White Sox add by subtracting but 5th starter role still uncertain

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Erik Johnson sill start for the White Sox against the Red Sox Thursday night. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty )

With John Danks jettisoned from the starting rotation as well as all the way out of the organization, the White Sox need to find a capable fifth starter to fill the void.

There’s no immediate obvious answer, and there’s plenty at stake: The franchise’s first shot at playing in the postseason since 2008. The last time they were in contention was four years ago, so while the getting is good, you grab at the chance and hold tight.

The Sox have tried to get by without a capable fifth starter in otherwise good rotations before and got burned, most recently in 2003 when they finished 86-76 and in second place in the AL Central, four games behind the Minnesota Twins. After Esteban Loiza (21-9, 2.90 ERA), Bartolo Colon (15-13, 3.87), Mark Buehrle (14-14, 4.14) and Jon Garland (12-13, 4.51), they handed 15 starts to Dan Wright (1-7, 6.15) and five to Josh Stewart (1-2, 5.96).

In 1996, the Sox finished second in the division behind the Cleveland Indians with Alex Fernandez (16-10, 3.45), Kevin Tapani (13-10, 4.59), Wilson Alvarez (15-10, 4.22) and James Baldwin (11-6, 4.42) ably manning the first four spots in the rotation. After that, an assemblage of Joe Magrane (eight starts, 1-5, 6.88), Luis Andujar (five starts, 0-2, 8.22) and Mike Sirotka (four starts, 1-2, 7.18) gave them Danks-like production. There was no catching the Indians with that.

To Danks’ credit, he knew the Sox’ chances of hanging with or above the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals, not to mention the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians, with a squeaky wheel would be compromised.

“The team is hot, the team is playing well,’’ Danks said Wednesday. “That’s obvious and you can’t go out there with four-fifths of a rotation. I totally understand that.

“In order to win this thing, you have to have five starters giving you a shot every night out.’’

Erik Johnson, a 26-year-old second round draft pick in 2011 who was the AAA International League Pitcher of the Year in 2015, has had mixed results (7-14, 4.17 ERA) over five, five and six starts in each of the last three seasons at the big league level. He will be called up to start Thursday against the Boston Red Sox, but general manager Rick Hahn calls the rotation situation “fluid” because former first-round Tigers pick Jacob Turner and 31-year-old Miguel Gonzalez – who made one poor start last Monday (5 1/3 innings, five runs, 11 hits) in Toronto — are also in the mix and available to make spot starts to help keep the rotation fresh with a look ahead to the “dog days,” as Hahn put it.

Gonzalez, who owns a career 3.86 ERA in the majors, is 1-0 with a 2.65 ERA over four starts at Charlotte. Turner is 2-0, 3.05 over five starts. All of the options have better stuff than post-surgery Danks.

Barring a long-shot signing of Tim Lincecum, those appear to be the Sox options until the trade market opens up in late June and July.

“There’s not a ton of activity in April and May,’’ Hahn said. “You see the occasional player change hands, usually more from a depth piece as opposed to someone who’s counted upon to be part of a rotation or a major contributor. That stuff will be in June and July.’’

Pitching is the primary reason for the blazing 19-8 start the Sox took into their game against the Red Sox at U.S. Cellular Field Wednesday. The rotation is stacked from the left side with Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, both pitching like early Cy Young candidates, and second-year talent Carlos Rodon, Wednesday’s starter. Sale, Quintana and right-hander Mat Latos are a combined 14-1 with 1.61 ERA.

“Given the fact that we feel like this could well be a very special summer around here, there certainly was heightened scrutiny to all the areas where we weren’t performing,’’ Hahn said. “But that fifth spot was one where we felt it was imperative we made a move.’’

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