The White Sox starting rotation of the future, far-flung or immediate, is still under construction.
“Pardon our dust” signs are hanging around much of the team, be it because young players are still developing or because Rick Hahn’s front office hasn’t yet acquired the outside-the-organization pieces that are supposed to help vault this franchise from rebuilding mode to contending mode.
One of the items at the top of Hahn’s offseason to-do list is acquiring starting pitching. Gerrit Cole is the shiniest prize on the free-agent market, and so fans’ attention has gravitated toward the Cy Young candidate currently throwing down in Houston.
But whether the White Sox land the biggest fish in the pond or make less explosive improvements to the rotation, there will be improvements. That, however, won’t change the fact that the 2020 starting staff is on track to be a mostly homegrown unit. Lucas Giolito has transformed himself into an All Star, Michael Kopech is readying a return from Tommy John surgery, Dylan Cease is showing flashes in his first taste of the big leagues and Reynaldo Lopez is … well, what is Reynaldo Lopez doing?
There are plenty of question marks surrounding that list of names. For as terrific as Giolito has been in 2019, he’ll have just two big league seasons under his belt heading into 2020, one of which was fantastic and the other of which went about as poorly as imaginable. Cease might have nights where he’s showing just how many different pitches he can use to get batters out, but he’s not keeping them from crossing home plate, with a 6.53 ERA in his first dozen major league starts. Kopech still has the standing as one of the highest rated pitching prospects in baseball, but his next start will be just his fifth in the bigs and come more than a year and a half after the previous one.
The negative possibilities in answering those questions could frustrate next season. But Lopez is frustrating now. His ugly first half segued to what looked like would be a dominant second half, but that dominance has been harder and harder to pin down lately, at least on a consistent basis, his season now in Jekyll-and-Hyde mode as the campaign’s final weeks play out.
In his last four starts, Lopez has done this: He pitched five innings of no-hit ball against the Texas Rangers, then gave up six runs without getting out of the first inning against the Atlanta Braves, then allowed just one hit and struck out 11 in a complete-game effort against the Cleveland Indians, then gave up four homers in just 4.2 innings Wednesday night against the Kansas City Royals.
Watching Lopez’s stat lines has become like watching a tennis match as he’s whiplashed back and forth between gems and clunkers.
“It is frustrating not being able to be consistent,” Lopez said through team interpreter Billy Russo after Wednesday’s loss. “Especially after the last outing (against Cleveland). I was feeling good and I was hoping to be as consistent as I was in that outing today. But I couldn't, and that's something that is frustrating. There are no other words to describe that. It is what it is.”
This isn’t to say that Lopez’s second half hasn’t been a positive one in general, as his ERA since the All-Star break is still below 4.00. That remains a huge improvement on his first-half numbers, which included a 6.34 ERA that was among the highest in baseball. Coming into Wednesday night, Lopez had given up just four home runs in the second half. Then he doubled that number in fewer than 15 outs.
Poor results here and there can be easily forgiven, of course. And all anyone needs to do is look to Giolito’s transformation to see how a young player can figure things out and make huge, quick strides toward reaching their potential. Lopez is still developing, and growing pains like these are hardly unexpected.
But Lopez has a tendency to keep talking about mistakes he hasn't stopped making. He’s often discussed his need to focus on a pitch-to-pitch basis, and he’s talked about trying to do too much with his pitches. Wednesday, a new struggle emerged, as Lopez apparently was working so fast he wasn’t allowing catcher Welington Castillo enough time to set his targets.
“That was definitely a factor in the outcome today,” Lopez said. “I wasn't allowing Castillo to put the target. I was pitching too quick. I wasn't able to let him to locate the target for me to pitch in that spot. That was a factor today, and that was my fault. I know that I need to do better in that aspect of the game.”
Can Lopez overcome these issues? He has. He’s shown what he can do when everything comes together, when he’s doing everything he’s supposed to do, and the results have been electric. But for whatever reason or reasons, he’s not doing those things every time out. And that’s not helpful in attempting to prove you’ve got what it takes to be a part of a contending rotation.
“That will all come together,” he said. “This is still a learning process, and I'm learning. I'm actually learning more this year than what I learned last year, even though I had a good season last year to my standards.
“I learned today that I need to slow the game down in order to allow my catcher to put the target. I need to be able to make my pitches in those spots and instead of just run over and be too quick on my pitches to home plate. That was a lesson that I got today.
“I just need to be more consistent and to be able to apply all those lessons in every outing and be consistent on that.”
The White Sox aren’t anywhere close to giving up on Lopez. Part of what’s made Lopez’s recent swings so maddening is that he continues to show why the team believes he can be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher one day.
But the 2020 rotation could end up being a crowded group. Even if the White Sox add just one pitcher to this staff this winter — and the possibility exists they’ll add more than one — Giolito, Kopech and Cease don’t figure to be going anywhere. Eventually, Dane Dunning, Carlos Rodon and Jimmy Lambert will all recover from their Tommy John surgeries. And pitching prospect Jonathan Stiever made waves this season in the minors.
Lopez is going to have to find his consistency, or there’s a chance he could get squeezed out by someone who can.
If 2020 is going to be a contending season for these White Sox, can they afford Lopez’s inconsistency? Fast forward to a year from now. If the White Sox are playing meaningful September baseball, then a date with the 92-loss Royals needs to be a slam dunk, not a night when the starter gets tagged for a quartet of homers in a losing effort.
And that’s what’s got some fans spooked about Lopez. Not the potential, but the potential for outings like Wednesday’s.
“Do we scratch our heads sometimes? Absolutely,” manager Rick Renteria said before the game. “Ultimately we have to take every start for what it is. Try to gain as much information as we can, try to help him through that process.
“He gets frustrated, as well, when he’s not executing or doing what he wants to do. But we have to take it and go with it and build something positive from it because we know and expect down the road as we build an organization we expect I’m to be pretty good and we expect him to execute on a consistent basis.”
There are plenty of questions about the pitchers expected to make up the White Sox starting staff in 2020, but plenty more reasons fans should be excited, too, plenty of reasons they could do what Giolito has said and be a dominant rotation.
The biggest of the questions, though, might just belong to Lopez, because on a start-to-start basis, he’s giving us no idea what to expect.