A little over a month ago, things looked grim for the White Sox starting staff. Sure, they had a solid, young nucleus anchored by Mark Buehrle, John Danks and Gavin Floyd, but who was going to fill the other two rotation spots?
Javier Vazquez had been traded to Atlanta for a package of prospects who don't figure to contribute in '09. Jose Contreras had ruptured his Achilles tendon late in '08, and given his age didn't seem like a good bet to pitch anytime before the All-Star break.
All references to the Sox rotation included words like "competition" followed by uninspiring names like Jeff Marquez and Lance Broadway. The Sox projected rotation, even with the solid front three, appeared to be that of a 4th or 5th place club.
Yet as we sit here 4 games into spring training, I'm surprisingly optimistic about the Sox rotation picture.
- Sox sign Bartolo Colon -- Even though we all know he's going to get hurt at some point, even though he had his elbow "cleaned up" in the off-season, even though he has yet to throw live BP to hitters this spring, I have faith that Colon will contribute positively to the Sox rotation... for a limited time.
- Contreras is a miraculous healer -- Nobody expected Contreras to contribute before the All-Star break, nobody but Contreras, that is. He "ate lots of fish" in the off-season and obviously trained hard, doing what he could, to drop a reported 30 pounds from last year, and now is tentatively scheduled for live action mid-March. There's a possibility he could open the season in the rotation.
- It's Spring -- It's hard not to be optimistic at the beginning of spring. Anything's possible.
The addition of the two old guys coming off injuries suddenly gives the Sox some starting depth. Granted, they're adding a couple more question marks to a pile of candidates that already sound like a round of Jeopardy. Who is Jeff Marquez? But now it seems they'll only have to count on the young, unproven guys to provide 20-45 starts instead of the 60+ that would be required from filling the final two spots of the rotation.
Who's got the best shot?
Aaron Poreda -- The White Sox top pick of the '07 draft opened his spring by serving up a homer and a single to a pair of major leaguers, but retired the next 6 batters he faced in a "B" game. He has plus command of a plus sinking fastball that sits in the low 90's, but the rest of his pitches lag behind. He can probably succeed from the bullpen as a 1-pitch pitcher, but needs to refine his secondary offerings to claim a rotation spot.
Coming North: 55% chance (as a starter: 25%)
Clayton Richard -- Richard helped his chances a great deal late last season by putting up a solid start in Yankee stadium, and cleaning up Vazquez' final two messes. He's a lot like Poreda in that he throws from a lower 3/4 slot and relies on good sink from his fastball, which doesn't quite have the zip of Poreda's (sitting just below 90). Richard seems to have a knack for adding and subtracting off his fastball with good results, but also lacks consistency with his slider and change. He seemed to take a step forward with his slider against lefties down the stretch, making him the clubhouse favorite for LOOGY duties.
Coming North: 95% chance (as a starter: 35%)
Jeff Marquez -- Derisively called [Starter Candidate 5] during our depression regarding the Sox starter prospects, Marquez doesn't have the recent minor league track record to support his name being mentioned here. His name is here, however, based on a reported 94 MPH fastball with good sink. I'll allow that Marquez' strikeout rate was hurt last season by nagging injuries, that the Sox scouts see something that I don't, but until he starts to show some ability to miss minor league bats, he shouldn't be among the lead candidates for a rotation spot.
Coming North: 40% chance (as a starter: 15%)
Jack Egbert -- Slowed by elbow soreness last spring, Egbert seemingly missed out on his chance to break into a big league rotation. He shook off a slow start in AAA to post his usual excellent K/BB/IP numbers over the final three months, but saw a spike in his HR rate in Charlotte's small park. Egbert will not wow you with his stuff. He's fringe-average with everything but a plus changeup. But he's got a funky hitch in his delivery (think: Chris Young, the pitcher) and has never really had a problem missing bats or keeping the ball on the ground. In many ways he's the opposite of Marquez, a guy without the stuff to wow scouts, but a minor league record that screams Give Me A Shot, You Might Like The Results.
Coming North: 15% chance (as a starter: 5%)
Lance Broadway -- The Sox 2005 first rounder is a bit like Egbert in that he has underwhelming stuff and good "pitchability." Though unlike Egbert, Broadway hasn't been able to translate that into the type of minor league success that precedes a solid major league career. Sox fans have been treated to two successful major league starts from Broadway, but those seem like flukes given the ridiculously high hit-rate he's allowed in the high-minors.
Coming North: 7.5% chance (as a starter: 2.5%)
John Van Benschoten -- The Pirates' failed top pick (8th overall) in the 2001 draft has a career ERA of 9.20 over 19 starts. Only the Pirates could manage to give that many starts to a guy who proved to be so totally unprepared for the major leages. Van Benschoten's minor league record isn't terrible, which is probably why the Sox bothered to pick him up this winter. I suppose there is a chance, albeit a slim one, that Don Cooper can work a little magic and make him over into an effective pitcher.
Coming North: 2.5% chance (as a starter: 1%)
I may have talked myself back down to a more pessimistic (read: reasonable) position in writing those capsules, but I still feel pretty good about one of the unproven starter candidates being able to step up his game. The bigger questions for me are, Who will it be? And will more than one of them be needed?