The Chicago White Sox aren’t going anywhere in 2017. That was obvious last offseason when they sold off seemingly everything that wasn’t tied down. And it remains obvious now, as they sit at 38-52 — with nice round 0 percent playoff odds — having just traded star pitcher Jose Quintana across town to the defending world champion Cubs. They’re rebuilding, is what I’m saying.
The nice thing about rebuilding is that it allows a team a certain amount of freedom that playing for something meaningful does not allow. Want to call up your top prospect, even if you feel he’s not quite ready? You can do that — experiencing failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since wins and losses mean less to you than to a team on the cusp of a Wild Card berth. Want to try out that hard-throwing reliever in the rotation? Go for it — what’s the worst that could happen? Experimentation is a key part of any rebuild.
White Sox starter Carlos Rodon is not an experiment in the traditional sense. He’s a former top prospect and already has two solid big league seasons under his belt. He’s not an unknown like that hypothetical prospect or reliever-turned-starter would be. You pretty much know what to expect from Rodon by now.
And yet, because of his stuff and pedigree, the expectations remain higher for Rodon than they would be for most other players in his position. He’s been good, sure, but as an amateur, he was expected to be an ace. Not many guys get those types of projections, but Rodon did when he was at NC State.
What’s prevented him from fulfilling that potential, more than anything, has been his inability to manage the strike zone. Rodon is wild — effectively wild, perhaps — and has shown little progress in terms of honing his command to the point where you can still project that future ace type of potential.
Lately, injuries have also crept in the way as well. Rodon didn’t make a single start this year until just a few weeks ago — June 28, to be exact — after suffering biceps bursitis in his pitching arm in the spring. In the meantime, the White Sox quickly fell out of the race, and Quintana was traded shortly after Rodon made his debut. With his departure, Rodon is left as the de facto staff ace, tasked with anchoring a rotation that cannot and should not expect to receive much run support on a regular basis.
That’s a simultaneously difficult and enviable position to be in. Difficult for obvious reasons: the White Sox aren’t likely to win very much for the foreseeable future, whether Rodon is on the mound or not. But also enviable in the sense that both Rodon and the White Sox can move forward in the roles they’ve long expected to be in for the next several years. Rodon can serve as the leader of the pitching staff, and anchor that spot as the White Sox’s young talent comes up and grows around him.
That can be a long and difficult process, and there’s no guarantee it ever results in anything meaningful. Rodon isn’t exactly off to a great start in 2017 — through three starts he’s walking an unconscionable 6.5 batters per nine — and it’s possible his command never progresses to the point that he’s anything more than a slightly above-average starter masquerading as an ace for a bad team.
Likewise, it’s possible that Rodon, should he develop the way many people in baseball have long expected him to, never gets the help from the White Sox’s system that prospects hounds currently project he will receive at some point. His career could turn out to be pretty similar to — gulp — Chris Sale or Jose Quintana: a damn good pitcher, but one that has to find another team before he gets to play in a game that anyone gives a damn about.
That’s the hard thing about rebuilding, though. As rosy as the White Sox future is, it’s still a massive unknown predicated on the success of players that have hardly even sniffed the major leagues. Whether they ultimately fulfill that promise won’t be conclusively known for several years, but whether it happens or not, Rodon will be around as a core piece of the team. The next step, then, is for the now-ace to start pitching like one, and hope that all of the other pieces fall in around him. That’s easier said than done.