GLENDALE, Ariz. — Right-hander Dylan Cease is accustomed to a high bar for who he can be.
White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal raised it another notch Thursday when he said Cease has the ability to be a Cy Young finalist — or more.
No pressure, Mr. 25-year-old with 26 major-league starts and a 5.00 ERA on his résumé.
“It’s as big a compliment as you can get from somebody,” Cease said Friday of Grandal’s comments, of which Cease was made aware via a text message from his father.
As low-key as them come, Cease took it in stride.
“I’m not putting any extra pressure on myself,” he said. “I know what the expectations are.”
The expectation last season was that he would be good enough to take the ball in Game 3 of the Sox’ wild-card series against the Athletics in October. But the command of his four-seam fastball, which averaged 97 mph, escaped him. Cease walked 34 batters in 58⅓ innings, including 14 batters in 12⅓ innings over his last three starts, none of which reached five innings.
He finished with a 4.01 ERA but wasn’t getting as many strikeouts as his velocity, spin rate and exceptionally sharp breaking pitches seemingly should have led to. He couldn’t be trusted in Game 3, and rookie Dane Dunning was given the start. Dunning then got the quick hook on an excruciating bullpen day for the Sox, who used nine pitchers, walked nine batters and lost 6-4 to end their season.
“It was one of those [situations] where I understood it,” Cease said of not getting the ball. “I didn’t really earn a spot there. It is what it is, and all I could do was go into the offseason, talk to [new Sox pitching coach] Ethan [Katz] and figure out what needs to be changed.”
Cease went to work with Katz, who got him to use a core velocity belt — also used by Lucas Giolito — to help him stay closed in his delivery. Katz’s drills are helping.
“I think the biggest thing is just command, especially the fastball,” Cease said. “We’ve worked on not only getting it to carry and ride better, but the second part of the equation is being able to command it. Just commanding, basically.”
So far, so good. Grandal watched Cease throwing off a mound weeks before camp began and texted Katz with excitement.
“I feel like if we get him to where we see him going, this guy could be a Cy Young finalist — he could possibly be a Cy Young winner,” Grandal said. “He’s got the tools to do it — there’s no doubt on that. Now it just comes down to the process and making sure he gets to do it and sees the vision that we have for him. And the future is only going to dictate whether we can get him to be what we want him to be or not.”
The Sox traded for Lance Lynn in the offseason and now have three actual Cy Young candidates on staff. (Dallas Keuchel finished fifth in American League Cy Young voting last season, Lynn was sixth and Giolito seventh.) This allows Cease to slide into the No. 4 spot in the rotation — perhaps a perfect fit for a high-ceiling guy who doesn’t have to carry the rotation, yet somewhat risky for a team relying on unproven talent to deliver it toward World Series aspirations.
“Some guys take six, seven years to develop and then become the guy that everybody saw at the beginning of their career,” Grandal said.
The Sox are banking on Katz to pull that out of Cease.
“He’s really connected with Ethan, and he’s definitely making progress,” manager Tony La Russa said. “He’s the kind of guy [where] you can’t wait for his next time out there, which is Saturday.”