims of this winter's glacially paced free-agent market, still jobless as baseball nears the end of the season's opening month.

Keuchel would be an obvious upgrade to this or any starting rotation across the game, and his unsigned status makes him an option in the strictest sense of the definition. But it would seem mighty unlikely that he would be added to the staff of a team not expected to reach the ranks of the contenders until next season at the earliest. I've heard the argument that the White Sox should offer up a two-year deal and bring Keuchel aboard for the remainder of this season and for the next, when Cease and Kopech start the season in what figures to be a much improved rotation. But if someone wanted Keuchel on a two-year deal, they surely could have had him by now, as reports have talked about a lowered asking price and his willingness to join a team for just what's left of the 2019 campaign.

In other words, if you're waiting for Keuchel to come to the South Side, it sounds like you might be waiting for a while.

Gio Gonzalez? He was a name that was bandied about as an offseason option and is once again a free agent after the New York Yankees recently passed on putting him on their 40-man roster. The White Sox have a history with Gonzalez, yes, but if even the banged-up Yankees don't see a place for him, there might be plenty of other teams that feel similarly.

This is all a fancy way of saying that there aren't many attractive options, and so it's far more likely that the White Sox will stick with Nova and Santana for now and hope they can iron out their struggles. Nova, in particular, doesn't figure to be going anywhere, as the team gave up a prospect to get him this winter and owe him a $9,166,667 salary, the second highest on the team.

These starts have not been fun to watch for White Sox fans — and the vets aren't the only ones who have had them, with Rodon, Lopez and Giolito going through their own early season ups and downs, too — but these are the guys the White Sox are set to keep sending out there, hoping for a turnaround. Because the other options just aren't good ones.

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