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Left-hander Rodon cut from special cloth

First big league start Saturday could be the beginning of something great for White Sox
MLB.com @philgrogers

On the April day that Carlos Rodon was promoted to the big leagues, I asked him about a start he had made against the Cuban national team.

"Which one?'' Rodon asked.

On the April day that Carlos Rodon was promoted to the big leagues, I asked him about a start he had made against the Cuban national team.

"Which one?'' Rodon asked.

Which one?

How many American pitchers are there with that kind of experience?

Video: CWS@MIN: Rodon pitches three scoreless innings

Rodon, ranked by MLB.com as the No. 1 White Sox prospect and No. 15 overall, indeed faced the Cubans twice while pitching for Team USA during his incredible run at North Carolina State.

Rodon threw six innings in Havana in 2012, facing a team that was so loaded with hitters (among them Frederich Cepeda, Rusney Castillo, Alfredo Despaigne and legendary catcher Ariel Pestano) that Jose Abreu was on the bench. He threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings against the Cubans in Durham, N.C., in 2013, a game that Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent says might have been the best game he's ever seen Rodon pitch.

That time, Rodon struck out 11, walked none and allowed two hits to a lineup that included Yulieski Gourriel and Yasmany Tomas. It capped a run of 17 scoreless innings, with 21 strikeouts, for Team USA.

Rodon is a special guy. The White Sox were lucky to get him in last year's Draft, when the Astros and Marlins fell in love with high school pitchers Brady Aiken and Tyler Kolek rather than making the default pick, and they can't wait to see how he does on Saturday night against the Reds, opposing Johnny Cueto in his first Major League start.

There's a subtlety to the assignment, as Rodon is being used as a sixth starter to fill a need created by the five-game suspensions to Chris Sale and Jeff Samardzija. The White Sox haven't committed to Rodon beyond Saturday, with manager Robin Ventura saying they'll let him pitch and take it from there.

Video: CLE@CWS: Rodon fans Chisenhall for first career K

But who really believes that Rodon won't soon -- if not immediately -- replace Hector Noesi or John Danks to take a regular turn alongside Sale, Samardzija and lefty Jose Quintana?

Danks is a proven pro and a strong presence in the clubhouse, but his pitching hasn't been the same since a shoulder injury that required surgery in 2012. Noesi, claimed on waivers in 2014, has worked hard to become a nice depth piece. But between them, Danks and Noesi have gone 20-28 with a 4.78 ERA in 67 starts the past two seasons.

A more telling number for the White Sox organization is the team's 29-38 record in those starts. It needs to do something to flip that winning percentage around if it is to recover from a disappointing start and deliver the anticipated returns on an offseason investment in talent.

Rodon has a chance to join Sale (landed with the 13th overall Draft pick in 2010) in giving the White Sox their best 1-2 combination of homegrown starters since the early 1990s, when Jack McDowell and Alex Fernandez were together for a five-season run. Factor Samardzija and Quintana into the mix, and the Sox have a rotation they should be able to win behind.

You wonder if it's fair to put so much on a 22-year-old's shoulders. But Rodon has handled big expectations since he turned down the Brewers, after they drafted him in 2011, to go to North Carolina State, where he was the best pitching prospect in the country his freshman year.

Video: CLE@CWS: Rodon excited to be called up to White Sox

It will not be a surprise if Rodon outpitches the battle-hardened Cueto on Saturday. Nor if he makes a run at Toronto's Devon Travis in American League Rookie of the Year Award consideration once he's been firmly installed in the White Sox rotation.

Rodon is cut from that cloth.

Given Rodon's build (6-foot-3, 235 pounds), his well-trained delivery, his collections of pitches -- especially a slider that makes the best hitters look feeble -- and a level of experience that goes far beyond his short time as a pro, he fits the Stephen Strasburg /Mark Prior profile.

Or, if White Sox fans prefer, the McDowell/Fernandez model.

In the 50 years that Major League Baseball has had a Draft, the White Sox have used first-round picks on college pitchers 14 times. Few of those have had significant careers, but the point isn't that Rodon is a first-rounder, it's that he went at the top of the first round.

Because Jerry Reinsdorf and his general managers consistently built competitive teams, the White Sox didn't pick in the top 10 for a run of 17 consecutive Drafts. They took college pitchers in the first round eight times in that era, with Baylor's Kip Wells having the best career. The high-end, obvious talent -- the guys like Justin Verlander, Matt Harvey, David Price, Gerrit Cole and Strasburg -- was always off the board by the time the White Sox picked.

Video: Draft 2014: White Sox draft LHP Carlos Rodon No. 3

It goes fast every year, and if you're not picking high enough to have an ace land in your lap, your only choice is to spend aggressively to get it, either through free agency or in trades. Rodon is the franchise-changing pick that the White Sox always saw go somewhere else.

Since 1985, the White Sox have picked in the top five only three times. They drafted a college pitcher every chance they got: McDowell from Stanford with the fifth pick in 1987, Fernandez from Miami with the fourth pick in 1990, and Rodon with the third pick last year.

Because the chance to grab such a commodity is rare, the White Sox are going to handle Rodon carefully. They haven't announced even a soft innings limit for Rodon, as the Nationals did with Strasburg's 160 in 2012, but that doesn't mean one isn't in place.

Rodon has thrown only 16 1/3 innings thus far -- 10 in two Triple-A starts and the rest in three insignificant outings out of the bullpen. The White Sox will face a decision on what to do with him after Saturday's start.

If Rodon moved into the rotation, he could wind up making 27 starts. He would wind up approaching 180 innings with an average of six innings. But unless the Sox continue to try to hide Rodon in the bullpen, he's going to get innings somewhere.

Why not get them where they can help the most? That would be as a starter.

Maybe you can write a script where the White Sox play their way into contention this summer without having Sale, Samardzija, Rodon and Quintana building off each other's successes. But that's the one clear path for a team that doesn't seem likely to outslug anyone.

Line 'em up, get 'em going. As the great Rooster Cogburn once said, you're burning daylight.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Chicago White Sox, Carlos Rodon