CHICAGO -- For the long term, there is now a definite plan in place for the Chicago White Sox's starting rotation, it’s just the short term where they could take their lumps.
It could be said that the White Sox were in better shape with their rotation at the end of last spring -- and look where that took them. A year ago they had Chris Sale and Jose Quintana returning from breakout seasons as starters, while Jake Peavy and Gavin Floyd brought a veteran presence. John Danks was working his way back to strength after shoulder surgery.
This year Sale and Quintana have another year of experience, which is a definite plus, while Danks is even stronger. But the White Sox essentially had two rotation openings this spring that they are filling with Felipe Paulino, whose injury issues have kept him out of action for nearly two years, and Erik Johnson, who only has five games of major league experience.
Nobody knows what to expect from Paulino, which actually had been the story of his career, even before an elbow issue while pitching for the Kansas City Royals led to Tommy John surgery in 2012. While trying to make a comeback last year, a shoulder issue required an arthroscopic procedure.
Before 2012, Paulino had essentially been a journeyman, with three mediocre stints on his resume in Houston, Colorado and Kansas City. He never had a winning record and had a bloated ERA over 5.00.
Then came 2012 when Paulino stormed out of the gate with a 3-1 record and a 1.67 ERA in seven starts before he was rudely awakened from his dream with the elbow issue.
This spring he has thrown strikes, but his 14 earned runs allowed are second on the staff to Quintana’s 20, and Quintana allowed nine of those in a single start. Yet Paulino’s 18 strikeouts are easily the best on the staff.
He did enough this spring, though, to be given a chance, although the $1.75 million the White Sox invested in him this year made it clear they were going to try to get at least something out of their investment.
Johnson is also an unknown entity, but one that oozes upside. His big body suggests high velocity, but he actually tops out in the low-to-mid 90-mph range. His success comes from a natural sink on his pitches that yields ground balls.
As a September call-up last season, Johnson did enough in five starts (3-2, 3.25 ERA) to put him out front of the competition this spring when it came to a rotation spot. He didn’t dominate this spring, but did enough to nail down the spot he was lined up for.
The White Sox hope Johnson can take a step toward nailing down a rotation spot for the foreseeable future along with Sale, Quintana and Danks. They don’t need him to threaten Quintana for the honors of the second best starter on the staff -- although they wouldn’t complain -- they would just like to see him to prove that he can be a long-term option.
Looking even further toward the future, Andre Rienzo has shown promise, but Chris Beck is ready to pass him on the depth chart, especially after he posted a 3.11 ERA over 21 starts at the Single-A level last year and then delivered a 2.89 mark in five starts at Double-A.
So while the rotation is in an adjustment period this year, the White Sox would really like to see a future rotation of Sale, Quintana, Danks, Johnson and Beck become more of a reality.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH FOR
Each of the past two seasons Sale has run into a minor early-season arm issue that he ended up pitching through. The White Sox would like to avoid a similar hiccup this year. And while the left-hander isn’t on any innings restrictions, don’t be surprised if he stays under last year’s 214 1/3 mark, especially if the team is well out of contention.
The White Sox chalked up Quintana’s spring struggles to ongoing contract negotiations. Now that those are finished and his five-year pact is signed, it would stand to reason that his head is clear now. Now in his third season (second full season) look for the left-hander to try and buck the trend of fading as the season wears on. His 4.32 September ERA is his highest of any month just ahead of his 4.00 mark in August. Every other month he is at 3.58 or lower.
Beck might have the highest upside of all of the minor league starters, but Rienzo would be a safe bet to get the first chance if the White Sox need to fill a spot in the major league rotation. Rienzo showed some promise in his 10 major league starts last season but command issues were his ultimate undoing.