With the exception of the outfield, no position in the White Sox loaded farm system seems to have more depth than starting pitching — and potentially big-time starting pitching, at that.
Michael Kopech is still one of the top 15 prospects in baseball, and Dylan Cease and Dane Dunning are not far behind in the top 100. Recent shuffling in MLB Pipeline’s rankings dropped Alec Hansen out of the top 100, but it hasn’t been long since he was in that group, too.
A look at all those names along with the young guys currently pitching at the major league level — Carlos Rodon, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez — sets up a pretty appealing rotation of the future, a crowded one where competition will be needed to find the five best guys. So how are these candidates for those future spots on the starting staff faring of late?
Kopech’s up-and-down season is most definitely in an upswing at the moment. His last four starts have been pretty fantastic from a results perspective. He’s got a 2.25 ERA and 32 strikeouts in that span, which has lasted 24 innings. He’s also walked only four hitters in those four games, an important note for someone who struggled with his command at points during this season. In fact, in the seven starts prior to this four-game stretch, he walked 31 batters in 31 innings. Four in 24 innings is, obviously, much better.
Kopech is the lone pitcher mentioned to this point pitching at the Triple-A level, which means the White Sox could opt to promote him to the big leagues at some point before this season is over. Consistency has been a bit of an issue during much of the season for Kopech, though if this recent success can keep going, he could answer questions about that inconsistency. It’s important to note, too, that as general manager Rick Hahn has mentioned repeatedly throughout the season, there are things that the player-development folks in the organization are looking for that aren’t easily found in a box score. So good results and big league readiness don’t always line up.
While outfielder Eloy Jimenez has been tearing it up at the plate at multiple levels and has created his own conversation about when a promotion to the bigs will happen, Cease — who was acquired in the same trade as Jimenez last summer — has arguably been the best news to come out of the White Sox system this season.
Cease earned a spot in the Futures Game as part of All-Star festivities last month, and boy did he deserve it. He’s got a 2.71 ERA in 19 starts this season between Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham, and he’s actually put up better numbers since his promotion to the Double-A level, with a 2.34 ERA in six starts. He’s got a 1.20 ERA in his last five starts, he’s struck out at least seven batters in each of his six starts at Birmingham, and he’s turned in back-to-back scoreless outings, with no runs allowed in his last 17.2 innings.
Dunning is hard to place in this conversation because of an elbow injury that’s had him on the shelf for weeks. His last start came in late June, and he was in the midst of a strong campaign, with a 2.71 ERA in 15 starts between Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham. But this long layoff has provided only one answer to the oft-asked question, “what have you done for me lately?”
Hansen is the only one of the highest rated of the starting-pitching prospects to not provide something worth getting excited about this season. After a forearm injury delayed his season debut until mid June, the numbers have not been good: He’s got a 6.56 ERA in nine starts and has walked 42 batters compared to 35 strikeouts.
Hansen just made his shortest start of the year, a 1.1-inning outing over the weekend that featured four runs and seven walks. That after he walked a season-high nine hitters in his previous start.
All this is, of course, without mentioning the successes of prospects who aren’t ranked quite as highly. Jordan Stephens gave up six runs in a brief outing last week, but prior to that he posted a 3.44 ERA over his previous six starts. Jimmy Lambert and Blake Battenfield have put up some good numbers at the lower levels of the system. And recently drafted Konor Pilkington and recently acquired Kodi Medeiros are highly though of enough to slide into the organization’s top 20 prospects.
With Rodon pitching very well at the major league level and Giolito and Lopez continuing to go through their own developments and showing sporadic flashes of brilliance, the rotation of the future looks promising. Of course, there’s still plenty of time before it completely falls into place. But what’s happened lately with the highest-rated pitchers in the system has been a very positive development.