Carlos Rodon is going on the shelf for more than a year after he has Tommy John surgery later this week.
It’s another brutal blow to the rebuilding White Sox, who see another young starting pitcher of the future sidelined while in recovery mode from this procedure.
Rodon’s absence is a big deal — general manager Rick Hahn said Monday that Rodon’s not expected back until the second half of the 2020 season — with plenty of effects on this year’s team and on teams in years to come. Here’s a look at four questions surrounding the White Sox as Rodon’s injury layoff begins.
Will the White Sox go outside to help this season’s starting rotation?
Rodon’s injury has painted the White Sox into a starting-pitching corner.
We knew this a couple weeks ago when Hahn first announced that Rodon had something significantly wrong with his arm. Now that we know the diagnosis, the outlook for the White Sox short-term starting-pitching depth hasn’t gotten any better.
The current five-man starting staff of Reynaldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito, Ivan Nova, Manny Banuelos and Dylan Covey is it. There’s virtually no depth at Triple-A Charlotte the White Sox can draw on in the immediate if something were to happen from a health or underperformance standpoint. A spot start, maybe, but no longer-term solutions than that.
Yes, Dylan Cease, the organization’s top-ranked healthy pitching prospect, is pitching and pitching well at Charlotte (though he’s gone past the fifth inning just once in his seven starts this season). But Hahn said earlier this month that Cease’s eventual major league promotion, expected to come later this season, will have nothing to do with a need at the big league level.
So what does that mean? Where will any needed pitching reinforcements come from?
Good question. While fans will shout about that one big name still out there — 2015 AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel — it’s unlikely he ends up on the South Side. Any team that signs him prior to the draft will have to forfeit a draft pick and international signing money, and those things are far more valuable to a rebuilding team like the White Sox than a few more wins in 2019.
Other than that? Tumbleweeds.
The White Sox did make an addition to their starting-pitching depth last week, adding Ross Detwiler to Triple-A Charlotte. Detwiler’s a 33-year-old lefty with a 4.36 ERA in 10 big league seasons who the White Sox just plucked out of independent ball. That should tell you a lot about the available starting pitching.
“The plan really hasn’t changed thus far in terms of where we are looking,” Hahn said. “First to Covey and Banuelos to see what they do, as well as over the coming weeks and months some internal options within our minor league system.
“We have had some conversations with other clubs about potential fits, but as will come as no surprise to you, there’s not a great market, not a very fluid market for starting pitching right now.
“Initially we’ll look internally and continue to see where those conversations go.”
If the current five can hold on long enough, Cease will come up as a replacement at some point. Perhaps there are guys at Double-A who, given some time, could be big league ready later on this season. But the options aren’t numerous, placing a lot of importance on the health of the current big league rotation.
Is there an explanation for all these Tommy John surgeries?
An understandable question in the wake of the White Sox fourth major Tommy John victim in the last few years (fifth if you count outfielder Micker Adolfo) is whether this is some sort of systemic thing or just plain bad luck.
As Hahn pointed out, the White Sox are hardly the only team in the game dealing with pitchers who need this procedure, and this might just be a new reality.
"There's a portion of it that's bad luck,” Hahn said. “It's not just us, obviously. You look around the league, and unfortunately it's fairly rampant.
“I'm not going to be able to specifically cite the source, but I remember someone during our last homestand in the box raised during the game that something like 32 or 33 percent of active pitchers in the big leagues have had Tommy John at some point, which is stunning at this day and age. But it's the era we live in where guys are throwing harder, they're throwing more younger and we're still unfortunately learning about what it takes to keep an elbow healthy given the amount of force that throwing a baseball at that level and frequency does.
“There's going to come a time — I probably won't be sitting in this chair when the time comes — people are going to have a much, much better understanding of how to keep pitchers healthy and that's going to be great for the game.
“Until then we're going to do everything in our power to do what we know works. If along the way we're struck with bad luck or similarly victimized by what may be a bit of an epidemic in the game, we're going to hopefully have enough depth and wherewithal to push through it."
Of course, the White Sox do seem particularly stung at the moment, with Rodon joining Michael Kopech, Dane Dunning and Zack Burdi — as well as Adolfo — in the Tommy John club. The fact that three of those guys are three of the more important starting pitchers when it comes to the long-term future of the franchise doesn’t help.
But Hahn has always talked about how injuries are inevitable during a rebuild. These are those injuries. It seems like bad luck, but it might just be how things go.
Will Rodon’s surgery affect how the White Sox approach this summer’s draft?
The short answer to this one is easy: No.
But it’s not an outrageous thing to ask.
In a relatively rapid period of time, the White Sox have watched starting pitching go from one of the strengths of this rebuild to one of the weaknesses. What once looked like a crowded battle for spots in the rotation of the future between the likes of Rodon, Kopech, Dunning, Reynaldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, Alec Hansen and other, younger arms suddenly looks a lot different.
Rodon will return with less than a year and a half of team control remaining on his contract. Kopech will spend the 2020 season doing what he was supposed to do during the 2019 season: experiencing the ups and downs of his first full year in the big leagues. Lopez and Giolito are still in the process of finding consistency after rocky 2018 seasons. Dunning and Hansen have yet to pitch above Double-A, and when the 2020 campaign begins, Cease won’t have more than a couple months of big league service under his belt.
It all adds up to make for a rotation that though perhaps still full of potential can’t be counted on to mow down the competition beginning on Opening Day of next year. There will still be growth required to form that championship-caliber rotation.
So would the White Sox spend their upcoming No. 3 draft pick on a pitcher who could help with all that? It doesn’t sound like it.
"You can't force it,” Hahn said. “I think Baseball America about two weeks ago quoted an anonymous scout, which I usually don't like, and the scout said this was the worst pitching draft in 38 years. I think that was the quote. I don't want to quite go that strong. I haven't looked at it that closely, for comparison's sake. But you can't force that.
“You can't say the organization needs pitching — frankly all 30 organizations would say they need pitching — and therefore draft according to that. We're going to take the best guy at No. 3.
“We're very excited about what the options are preliminarily as we head into our meetings here in the coming weeks. We're going to get another premium piece here in the next couple weeks added to the organization, and then excited to see what the scouts have in store as we get deeper into the draft."
It’s important to remember that the last two pitchers the White Sox took with top-10 draft picks were Rodon (No. 3 in 2014) and Carson Fulmer (No. 8 in 2015). Rodon is experiencing his third significant arm injury in three years. Fulmer has been converted to a bullpen arm down at Triple-A.
Will Rodon’s surgery affect what the White Sox do next offseason?
Given the uncertainties throughout the rotation listed above, even a healthy Rodon might have had the White Sox chasing starting pitching in the upcoming offseason. Now that Rodon’s not expected to pitch more than a few months of the 2020 campaign, the chances of the White Sox attempting to acquire a starting pitcher next winter would figure to increase.
The free-agent market looked like it would be full of options for the White Sox to add the superstar free agent they missed out on last winter, when they failed to land Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. But a bunch of the guys who were heading for free agency aren’t anymore thanks to extensions with their current clubs. No Nolan Arenado. No Chris Sale. No Xander Bogaerts. No Paul Goldschmidt. No Justin Verlander. No Aaron Hicks. No Miles Mikolas.
It doesn’t leave the landscape barren (that’s how good this class was to begin with), but it undoubtedly has an impact. It could steer teams looking for big splashes, like the White Sox, toward the trade market. It could make for a ton of competition for the services of the top free-agent starting pitcher, Gerrit Cole. Or with Arenado, Bogaerts and Goldschmidt off the board, perhaps that increases the likelihood of a White Sox pivot to pitching as they bank on Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada, Luis Robert and others to be the star position players on the South Side.
Regardless of whether it’s a major free-agent acquisition or a trade utilizing some of the organization’s prospect depth, it sounds like starting pitching could be high on the shopping list this winter. Rodon’s injury only increases the need, as does his contract situation. Rodon’s set for free agency following the 2021 season. It’d be beneficial to lock a reliable starter up past that season to pitch alongside Kopech, Cease and the rest as the White Sox move into their contention window.
"In the short term we're going to give an opportunity to some younger guys to show what they can do and how they fit,” Hahn said. “Come this offseason, we obviously aren't going to project to have (Rodon) as part of our Opening Day five for the first part of the season, at least, so that could well affect our plans then, depending on how some of these young guys come along.
“Ideally, you have all the answers internally. At the same time, we know that's not extremely likely, and from the start of this we've made it clear that eventually we are going to have to go outside the organization, either via trade or free agency, to plug some of these holes wherever they arise. Certainly it's conceivable that one of those spots is going to be in our starting rotation, given the injuries, but we'll wait to see how the next few months unfold before officially deciding that."