With so many unknowns — chief among them the impact of COVID-19 — heading into the shortened 2020 season, it's nearly impossible to figure out what's going to happen, which teams are going to perform well and who's going to be competing for a World Series when (if) the playoffs roll around in October.
One thing's likely true, as it is every year: The teams that get a chance to play for the World Series title will get there thanks to their pitching. But with a brief, three-week round of spring training beginning later this week after a three-month layoff, that ahead of a 60-game sprint to the playoffs, pitchers are going to have a hard time getting into the swing of things. Will their stuff be as sharp? Will their control be where it needs to be? Will they be able to give their teams anything resembling usual length? It all remains to be seen.
But on the South Side — or rather streaming from his home in California — one pitcher is confident he and his teammates will be able to deliver from the jump.
"Speaking for myself, I am in very good pitching shape," Lucas Giolito said Friday. "On a weekly basis, I’m getting a couple of bullpens in, live bullpen, facing live hitters in Sacramento. I’m at an ‘up and down three times’ kind of shape, simulating three innings, even extending the innings out just to get the pitch count up and taking care of my other business, as well, whether that be lifting at home or in a facility, physical therapy work. So I’m ready to go, ready to get there, get tested (for COVID-19) and make sure everything is safe and continue to build up so I can be in a position to throw a lot more innings.
"And speaking with other guys on our team, especially starting pitchers, they seem to all be in that same kind of area. We’re pretty much ready to get there and build up a little bit more and then we’ll be ready for the full workload."
Maybe that's just the same confidence that was seeping out of every crack at Camelback Ranch back in March picking up where it left off. But truly the White Sox pitching staff is in a better spot now than it was then.
While Giolito, coming off an incredible All-Star season, and veteran-addition Dallas Keuchel, the Cy Young winner and World Series champ, provided some stability at the top of the rotation, there were questions about the slots that followed. Dylan Cease and Reynaldo Lopez did not get the results they were hoping for in 2019, Cease's ERA run up in his first taste of the major leagues and Lopez woefully inconsistent even among flashes of brilliance. Their fortunes in the first portion of the originally scheduled 2020 season were going to tell a lot about how high the White Sox could climb.
But because of the long layoff, reinforcements have arrived. Michael Kopech, Carlos Rodon, Dane Dunning and some other promising pitching prospects were all at one stage of another of getting back to normal following Tommy John surgery, and they were expected to serve as midseason additions that would have given a boost of depth to this White Sox team. Instead, they could be full-season additions, or close to it, and the White Sox could benefit from that pitching depth over the entirety of a 60-game schedule.
While Giolito has confidence that he and his teammates will be able to get back to in-season shape in short order, who knows if that will be the case. And that's where that depth becomes even more useful than it might've been under normal circumstances. Rick Renteria could choose to deploy all these extra arms in interesting ways, saying last week that all options are on the table, including an expanded rotation, the use of openers (which he's vocally opposed in the past) and what in baseball circles is known as "piggybacking," basically having a starting pitcher throw three or four innings, then sending another starter out there right after to eat up another three innings and get to the late-inning weapons at the back end of the bullpen. With this extra depth, Renteria can choose from any of those options.
Of course, the effectiveness of any such strategies will depend on what kind of shape all those pitchers are in. And even the guys who have been the most diligent while waiting at home for word on a season will only have three weeks' worth of this summertime spring training before Opening Day comes and they need to perform. Will that be enough? They really don't have a choice.
"Three weeks is going to have to be enough because that's what it is. There's no other way around it," Giolito said. "I think that we've all been doing as good of a job as we can to be prepared for a three-week spring training because that's what's been talked about over the last couple months.
"As far as what my pitch limit would be or innings limit, I'm not totally sure. I'd like to say that I could go out there on my first start and throw nine innings, but that probably won't be the case. I'd like to say just off the top of my head, it'd be great if I could get six to seven. But I'm not really sure exactly how we're going to map that out yet."
As ready to rock as Giolito is feeling, his batterymate is predicting a little more cautious approach. Remember that these White Sox arms are young ones, and the team has no interest in letting them rip only for injuries to pop up that could impact a contention window they expect to be open for a long time, much longer than just this one shortened season.
So even if Giolito wants to go nine innings, three might be a more realistic expectation for Opening Day.
"I think you’re going to see a lot of managers and teams using caution," White Sox catcher James McCann said. "There’s going to be guys further ahead than other guys depending on what their situation was wherever they were during the quarantine. That will also dictate how much (of) guys you’re going to be able to use.
"If you think about it, in a regular season, you’ve got guys coming out of spring training hovering around that 90- to 100-pitch mark, and that’s after six weeks of build up. It really depends on what the individual has been able to do, and at the same time, even if someone has been able to throw consistently, it’s different not being able to get that adrenaline rush. You look at what happens when guys go to the World Baseball Classic, the amount of injuries you see with guys going from basically not competing at all to some of the highest-leverage type of situations.
"As important as it is to win, I think you’re going to see teams that also place an importance on keeping guys healthy. What that means will probably be on an individual basis."
The state of pitching will be a season-long storyline for every team in the league. While the White Sox are fortunate to have a good deal of depth, they won't be immune from those concerns. They, like everyone else, will have to wait and see how things play out.