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White Sox taking it easy with Dylan Cease — and with good reason

Manager Rick Renteria takes starting pitcher Michael Kopech out of the game against the Tigers in the 4th inning at Guaranteed Rate Field on September 5, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. Kopech had Tommy John surgery later that month. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Right-hander Dylan Cease made his first start of the spring Tuesday, a one-inning, 14-pitch outing against the Indians in a split-squad Cactus League game.

It felt like a good day for the rebuilding White Sox, who have had more than their fair share of injuries top prospects, including a few of their best young pitchers.

With Michael Kopech out for the season after having Tommy John surgery in September, Cease is the Sox’ top healthy pitching prospect. And they want to keep him that way, so they’re bringing him along at an easy pace in spring training.

The goal is to have him strong when he’s surpassing his career high of 124 innings, which he might do in a Sox uniform sometime after the All-Star break after spiffing up his portfolio at Class AAA Charlotte, where he’ll start the season.

It makes sense to take it easy with Cease, who threw almost all fastballs during his outing, threw about 15 more pitches in the bullpen, then called it an afternoon. The Sox already are reeling somewhat from arm setbacks to Dane Dunning and Alec Hansen, who a year ago were the 92nd- and 54th-ranked prospects in baseball. Kopech was 10th.

Cease, Kopech, Dunning and Hansen were viewed at the time as possibly four-fifths of a starting rotation that would put the Sox on the championship path they are striving for. With Carlos Rodon, Reynaldo Lopez and

Lucas Giolito developing in the majors, the only problem seemed to be figuring out which of them would work in the bullpen.

Last season, however, Hansen suffered from a sore forearm and a shoulder issue, although he’s said to be progressing in minor-league camp. Dunning suffered a sprained right elbow at Class AA Birmingham in June, seemed to recover by October, then had a setback this spring. He is close to wrapping up a seven- to 10-day rest period and will be re-evaluated soon. Reliever Zack Burdi, a first-round pick in 2016, is pitching in minor-league camp as he returns from Tommy John surgery.

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‘‘Hey, pitchers break,’’ executive vice president Ken Williams told the Sun-Times last week. ‘‘That’s why I don’t believe you’ve ever heard me say I was comfortable with our pitching depth. You may as well put it on my tombstone: We still need pitching.’’

Look no farther than across town to know that goes for everyone. The Cubs’ failure to develop pitching came home to roost when they were forced to exercise Cole Hamels’ pricey option this winter.

The Sox, who always have made pitching a draft priority in the Williams/Rick Hahn era, were thin on position players in their farm system when the rebuild started but made sure they got Kopech from the Red Sox in the trade for Chris Sale, Cease from the Cubs in the deal for Jose Quintana and Giolito, Lopez and Dunning from the Nationals in the trade for Adam Eaton.

‘‘We’re never comfortable with the depth, so we’ll keep trying to add,’’ Williams said. ‘‘Rick expressed it when we were making a lot of the moves. People asked, ‘Why three pitchers from Washington?’ Well, here’s the answer: Because you can’t foresee it, but you’d better see the possibility.’’

The possibility of injuries, especially to pitchers.

So who is there after Cease in terms of healthy pitching prospects? Among the Sox’ top 30, there are Ian Hamilton (14th), Burdi (16th), Jimmy Lambert (19th), Konnor Pilkington (20th) and Jose Ruiz, Zach Thompson, Caleb Frare, Lincoln Henzmen, Jonathan Stiever, Tyler Johnson, Jordan Stephens and Ryan Burr (23rd to 30th).

The Sox need some in that group to emerge and Kopech, Dunning and Hansen to be healthy by 2020.

‘‘If the worst thing is that some of these guys had this bout right now and they get repaired and they’re healthier for our run, OK,’’ Williams said. ‘‘We’ll be that much stronger.’’