There might not be two people who hold more power to tip the White Sox fortunes in 2020 in one direction or the other than Dylan Cease and Reynaldo Lopez.
Bounce-back campaigns for the both of them, and the White Sox would have a starting rotation to be reckoned with, the biggest question mark on the roster, perhaps, turning into a strength not just in 2020 but beyond.
Continued growing pains, and the White Sox rotation could be a roll of the dice twice out of every five days, dealing a significant blow to hopes of competing with the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians for the AL Central crown.
Indeed the future of the White Sox rotation remains bright. Lucas Giolito provided a ton of reason to believe that one season of tough results is hardly a harbinger of long-term doom, and Cease and Lopez could still very well factor into those long-term plans in big ways.
But this offseason, with all of its veteran acquisitions coming on the heels of breakout campaigns for a fleet of youngsters in 2019, the White Sox announced, if unofficially, their intentions to win now. Rick Renteria is setting “playoffs or bust” expectations backed up by an influx of new talent to the roster.
When it comes to Cease and Lopez, how long can their growing pains be tolerated in a season where every game matters? How long before inconsistencies turn into liabilities in a playoff chase? Do the leashes get shorter now that the rebuilding phase of this project is in the rear-view mirror?
These are all questions that only time can answer, as Rick Hahn has pledged since last September that the pair would comprise two-fifths of the rotation when the 2020 campaign begins. Giolito, Cease and Lopez were complemented with Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez this winter, with Michael Kopech, returning from Tommy John surgery, somehow factoring into the equation at some point. Giolito and Keuchel are the big guns at the top of the rotation, with Gonzalez providing some veteran dependability — the likes of which James Shields and Ivan Nova contributed in recent seasons — at the back end.
In the middle, though, we don’t know what to expect from Cease and Lopez, who finished their 2019 seasons with ERAs of 5.79 and 5.38, respectively.
Giolito’s transformation from the pitcher with the worst statistics in baseball in 2018 to an All Star and the ace of the South Side staff in 2019 should remind everyone that a young pitcher’s numbers do not necessarily replicate themselves the from one year to the next, especially while development is ongoing. But it’s also true that Cease and Lopez provide an awful lot of mystery right now.
In Cease’s case, his poor results in 14 starts were not exactly unexpected. It was his first taste of the major leagues, after all. But on top of that, his numbers were not entirely reflective of the whole of his performance, with plenty of bright spots, highlighted by a solid night in Cleveland, when he struck out 11 opposing hitters. But even in that game, he was charged with four runs, as solid an embodiment as any of good performances thrown awry by a crooked number in one sour inning.
Giolito maintained throughout Cease’s rookie season that the younger pitcher was in a better place than he himself was a year prior, most of that confidence stemming from Cease’s oft-lauded stuff. Perhaps that means a Giolito-style jump wouldn’t necessitate a Giolito-style overhaul.
“For me, I’m expecting a lot more out of myself than I was able to perform last year,” Cease said last month during SoxFest. “It’s a confidence boost knowing that (Giolito) did do it. He was able to turn around from statistically not where he wanted to be to one of the best pitchers in the game. I pick his brain about it.
“If he can do it, there’s no reason I couldn’t enhance my game.”
Certainly that’s what the White Sox are hoping for. Cease is still plenty young, so there’s no reason to lose confidence in his long-term potential at this point.
On the other hand, Lopez’s situation might be a little more pressing. He pulled somewhat of a reverse Giolito last year, going from the rotation’s most impressive pitcher in 2018 to its least consistent in 2019, leading baseball’s qualified starting pitchers with 110 earned runs allowed.
Lopez didn’t cause the same sorts of reactions as the parade of ineffective fifth starters, the Ervin Santanas, Odrisamer Despaignes, Manny Banueloses and Dylan Coveys of the world. He wasn’t consistently bad, he just wasn’t consistent at all. And that’s the problem, his wild fluctuations between dominating opponents and getting drubbed by them.
He struck out 14 Detroit Tigers at the end of April, the finest moment in an otherwise forgettable first half that ended with a sky-high 6.34 ERA and a clubhouse declaration that he would return from the All-Star break a better pitcher, a different pitcher.
And he did just that, starting the second half on a superb six-start stretch that saw him post a 2.13 ERA and strike out 37 batters in 38 innings. But he couldn’t keep that going any longer and had a 6.00 ERA over his final nine starts — a stretch that even included another dazzler, an 11-strikeout shutout in Cleveland.
Of course, heretofore unmentioned is the moment that best defined Lopez’s 2019, as well as the challenge that lies ahead, the day Renteria marched out to the mound in Detroit to “make sure (Lopez) was aware that he was actually pitching today.” That spoke to the focus issues that Lopez routinely brought up throughout the season. Those appear to be among the things that he’ll need to get a handle on to turn the flashes of brilliance into just plain brilliance and secure his spot in the rotation.
“We've seen the plus-plus arsenal,” Hahn said back in November during the GM meetings. “What we haven't seen is the consistency. We've talked with him a lot — not just (pitching coach Don Cooper) and (bullpen coach Curt Hasler) and Ricky, but our conditioning people and our strength people and our analytics people — to talk about how to get all those things aligned for the future so that we can draw upon each of those weapons on every fifth day.
“And he's bought in. He's still a young kid. He's still evolving at the big league level and learning.
“Some guys, it takes them a little bit longer. But at the very least, with him, we've seen the raw tools that give you reason to believe that it's going to work.”
The White Sox continue to express that confidence that Lopez can be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. But if it doesn’t work out of the gate in 2020, then what? How long can the White Sox afford to wait in a season where every game expects to be a lot more meaningful than the games of the past two years?
While the rebuilding years allowed pitchers to work through their struggles at the big league level, they also provided little in the way of alternatives, as evidenced by last season’s dearth of major league ready starting-pitching depth. The depth, at least in the immediate, remains a bit of an issue, but the cupboard is not entirely bare this time around. An injury or severe enough struggles warrant removal from Lopez, Cease or whoever would present an opportunity for Kopech to slide into the rotation.
The White Sox haven’t settled on how exactly they’ll limit Kopech’s workload this season, but limit it they will. That’s led to guesses that Kopech could start the season in the minors, perhaps the next man up could snag a spot in the rotation open due to injury or unacceptable performance.
And the reinforcements, from a depth perspective, shouldn’t be too far behind. Even if Kopech doesn’t knock someone out of the rotation, there will be alternatives to the pitchers on that starting staff come the end of the summer, when Carlos Rodon, Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert will be returning from their own Tommy John surgeries.
For the White Sox part, they’re not anticipating needing to yank Lopez out of the rotation.
“This isn't a guy I worry about just yet in terms of ‘it's not going to happen,’” Hahn said in November. “I still think it's going to happen.”
But there’s no doubt that times have changed on the South Side. At the major league level, development is no longer the primary goal. Winning baseball games is. And if the continuing developments of Cease and Lopez get in the way of that primary goal, then the White Sox will have some tough decisions to make.
Of course, if these guys figure things out and are a big part of the reason the White Sox are winning games, then look out.
It’s all part of the mystery.