GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Barring an unexpected injury, the 2014 White Sox starting rotation looks pretty much set even in early March.
The order of those starters, though, remains open for interpretation.
Chris Sale stands as a near 100 percent certainty to receive a second straight Opening Day nod on March 31 at U.S. Cellular Field against the Twins. If the Cactus League rotation is played out as is through March, the left-hander would take the mound on the club's scheduled off-day of March 20 against Minor League competition and then again on Tuesday, March 25 at home against the Rockies.
Sale would then have five days before the start of the regular season. It's an extra day of rest the White Sox have employed in the past during that final week of Spring Training, bridging that last Cactus League appearance into the first start that counts in the standings.
John Danks, Felipe Paulino, Jose Quintana and Erik Johnson follow Sale in that Spring Training order. With the Tuesday off-day built in after the home opener, all four will have that extra day and give the team a little flexibility.
But if Quintana gets his set work during a March 28 exhibition at Double-A Birmingham, a rotation featuring Paulino or Johnson second, Quintana third, Paulino or Johnson fourth and Danks fifth makes sense at the outset.
For starters, it splits up the three southpaws aside from having Danks and Sale working back-to-back. It also insulates the White Sox against Paulino and Johnson, with the two right-handers put between Sale, Quintana and Danks, each of whom the team basically is counting on for seven innings far more often than not.
This assessment certainly doesn't suggest a lack of confidence in Paulino or Johnson. Paulino has not pitched in a Major League game since June 6, 2012, because of ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery in July of that year and a cyst removed from his shoulder last September. With 346 innings over 61 starts, Paulino averages just under 6 innings per start for his career.
Johnson, the organization's No. 3 prospect in 2013 per MLB.com, has just five big league September starts to his credit. While expectations remain extraordinarily high, the unknown comes into play for the rookie right-hander.
Putting Paulino and Johnson at the end of the rotation, behind Sale, Quintana and Danks, has the possibility to put a bit of extra pressure on the bullpen. And the bullpen already has dealt with a left glute issue for Nate Jones, a left oblique strain for Matt Lindstrom and Daniel Webb leaving camp to deal with a death in the family, not to mention Ronald Belisario's ongoing absence because of visa issues in Venezuela.
Even with seven relievers, which is what the White Sox are expected to take, they don't want to put undue workload on them early or at all.
Danks now pitches with one full year of work behind him after arthroscopic shoulder surgery in August 2012. He has received rave reviews both health-wise and with how the ball is coming out of his hand, working three scoreless innings during his first Cactus League start Thursday against the Mariners.
Standing as the second starter, third starter or the fifth starter makes little difference to the eight-year veteran. It's a message he conveyed to pitching coach Don Cooper during one of their offseason meetings in Nashville, Tenn.
"I don't know where they got me right now, but no, it doesn't make me any difference," Danks said. "After the first couple of games, it gets all messed up anyway. That's something I'm not concerning myself with at all.
"They like to look at a lot of matchups. They know who is going to be near the top of the rotation, but you know when it comes to that three, four swingman-type person in the rotation, they are looking more the first few series and who you match up with and trying to give you the best matchup possible."
If the rotation runs Sale, Paulino, Quintana, Johnson and Danks, then the first Interleague series in Colorado tentatively would feature Paulino, Quintana and Johnson, and Johnson would make his first two starts on the road. The ensuing four-game series at home against Cleveland would line up three southpaws including Sale, who had a 0-4 record with an 8.61 ERA against the Indians last year and an 11-10 record and 2.40 ERA over 26 starts against everyone else.
Those three lefties also would be in line to face American League Central-favorite Detroit over a four-game set at Comerica Park from April 21-24. Of course, this setup falls into the educated guess category, and Danks pointed out that the rotation frequently changes and stays fluid throughout the season.
As Cooper stated recently, the White Sox don't necessarily believe in the first starter through fifth starter classification. They are simply looking to give their team the best chance to win on each given day. Danks currently would be lined up as No. 2 behind Sale, although manager Robin Ventura said Thursday that what it looks like now might look different later.
Ventura would like to break up the three lefties, as well, but nothing is certain regarding the order. With 10 games in the Midwest and three in Colorado over the first two weeks, even the games aren't certainties following this icy winter.
"We are already taking the weather kind of into account," Ventura said. "It doesn't look like at this point we are going to have a free run through the first week or two."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Merk's Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin.