Who is the Chicago White Sox' sixth starter?
To this point in a first-place season, the South Siders have not really needed to answer that question — a huge part of the reason why it's been a first-place season.
The White Sox starting rotation has been dominant, and it has been healthy, carrying a team that went without Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert and Yasmani Grandal for long stretches to World Series contender status. Even with the middle-of-the-order bats returning to the lineup, that starting rotation remains the No. 1 reason the White Sox can realistically achieve their sky-high preseason goals.
But now Carlos Rodón is on the injured list, put there Wednesday with shoulder fatigue. If that's a mysterious-sounding injury, just wait for more info to come. The White Sox sent him back to Chicago to get checked out while they wrapped a series in Minnesota and headed to Iowa for the Field of Dreams game.
Rodón was supposed to start that Field of Dreams game, and his sudden absence forced the White Sox to make alternate plans, pressing Lance Lynn into cornfield duty and sending Reynaldo López to the mound Wednesday to kick off an impromptu bullpen day.
Meanwhile, the chorus cried: Where's Michael Kopech?
It was Kopech who made numerous spot starts early in the season, when spring showers forced a slew of doubleheaders. He got the nod in those seven-inning affairs and looked excellent doing it. He's also slated to join the rotation in 2022, and the White Sox' "creative" approach to utilizing the fireballer in 2021 figured to include some sort of prep work for his new role next year.
But since those doubleheader spot starts, Kopech has done a lot more, blossoming into one of the club's chief bullpen weapons. And as the rest of the relief corps struggled to find the consistency they thought they'd have to dominate the competition this season, Kopech has been turned to in higher and higher leverage situations.
Prior to the White Sox' trade for All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel, prior to Aaron Bummer's recent return to form, Kopech was effectively the chief setup man to All-Star closer Liam Hendriks. Now "The Ponytail Gang" is what could help make the White Sox a postseason favorite.
If it ain't broke, as they say.
In fact, it sounds like trying to swing Kopech back into swingman duty could do more harm than good, to Kopech and to the staff as a whole. So the reason he didn't get the emergency start Wednesday is the same reason you're unlikely to see him make any starts while Rodón is on the shelf.
"We're now into August," White Sox manager Tony La Russa said, "and extending him to where he would be a starter to his potential, it's going to take a number of starts. It takes him out of that role where we really need him. It's counterproductive, especially when you expect Carlos to be back. So I think we'll leave him alone.
"It's not realistic. It's too late in the season to try to make him a starter."
With Kopech so firmly entrenched as an important bullpen weapon for the remainder of 2021, López becomes the guy La Russa & Co. will lean on during Rodón's absence.
"I think he's the best candidate," La Russa said. "He's proven to be a real asset out of that bullpen. But he's been stretched out some, he'll be stretched out more today."
López indeed made a fine impression Wednesday, holding the Minnesota Twins scoreless in his three innings of work. He threw 51 pitches, more than he might have in a regular relief appearance. He lowered his season ERA to 1.35, with 20 innings under his belt since coming up from the minors in mid July.
Now, is that enough to warrant peace of mind with 20 percent of the starting rotation missing? And how many starts will López be called on to make?
Rodón is eligible to come off the injured list in a week, his placement there retroactive to Aug. 8. But La Russa said before Wednesday's 1-0 loss in Minnesota that Rodón's stay lasting the minimum 10 days was "overly optimistic." Calling on López to fill in not only plugs the hole in the rotation, but it allows the White Sox to continue to monitor the other four starting pitchers and make sure they're rested enough for what they hope is a lengthy postseason push.
"The thing we don't want to do is take the (upcoming) off day Friday and bring everybody back sooner (than they were scheduled) and not use that off day to get ready for this stretch of games. We've got about 17 after that in a row," La Russa said. "That would mean having Reynaldo take the ball in his turn in the Oakland series (next week on the South Side), if he's the guy.
"We've got guys like Jimmy Lambert, and so forth, down there that we could bring in. So not make a commitment, just watch. But Reynaldo is going to be watched closely today."
And then La Russa did watch, liking what he saw.
"I think overall he pitched well. Had to rise to the occasion a couple times and make pitches," La Russa said after the game. "López, I thought, had a good mix and made good pitches when he had to.
"He was impressive."
White Sox fans have watched López pitch a lot longer than La Russa has, of course, and some are unlikely to be swayed by three good innings against a last-place team, wary having seen The López Show before. Last season, the right-hander's ERA was 6.49. The year prior it was 5.38. And that's obviously not championship-level stuff.
But López has undoubtedly pitched well out of the bullpen, albeit in a small sample size, this season. And with Kopech locked into late-inning duty, López is getting the call, at least at the outset, for the time that Rodón needs a sub.
And that answers the question that hasn't needed to be answered until this moment:
López is the White Sox' sixth starter.