As the games become as important as they’ve been for the White Sox in a long time, the immediate future of their pitching staff is more than a tad mysterious.
And considering the starting rotation holds the biggest questions about how far the White Sox can go come October, it’s a pretty big deal as they head down the stretch of this two-month pennant race of a 2020 season.
Dallas Keuchel, who woke up Tuesday with the second lowest ERA in the American League, had to depart early from his start Sunday in Kansas City due to a back issue that’s been bothering him throughout the season. While Keuchel made it through five innings — the same total he did a start earlier, when he battled through a stomach ailment — manager Rick Renteria wasn’t ready to declare that Keuchel would be ready to go for his next scheduled start, likely Saturday against the Detroit Tigers.
“We’re waiting to see how his day goes,” Renteria said prior to Tuesday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. “He came in, has been getting worked on, he was out there throwing. So I won’t be able to give you anything definitive till after we sit down and talk today.
“So far, he went out there and tried to do his normal routine. But we’ll have to have a discussion.”
That might not be cause for immediate panic. Renteria often has his pregame media duties while his players are still in the middle of their pregame work.
But there will be a big-time focus on whether Keuchel is able to continue at full strength and pitch the way he’s been able to so far this season. In his first year with the White Sox, Keuchel is a legitimate Cy Young candidate — or at least as legitimate as one can be when Shane Bieber is having as remarkable a season as he’s having for the Cleveland Indians.
Healthy, Keuchel gives the White Sox an incredible 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation alongside Lucas Giolito, a duo that can go toe to toe with any team in the game. And that would be an obvious strength for the White Sox as they look to make a run in October, or at the very least get there; Keuchel and Giolito both could make four more starts the rest of the way against the four best teams remaining on the White Sox schedule, including in the four-game series against the Indians and Minnesota Twins and the season-ending series against the Cubs.
But how the White Sox line up their rotation the rest of the way will also be of interest. If Giolito and Keuchel are needed in the regular season’s final two games to compete for a playoff spot, higher seeding or even a division title, what does that mean for their readiness for the first-round series, the best-of-three set with another high-caliber playoff team?
Before the White Sox can get to setting up their playoff rotation, however, they’ve got to make it to October, and the aforementioned upcoming matchups with the Twins, Indians and Cubs will be crucial. The White Sox currently have a hole in their rotation, vacated when Reynaldo López was sent to the team’s alternate training site in Schaumburg last week. Off days this week mean they won’t need to plug it until next Tuesday’s game against the Twins.
But who’s going to fill that hole?
The logical idea, though perhaps this was only a best-case scenario, was that Carlos Rodón would return from his lengthy stay on the injured list, needing only to make three starts for the remainder of the regular season and potentially giving the White Sox an option for the postseason.
But Rodón did not throw as scheduled last week in Schaumburg, Renteria reporting that Rodón was bothered not by the shoulder soreness that landed him on the IL in the first place but by a back issue.
“He ended up not feeling too good, so we had to modify his schedule and we’ll revisit once we see how he’s feeling today and tomorrow.
“His back was a little uncomfortable, so we had to take a step back.”
That was Saturday. Tuesday, Renteria said the White Sox had no date for when Rodón would throw next, adding to the wonder of when he’ll be able to return to the White Sox rotation. There are only 19 games remaining in the regular season.
“We’ll continue to watch how he’s healing,” Renteria said Tuesday. “He had that little twinge in his back. We’ll once he’s back out there on the mound, determine how far he is from being able to return.
“Right now he’s still getting treatments and things of that nature.”
There’s no need to panic until the team provides a more concrete update. But there is reason to wonder. And if Rodón’s recovery extends past the time the White Sox need him, who becomes the alternative to make these starts in some of the most important games this team has played in years?
Gio González just returned from the injured list Tuesday, and while the White Sox were not revealing in how he’d be used moving forward, Renteria mentioned that González had been stretched out to two innings in recent rehab work. He also said, “He’s still our Swiss Army knife, so we’ll continue to proceed similarly, hopefully, as we have in the past.” Earlier this season, that meant short starts and relief work when other White Sox starters couldn't go deep into games.
Down in Schaumburg, there’s not much to choose from beyond veteran Clayton Richard, who was signed to a minor league deal earlier this season. The next best option might be Jonathan Stiever, who hasn’t pitched above Class A ball. It’s highly unlikely the White Sox would turn to Garrett Crochet, this summer’s first-round draft pick whose collegiate experience in his junior season was minimized to almost nothing by the COVID-19 pandemic.
López, obviously, is still an option, though his three starts after his own month-long IL stint were brief and generally ineffective.
Perhaps none of those options sound all that appealing, which makes one wonder whether those three starts that need to be accounted for are done with bullpen days. That phrase might cause White Sox fans to wrinkle their noses in disgust, as the couple times the team has gone that route this season, things did not go well. But with González back, Ross Detwiler having a very nice season and guys like Matt Foster and Bernardo Flores capable of providing a couple innings at a time, maybe it’s the most likely route right now.
The bottom line, at the moment, though, is that this is all still to be determined. With Keuchel and Rodón both dealing with their respective maladies, mapping out the rotation in even the near future is difficult, if not impossible. And after these next five games against the Pirates and Tigers, 11 of the White Sox final 14 come against winning teams.
They’d surely like to have their rotation in the best shape it can be for that stretch — Thursday is their final off day of the regular season — but there are a lot of questions to be answered before that.