Rodon's rise can lift White Sox to new heights
Pitching prospect's potential mirrors early days of Kershaw, Bumgarner
Carlos Rodon sticks his toe in the water tonight. He'll dive in soon, and if the splash is as big as it could be, the White Sox might become a serious threat to the Tigers and Royals in the American League Central.
So far, they have looked overmatched. But that's because the starting rotation that is expected to be their strength has an ERA of 5.29, which ranks 13th in the AL. Rodon's arrival could quickly turn that around, assuming that general manager Rick Hahn and manager Robin Ventura don't wait too long to move him into the rotation.
The 22-year-old lefty comes equipped with a mid-90s fastball and a sweeping slider that can frustrate hitters like Clayton Kershaw's curveball, the one that Vin Scully nicknamed "Public Enemy No. 1'' when he saw it for the first time in a Grapefruit League game.
Rodon was one of the most impressive pitchers in Arizona this spring, striking out 21 in 17 2/3 innings. He dominated the Royals in his best start, working four scoreless innings with nine strikeouts. Eric Hosmer said Rodon's selection of pitches was "pretty devastating,'' and didn't laugh when it was compared to the package of pitches that Madison Bumgarner used to be the World Series MVP.
Rodon is expected to pitch out of the bullpen this week, when the White Sox are home for seven games against the Indians and Royals. He'll help in a stretch when the Sox play 17 consecutive days, but his true value will be felt when he moves into the rotation. That could come as soon as a start against the Tigers in a series at U.S. Cellular on May 5-7.
A reasonable template for Rodon's potential lies in the age-20 and age-21 seasons of Kershaw and Bumgarner. They combined to put together a 3.24 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings while making 102 starts, with an average of less than six innings per start.
In their first two seasons, when they were younger and less experienced than Rodon will be in his, Kershaw and Bumgarner had an average WAR of 2.98 (combining the different calculations by baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com).
Stack a 3.0 WAR starter alongside Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Jeff Samardzija, who last year combined for 14.3 fWAR (while ranking 8th, 10th and 17th respectively in the Majors), and you've got a rotation with a chance to be compared to the ones in Washington, Detroit and Seattle. That's the theory, anyway.
Like Kershaw and Bumgarner, whose arrivals were managed by Rick Honeycutt and Dave Righetti, respectively, Rodon is getting the benefit of a wise pitching coach in Don Cooper. That's huge for the proper development of a treasured asset.
If Rodon moves into the rotation in early May and stays healthy all season, he could make 27 starts. At six innings per start, plus what he's thrown at Triple-A Charlotte and a handful of relief innings, he's looking at working 175-180 innings in the regular season.
That's a lot for a pitcher who was at North Carolina State a year ago, starting once a week. But Rodon has a great pitcher's frame (6-foot-3, 235 pounds) and a track record for durability.
At one point in time, so did Stephen Strasburg and Matt Harvey, of course. Rodon comes with the inevitable risk of injury, perhaps even more than most because of his heavy use last season with the Wolfpack (starts of 134, 132, 125 and 121 pitches) and his love of the slider.
Yet Rodon has been building steadily toward this stage since an astonishing 2012 season in Raleigh, when he went 9-0 with a 1.57 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 114 2/3 innings. He was a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award that season, joining Bryce Harper in being so honored as a freshman.
Had Rodon been eligible for the Draft that season, he might have been the Astros' first overall pick, ahead of shortstop Carlos Correa. He was considered a better prospect throughout his college career than University of San Diego third baseman Kris Bryant, who joined the Cubs on Friday.
Rodon slipped to the third overall pick last year in part because of the heavy workload he carried, which caused his slider to flatten out. It was the same kind of good fortune for the White Sox as in the 2010 Draft, when Sale slid to the 13th pick because of questions about his rail-thin build and lack of cookie-cutter mechanics.
If all things were equal, Rodon might replace John Danks in the rotation. But Danks is a clubhouse leader for the pitching staff, is owed more than $26 million and is likely unsuited to handle the rigors of the bullpen. That adds up to Hector Noesi as the odd man out when Hahn feels the time is right for Rodon, even if that will give Ventura four lefties in his rotation.
That's still a little ways down the road. The priority at the moment is getting better results from Samardzija and Quintana (a disappointing 1-2, 6.00 in six combined starts) while getting the rookie jitters out of the way for Rodon.
This is an important season for the White Sox, who added Jose Abreu after a 99-loss season in 2013 -- the one that put them in position to draft Rodon -- and Samardzija, David Robertson, Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche after improving by 10 wins last season. They're going to handle Rodon carefully, but they could no longer ignore his potential to be a big-time contributor.