Chris Sale has been traded.  Jose Quintana?  He will likely be traded soon as well.  As a result, a bevy of starting pitching prospects will soon be competing for a spot both now and in the future in the Chicago starting rotation.  Assuming Quintana is traded, either before Spring Training or at the 2017 trade deadline, the Sox rotation will contain bounce-back candidate James Shields, Miguel Gonzalez who is a free agent after 2017, free agent acquisition Derek Holland, likely Carson Fulmer who will be given an opportunity to develop as a starter at the big league level soon, and Carlos Rodon.  For a rebuilding club, it isn’t too bad of a rotation.  However, there are clearly question marks going into 2017 and beyond.  There will be a number of factors that determine the level of success of this White Sox rebuild, but I would argue that Carlos Rodon is the biggest key.  Can Rodon take a big step forward and replace Chris Sale as the staff ace?  Let’s take a look.

Carlos Rodon has had high expectations placed on him since he was drafted 3rd overall by the White Sox in 2014.  Considering Rodon had only appeared in 11 games (8 starts) throwing only 34.1 innings in the minors before making his Major League debut in 2015, Rodon’s numbers in Chicago have been impressive.  While still developing a change-up and working on his command, Rodon has pitched to a very respectable 3.90 ERA over two seasons and 51 starts.  Over 304.1 big league innings, Rodon has struck out 307 batters – a very impressive total.  He has electric stuff, so the strikeout numbers shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise.  However, he does walk more hitters than most would like.  While Rodon’s 2016 numbers overall were worse than his 2015 numbers, I would argue that Rodon improved greatly in 2016.

The aspects of Rodon’s pitching that showed improvement in 2016 prove that he is absolutely capable of being this club’s new ace.  Rodon struggled very much with his consistency during the first half of 2016.  He pitched to a 4.50 ERA, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.  In those 16 starts, Rodon had 9 starts where he gave up only 2 earned runs or less.  In the other 7 starts, he gave up 3 earned runs once, and 4 earned runs or more in the others.  He gave up 109 hits in 92 innings pitched, to the tune of a .295 opponent’s batting average and an .812 OPS – not good numbers by any stretch of the imagination.  However, during this run Rodon was experimenting with his repertoire.  Much like his mentor, staff ace Chris Sale, Rodon was adding and removing velocity from his fastball both to give the hitter a different look and to conserve energy with hopes that he might work deeper into games.  However, the result of this was that Rodon was very frequently throwing poorly located first pitch “batting practice” fastballs.  He lacked the command and experience to add and subtract velocity from his pitches as effectively as Sale, and this resulted in him getting hit around and hit hard quite a bit.  However, as time went on Rodon realized that he needed to trust his best stuff and throw his best fastball most of the time.  As a result, he continued to learn when  it was appropriate to add or subtract velocity from his pitches.  Rodon greatly improved in the 2nd half of 2016.  Over his final 12 starts, he pitched to a 3.45 ERA and a 7-3 record.  He struck out 77 batters in 73 innings pitched and allowed only 67 hits over those innings.  Opponents hit a lackluster .244 with a .696 OPS against Rodon over those 12 starts, a vast improvement from the first half.  In 8 of those 12 starts, Rodon gave up 2 earned runs or less.  Through this stretch, Rodon seemed to improve his mound presence as well, showing potentially that his confidence was improving as well.

Rodon has some of the best pure stuff of anyone in the Major Leagues right now, especially for a lefty.  He has the opportunity to be nearly as dominant and productive a pitcher as Chris Sale.  He has an electric fastball, a wipe-out slider that is one of the best in the game, a potentially above average change-up, and is coming into his own.  The key for Rodon’s continued improvement will be fastball command, something he made significant strides with in the 2nd half of 2016.  If Rodon can command his fastball in, out, up, and down, and limit his walks (perhaps the biggest factor) there is absolutely no doubt he can be an ace and potential Cy Young Award candidate in the future.  However, I still expect there to be some hiccups along the way.  There will be games where Rodon just doesn’t have it, which happens over the course of the season.  Overall, I expect that 2017 will be a very big step forward in development for Rodon.  I predict that he will throw over 200 innings for the first time in his career, with a 3.25 ERA, under 60 walks, over 200 strikeouts, and around 175-180 hits allowed.  Are those Chris Sale replacement ace-type numbers?  Not quite, but they aren’t terribly far off.  With Sale gone, and Quintana expected to be traded as well, the Sox will need a replacement ace.  2017 is a big year for Carlos Rodon, and I believe he is the key to the Sox rebuild.  But if he can continue to take steps forward and produce numbers in 2017 close to those I have speculated while mentoring that bevy of younger prospects, Carlos Rodon is very capable becoming Chicago’s new ACE.  -DV


Twitter:  @DaVroomer

Photo:  Keith Allison, Flickr

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