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Potential answers lurking in White Sox's questionable pitching depth

The back end of the rotation might not have enough reinforcement to contend in 2014, but individual progress could be victory enough

Chris Beck
Chris Beck

Over at FanGraphs, former Seattle Mariners special assistant Tony Blengino offered a very heartening read on the White Sox's offseason. He compared it to the state of the club in 1998 and 1999, when a few important pieces clicked into place during otherwise forgettable seasons to set up an incredible surge in 2000.

I'd recommend reading the whole thing, but the takeaway:

The Chicago White Sox will not lose 99 games this season. I wouldn’t quite call them a contender, but a scenario can be constructed in which they sneak into a wildcard spot. I’ll go out on a limb and peg them for third in the AL Central this season, behind the Tigers and Indians, and just ahead of the Royals. It’s a coin flip between the Astros and White Sox for the title of most improved club in baseball, in my opinion. Most likely, this will be remembered as the year that multiple blocks were laid in the foundation of the next very good White Sox club. It should be fun to watch.

This being spring training, it's easy to "construct scenarios" in which the Sox sneak into the postseason. FanGraphs' own projections aren't so willing to dream, giving the Sox a 4.6 percent chance of getting into October. Baseball Prospectus' projections are friendlier at 14.6 percent, but it's still an uphill climb, and wet blanket Dan Hayes gives one reason why:

The team also likes its pitching depth, but several scouts aren’t certain how the White Sox would fare in the case of an injury.

Few organizations in the majors are prepared to handle significant injuries to their rotations. But the White Sox might be in a more precarious spot given Danks and Paulino have had three surgeries in the past 18 months and Erik Johnson is in his first full season.

Were any of the starting five to suffer an injury the White Sox would turn to Andre Rienzo, Eric Surkamp, Dylan Axelrod and Chris Beck.

If you don't think the White Sox can contend unless almost everything breaks right, the lack of dynamic high-minors starters isn't that big of a deal. You're taking the lesson from G.I. Joe to heart -- knowing is half the battle, good or bad. If Erik Johnson struggles in the first half but finds a groove in the second, that's a mediocre season with a lot of value. On the flipside, if two surgeries in two years is too big of an obstacle for Felipe Paulino, the Sox can shrug it off. It's the seasons with no strong conclusion -- something like a Gordon Beckham injury-altered year -- that can get a team stuck in a holding pattern.

Likewise, the pitching depth may end up paying off if the Sox can matriculate Beck on a schedule that's best for everybody, even if guys like Rienzo and Surkamp take their lumps in the interim.

Beck has commanded attention by following a strong Double-A debut with an equally impressive spring. He pitched above his pay grade by starting against most of San Diego's best lineup in a split-squad game on Saturday, and he delivered a fine line (5 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 K).

Rick Hahn says Beck has put himself on the same trajectory as fellow second-round pick Johnson, and Buddy Bell dropped that comparison several days ago, too:

"He's very serious about his work," Bell said. "He pays attention. He competes, besides having really above-average stuff with just about everything he throws." [...]

"He's a terrific kid, and sort of what we're looking for as an organization, kind of the culture we're looking for, guys who are really into what they're doing, good teammates," Bell said. "Not that we didn't have that before, but when you're trying to put a young team together, that's really, really important, that they have that kind of makeup."

While Blengino used 1998-99 as a frame of reference for the team as a whole, the state of the pitching staff might be much closer to 2007. Rookie John Danks went 6-13 with a 5.50 ERA, and Gavin Floyd gave up 17 homers over 70 innings, and it was hard to imagine that the Sox ever sold themselves as a contender. But the bitterly earned experience proved valuable when they teamed up to throw 400 high-quality innings for an actual big-league offense the following year.

Johnson might take his time settling into a middle-of-the-rotation starter, but if he can show the Sox something by the end of the year while Beck ascends into Johnson's former spot ("pitching prospect ready for MLB innings"), the depth will have accomplished its most important tasks. If the other fifth, sixth and seventh starters crumble around them, the Sox can always try a new batch next season.