If there’s one theme from White Sox Summer Camp, it’s optimism. The team believes it’s a contender and there’s been very little evidence to suggest otherwise.
The lineup is formidable with the additions of Yasmani Grandal, Edwin Encarnación and Luis Robert boosting a group that already included Tim Anderson, Yoán Moncada, José Abreu and Eloy Jiménez. The bullpen is loaded with talented arms, even if their roles could be determined on the fly. And the starting rotation is, yes, deep.
That last point has probably been drilled into your head by now. And it’s true -- despite Michael Kopech opting out of the 2020 season, the White Sox could go six-deep to start the season with young prospects like Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert ready to go right behind the rest of the group.
But how proven is the starting rotation?
Lucas Giolito has had a strong enough summer camp to suggest he can continue to grow into his role as the staff ace. And no pitcher on the White Sox’s staff has looked better than Dallas Keuchel. In his final two outings of intrasquad/exhibition work, Keuchel only allowed one hit and, against the Cubs Monday, faced the minimum 15 batters in five innings of work.
But after Giolito and Keuchel, how many proven commodities are there?
That’s why the success or failure of the 2020 Chicago White Sox could be in the hands of these three pitchers: Dylan Cease, Reynaldo Lopez and Carlos Rodón.
All three are talented. All three need to prove they can be consistent, reliable starters.
“It's vitally important for us to have those three guys do well,” White Sox manager Rick Renteria said Wednesday. “It goes without saying, I think we're going to try to do everything we can to maximize their effectiveness. They're the ones that obviously have to go out there and be efficient and do what they have to in order to give us innings -- and that requires efficiency, commanding the zone.”
All three pitchers are in slightly different situations, but all of them also face a crucial two-month stretch in their respective careers.
Rodón, especially, knows this. Now 27 and coming off Tommy John surgery, he needs to show the White Sox he can stay healthy. He figures to be in the starting rotation after getting through five innings on 67 pitches in Wednesday night’s exhibition against the Milwaukee Brewers.
“I've been saying this a long time, feels like it's been three or four years, but I keep saying this: It feels like I've got something to prove, just being hurt all the time,” Rodón said. “It's not fun, that's for sure."
Rodón’s career with the White Sox has been anything but easy. His talent frequently shines, but has been overshadowed by injuries. His postgame Zoom session with reporters Wednesday turned emotional when he reflected on his road back from Tommy John surgery in May of 2019.
“It hasn't been easy, especially this one coming off a shoulder (surgery),” he said. “Honestly, having my baby girl, Willow, kind of got me through the TJ. And it's been a ride, man."
Rodón started throwing last October and went through a grueling rehab to get back to this point. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s likely getting a chance to start the season in the rotation.
“I put myself in the position to be on this team and as we know, hopefully I will make it and start one of the games here coming soon,” Rodón said. “I was pretty fortunate. For me, it was a good thing. I don't want to say it that way -- this pandemic's been terrible luck for the whole world -- but I guess it kind of helped me out a little bit."
Lopez is in a similar position in that this feels like a make-or-break season. After showing signs of dominance in 2018, Lopez really struggled in 2019. He could have the shortest leash if he struggles during this 60-game stretch.
Cease, still only 24, will be given much more patience as he only has 20 Major League starts to his name, but the expectations are high and it’s just as crucial for him to deliver.
“It's a huge moment in time for them in terms of, for one, Rodón coming back and reestablishing himself coming back healthy and feeling good, the other two continuing to evolve and developing who they are as major leaguers,” Renteria said.
With 34-year-old Gio González still in the mix and Dunning and Lambert providing depth, it’s not like Cease, López and Rodón all need to be lights-out in 2020. But if two of the three take a significant step forward, the White Sox should have a rotation worthy of making the playoffs, with the potential to do even more. Even if just one of them takes off, they should contend.
But if none of them find consistency in 2020, well, the young White Sox most likely won’t find consistency as a team either.
“Whether we had started in April or now, this is still a pivotal time in their careers and for us as an organization, and we are very hopeful they'll do well,” Renteria said. “We'll make any adjustments that need be made in order to continue to propel them in the right direction.”
It’s certainly fun to talk about Luis Robert, Eloy Jiménez and all the young talent the White Sox possess. Their competitive window should be open for many years to come.
But how open is it right now? That question will likely be answered by Dylan Cease, Reynaldo López and Carlos Ródon.