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Back end of rotation a key for White Sox in 2016

Mat Latos hasn't done much to impress in two Cactus League outings this spring. AP

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – In Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon, the White Sox have a perennial Cy Young candidate, perhaps the most underrated starter in baseball and a budding star who, as a group, rate as one of the best starting trios in baseball.

What happens next, in the 4 and 5 spots of the rotation, is another story, one that could go a long way in making or breaking the Sox in 2016.

John Danks, since his shoulder surgery, is a 4.75 ERA pitcher. Mat Latos, coming off health issues of his own, like Danks has an accomplished top-of-the-rotation past. Latos’ second rough start in as many Cactus League outings Sunday (he’s given up 13 runs over 8 2/3 innings) was cause for alarm, considering there isn’t much in the way of options for the Sox after Erik Johnson struggled and was sent out to minor league camp March 21 and Jacob Turner, signed for $1.5 million in the offseason, failed to distinguish himself as well.

Johnson and Turner’s struggles made the Latos signing look even more important, for a relatively inexpensive $3 million, on Feb. 9. The Sox would be feeling better about it if he showed more.

“It’s getting close to the end,’’ manager Robin Ventura said of Latos Monday. “We have to pick it up.’’

Danks, after breezing through two consecutive scoreless outings of five and six innings, had a more typical outing Monday, giving up four runs on eight hits over six innings. After giving up an alarming three consecutive homers, he retired 12 of the last 13 Rockies he faced.

There are those who say 2015 No. 8 overall pick Carson Fulmer, who handled his first major league camp with aplomb and helps paint a nice long-term picture for the Sox rotation – Sale is under team control through 2019, Quintana through 2020 and Rodon just completed his rookie year – would be a better option than Latos right now. But the Sox aren’t going to push the 22-year-old, who needs more than 22 minor-league innings and five Cactus League appearances to establish a meaningful base. He’ll start the season at AA Birmingham.

“Carson had an outstanding camp,’’ general manager Rick Hahn said, “not just throwing the ball well but fitting in, taking to the coaches, being comfortable and taking to the cutter that was added this spring. But to project him into 2016 would be an extremely quick development path.’’

Sale and Rodon, high first-rounders themselves, were moved along the fast track – Sale getting 21 relief appearances the year he was drafted but spending his first full year in the bullpen and Rodon made 23 starts the year after he was picked – but the Sox don’t want to push Fulmer hard just because it worked for those two.

“He shows you a lot of similarities in terms of the ability and makeup that we saw from Chris and Carlos,’’ Hahn said, “so I get the speculation that he could contribute, and it may well be the case in 2016. But to expect it is probably still being a little aggressive.’’

Danks is in the final year of a five-year, $65 million deal, and Latos is on a one-year deal. And with Fulmer on the rise, the back-of-the-rotation-concern storyline figures to fade away with them. The storyline growing momentum is the Sox’ young, talented and – thanks to long-term deals worked out by Hahn for Sale and Quintana – cost effective rotation that figures to have depth.

“It’s essential to grow front end starting pitching internally, just given the cost we’ve seen that type of premium talent go for on the open market,’’ Hahn said. “It’s far more cost effective for us to grow it and augment that roster externally. To be in a position, perhaps not in 2016 but in 2017 and beyond of having Sale, Quintana, Rodon, Fulmer and others coming gives you a good base to build off of.’’