He’s one of the top pitching prospects in the game; in any other city his would have been the debut that set the town abuzz. However, Carlos Rodon’s arrival in Chicago didn’t lead to any national writers lurking in the clubhouse or SportsCenter segments dedicated to his impending unveiling. There was a solid media contingent surrounding him when he spoke prior to Monday’s game in the White Sox dugout, but it was nothing compared to the circus that Kris Byrant generated a week ago.
“Nah, I want to go under the radar,” Rodon said when asked if he had hoped for the same hype Bryant received.
Rodon finds himself trying to follow in the footsteps of some of the best starters who have ever donned a White Sox uniform. And like many of them, he’s starting his career out of the bullpen. Though the soft-spoken lefty is more than fine with his role, he knows bigger things could be in the offing.
“That’s the idea,” Rodon said about the possibility of being able to help the White Sox make the playoffs in a starting role later this summer. “That’s what you’re looking to do. This game’s all about winning, I mean, that’s the main goal.”
Rodon wants to win. He has high goals for himself and for the team. But taking a pitcher from the draft, to the minors, to the bullpen, and then to the rotation, all in the span of a year, is a tall task. It’s not unheard of, and while the White Sox haven’t executed this exact plan, they may be one of the better-suited teams to do so. They have the right pitching coach, a blueprint to follow for each step, and a pitcher who’s experienced something similar to help guide and mentor him along the way.
Before we get to Rodon’s mentor, and how he developed into the one of the best pitchers in the game, it’s interesting to look at where this story really began. Fourteen seasons ago, the White Sox acquired an aging lefty who was coming off an all-star season and a third-place finish in Cy Young voting. At the time, the acquisition looked like a brilliant move for a team coming off a 95-win season. The White Sox had an offense led by Frank Thomas, who was coming of a second-place MVP finish, and a young, talented core of Magglio Ordonez, Paul Konerko, and Carlos Lee.
The rotation was solid, but it lacked that veteran presence, a top-of-the-rotation arm with playoff experience. They seemingly solved that problem by acquiring David Wells. Unfortunately for the South Siders, Wells—and the team as a whole—flopped in 2001. Wells made just 16 decidedly average starts (posting a 104 ERA+), before being shut down for the season and eventually undergoing back surgery, and the White Sox finished with just 83 wins, good for third in the division.
On the face of things, the Wells addition was an unmitigated disaster for the Sox. It’s hard to debate that fact, as far as Wells’ performance is concerned. But something else happened that season, and Wells presence might have been a factor in this development. A 22-year-old lefty named Mark Buehrle tossed 221 2/3 innings—starting a string of 14-straight 200-plus inning seasons that’s still going today—and posted a 140 ERA+ with a league-leading 1.07 WHIP.
From a 2005 column on MLB.com by Scott Merkin:
Wells served as a pitching mentor to Buehrle when they were part of the same rotation in Chicago during the 2001 campaign. Buehrle called Wells "one of those guys you sit next to and listen to him talk about baseball."
Buehrle has had a fascinating career up to this point, one that some even argue may be inching toward Hall of Fame consideration. And while he’s been consistently durable and solid for a decade and a half, the man who he took under his wing five years ago is a completely different type of pitcher.
Chris Sale is one of the more dominating arms in the game today. Unlike Buehrle, who relied on his command, sequencing, and solid cutter, Sale has an all-around impressive arsenal of pitches. His four-seamer sits in the mid-90s, he’s got a devastating changeup, and an equally impressive slider that he’s lately been using less often in favor of the change. Sale, unlike Buehrle, is the type of pitcher everyone notices; he is perennially in the Cy Young chase—when he’s healthy, a caveat that has never needed attaching to Buerhle.
But despite the differences, echoes of the Buehrle/Wells story have been told of the Sale/Buehrle story. According to Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times, Sale learned from Buehrle by just observing the veteran go about his business.
‘‘Pace of game, being efficient. Throwing strikes. Watching how he went out there and worked his craft—that’s kind of what I like to do is throw strikes. If they’re going to get on, make them hit it. And work quickly. Your defense is a lot better behind you when you’re moving quick and they’re in and out.’’
This brings us to the latest mentor-mentee relationship that’s beginning to develop on the South Side of Chicago. “Whenever you have a future Cy Young winner, one of the best pitchers in baseball as a teammate, you can pick up on anything,” Rodon recently said of having Sale on his side. And like Sale with Buehrle, Sale isn’t really in Rodon’s ear pumping the kid with advice. Rather, Rodon is just trying to learn from afar.
“I’m a guy who doesn’t speak much,” Rodon said. “I do more watching and listening. I like to watch anybody throw. I just like being at the field. We talk a little bit, but mostly I just watch him throw.”
Along with having the benefit of a pipeline of lefties around to mentor the next up and comer, the White Sox as an organization have done a very impressive job developing each of these arms. And something that Buehrle, Sale, and now Rodon all have in common is that, while the ultimate destination was always to be a starter, they began their major-league careers working out of the pen.
“We are going to learn from our history of being able to do that with Chris (Sale) and Mark Buehrle before him in terms of getting him to the rotation at some point in the not too distant future,” general manager Rick Hahn said. “To answer that next question, there is no specific date. There is no date on anyone’s calendar when he’s going to be in the rotation. We just know ultimately he’s going to wind up there.”
After making three starts in late July 2000, Buehrle came out of the pen for his final 24 appearances of that season, before making the permanent transition to the rotation the following summer. Sale made zero starts in his first two seasons in the bigs before joining the rotation in 2012 and instantly becoming a Cy Young contender. Rodon was called up on Monday and made his first appearance, in relief of Hector Noesi, the next day.
“I’m gonna leave it to them,” Rodon said when asked if it makes him comfortable to know that they’ve successfully developed multiple starters by beginning their careers in the pen. “They know what they’re doing, I’m just going to pitch.”
Pitching coach Don Cooper was a little more confident when declaring his comfort level of starting Rodon in the ‘pen. When asked what he learned from doing it with both Sale and Buehrle in the past, Cooper didn’t hesitate.
“That it will work really well,” Cooper flatly stated.
And what if the White Sox find themselves in a playoff race next season and a need pops up in the rotation, could they transition Rodon to the rotation without sending him back down to the rotation?
“Did you see what we did to Noesi last year?” Cooper pointed out. “Well, there you go.”
When the White Sox acquired Noesi last season, he’d solely been working as a reliever. They worked him out of the bullpen for one game, gave him a short 3 2/3 inning start four days later, and he remained in the rotation the rest of the way, tossing at least six innings in 20 of his next 26 starts.
Hahn recalled that Sale spent two seasons in the bullpen and said he didn’t believe it would be that long of a process with Rodon.
“We're going to let him evolve,” Hahn said. “There're no real restrictions on him in terms of his usage out of the pen at this time. It is a transition, so you're not going to see back-to-backs initially, you're not going to see an inordinate workload in a given week initially. We're going to ease him into this. Again, his development's not done. This is the next step, the most visible step, and ideally, the finishing step in his development. This is about Carlos' long-term ability to contribute in Chicago and ultimately at the front end of the rotation.”
Instead of racking up six-plus innings every five days against inferior competition in Triple-A, the White Sox are going to hone Rodon’s skills at the big-league level against big-league hitters. They’ll have one of the game’s most revered and successful pitching coaches working with him, while the organization ensures that his innings total doesn’t reach a level that would keep him from working out of the rotation if the need arises later in the season.
The White Sox aren’t reinventing the wheel with this process, but in an era in which we often see young starters shutdown before the season ends due to innings limits, they’ve set themselves up to make sure their best players are available to them when they might need it most. Sale starting a Game One and Rodon aspiring to match him: “That’s a guy I'd like to be just as good as. Maybe even better,” he says.