Coming into this season everyone knew what the White Sox had at the front of their rotation, and it is pretty good.
A legit ace in Chris Sale, one of the most underrated pitchers in the game in Jose Quintana, and super sophomore Carlos Rodon combine for a very strong 1-2-3 punch. In fact, the ZiPS predictions project that threesome to amass more WAR (13.2) than the full rotations of any other team in the AL Central.
There is no question the top of the Sox rotation should be very strong, the issue comes when looking at the back end.
For most of this off-season it looked as if the final two spots in the rotation would be filled by some combination of John Danks, Erik Johnson, and Jacob Turner, with Danks and Johnson the more likely options.
Then came the Mat Latos signing in early February, rendering the battle for the final rotation spots more or less moot. The Sox would likely roll with Latos and Danks in the final two spots unless someone performed so well this spring that it would force the team to re-evaluate that decision.
That has not been the case, and the picture became even clearer on Monday when the Sox re-assigned Erik Johnson to Charlotte.
Johnson, in particular, did nothing to help his own cause. His two starts were nothing short of disastrous, allowing nine earned runs in six innings with an astronomical 2.167 WHIP and just three strikeouts. It has to be disappointing for Johnson, who probably is starting to feel like it might never happen for him at the major league level with the White Sox.
But the spring struggles are not unique to Johnson. Both Danks and Turner have also been roughed up in Cactus League play. Danks has a 7.98 ERA in four games, although his most recent outing against the Cubs (5 IP, 1 hit, 0 runs, 2 BB, 7 K) was encouraging. Turner, a former first round pick, has a 10.24 ERA in four starts and is allowing almost two hits per inning.
None of this is particularly encouraging if you are a White Sox fan.
As good as those top three pitchers could be, the team will still need to win their fair share of games from the bottom two spots as well. The spring performances of Johnson and Turner have highlighted what many already knew about the Sox starting pitching, that the lack of depth is a serious concern.
Because of this, the Sox will be banking even more heavily on a bounce back season from Mat Latos. The 28-year-old right-hander was one of the most durable pitchers in the game in the early part of this decade.
From 2010-2013 Latos averaged exactly 200 innings per year with a 3.27 ERA and a 1.161 WHIP while striking out more than three times as many batters as he walked. But then the injury bug got to him and over the last two seasons he totaled just 218.2 innings while posting a 4.16 ERA. The White Sox will need Latos to not only be an effective pitcher, but also a durable one.
If Latos cannot stay healthy, then the Sox will be turning to either Johnson or possibly Turner – if he clears waivers – to pick up the slack. With what we have seen this spring, that doesn’t sound like a recipe for long term success this season.
There is one other possibility, one that may be more likely now than it appeared to be at the start of spring training. That possibility is Carson Fulmer, the Sox number one draft pick from last year. Fulmer has stuck around big league camp and had a very good outing in relief his last time out.
For the spring he’s got a 4.15 ERA with a 1.50 WHIP and six strikeouts in 8.2 innings. He has struggled with his command though, issuing five free passes. Fulmer will start the season at AAA Charlotte, and the Sox would certainly prefer to let him develop and work on refining some of his pitches in the minors, but as we have seen with others, they are not set against bringing him up to the big leagues with minimal time in the minors.
None of these are ideal scenarios for the White Sox, but if the top three in the rotation are as good as many expect them to be, ideal isn’t necessarily needed. What they will need is for the bottom two pitchers to be “good enough.”
No one expects their fourth and fifth starters to be world beaters, but they have to be able to win you some games throughout the season. For the Sox to be successful, they will need those rotation spots to be better than what they are projected to be. But more than that, they will need those spots to be stable.
Otherwise you could see a rotating door at the back end of the rotation, and that is usually the sign of a team struggling to get through the year, not one that hopes to contend for a playoff berth.
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