Carlos Rodón hasn't felt like this in years. And that's a good thing.
"It feels normal," he said Sunday. "It feels like when I first got here, that's the way it feels. It feels like I'm kind of brand new."
Bedeviled by arm injuries in recent seasons, Rodón was hit with the big one last May, requiring Tommy John surgery that knocked him out for more than a year. Not how the No. 3 pick in the 2014 draft drew things up.
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But if baseball's months-long layoff due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had any silver lining for Rodón and the White Sox, it's that the recovering pitcher, believed in March to be a potential mid-season addition to a pitching staff in need of some depth, can now be a full-season addition with the 2020 campaign squeezed down to a 60-game sprint to the postseason.
"I was fortunate enough to have this little layoff. No one wants this pandemic to happen, but it gave me time to catch up," Rodón said. "Obviously, having arm trouble as a pitcher is a pretty big issue. The best way to put it, I would say, is when there's a little hesitation between pitches, 'Is this going to hurt? Is this one going to hurt when I throw it?' That's not there anymore. Being able to just pick up a ball and say, 'Hey, I don't feel anything. I can just throw the ball like a kid again.'
"Durability's a big part for pitchers or any player in this game, and luckily, hopefully, I've found it again."
That will be the key for Rodón, not just being here but showing he can stay healthy and showing he can turn the flashes of brilliance he's shown in his big league career into consistent performance. Rodón's bouts with arm injuries turned him from a future ace into a huge question mark for a White Sox team on the rise.
The White Sox appear positioned for long-term success with team-friendly contracts and recent free-agent signings keeping a vast majority of the team's promising collection of talent under control for years to come. Rodón doesn't quite fall into that category. He's slated to hit the free-agent market following the 2021 season, meaning he's got a short time to show he deserves to edge out the other young hurlers on this White Sox team for a starring role in the rotation.
Rodón was the team's Opening Day starter just last season. But after Lucas Giolito's All-Star campaign in 2019, the addition of a Cy Young winner in Dallas Keuchel, the flamethrowing potential of Michael Kopech and the young promise of Dylan Cease, Reynaldo López and Dane Dunning — with even this year's first-round draft pick Garrett Crochet needing to be accounted for — how does Rodón fit?
He's hoping to show the White Sox exactly how this year.
"I feel like there's some stuff I need to prove," Rodon said. "The last few years have not gone the way I wanted them to, obviously. It's kind of unfortunate, injuries and underperforming. This 60-game season, I feel like it will do a lot for guys. Not just me, but other guys around the league — or on this team — wherever, can prove themselves in those 60 games, and I think it will do a lot."
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Of course, these unusual circumstances mean the pieces could fit together in a much different way in 2020. Rick Renteria hasn't given anything away when it comes to how he'll handle his pitching staff, and it's likely he needs some more time during "Summer Camp" to figure out what roles every pitcher is capable of playing. But the skipper left all the options on the table last week, when he mentioned the possibilities of using openers, expanding the rotation or "piggybacking" multiple starters in the same game. It wouldn't be outlandish to guess that some starters could find their way into bullpen roles of any number of descriptions.
Rodón gets that. In fact, the numbers make it pretty obvious. Unless Renteria is planning an eight-man rotation, he's going to have to find different ways to use the likes of Rodón, Kopech, Dunning, Jimmy Lambert and Gio González — not to mention all his relievers.
"This season's pretty unique, obviously, with a 60-game schedule," Rodón said. "I think a lot of us are going to have to encompass different roles. Plus, we have a surplus of arms that we'll get to use, and I think there's some creative ways we could go about using them. I think all of us are pretty willing to step into any role we can to help this team win. We have a chance just as much as anyone."
That expanded pitching depth is a big reason why the White Sox look capable of competing right alongside the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians for AL Central supremacy. At the very least, it makes the July version of the White Sox look better than the March version.
While Rodón's fellow starting pitcher Keuchel opted to shine the spotlight on the team's revamped lineup Saturday, Rodón likes what he sees from the arms. And that even includes the newest of newcomers, a guy who's not even in camp right now but is looking to make a quick leap to the major leagues.
"Well on paper, of course, let's start there, we look pretty good," Rodón said. "We have a surplus of arms, a lot of young arms that are hard-throwers. New draftee lefty (Crochet) that can throw the crap out of it, obviously, as we know. I think a lot of people are excited to watch him. Hopefully we get to watch him this year a little bit, see how he throws.
"We've got a lot of young arms, man. A lot of young arms that we need to develop, and I think, hopefully, they get a shot to pitch this year."
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But even with so much swirling around him — his returned health, proving he's the pitcher he knows he can be, helping the White Sox reach the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade — Rodón's emotions have been pretty simple these last few days. The guy who hasn't pitched in a big league game in 14 months was back on a big league mound Sunday, throwing live batting practice at Guaranteed Rate Field.
"First day coming back, it's a good feeling. It feels like home, right?" Rodón said. "You see the stadium off 90/94 and pulling in, turning on 35th. I was just happy to walk on a field that's an actual stadium instead of being in Arizona on the backfields. It's like we're actually playing Major League Baseball.
"It's a good feeling to step back on the mound today here because it feels like home."
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