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Carlos Rodon overpowers Triple-A hitters in first Charlotte start

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Top White Sox prospect strikes out nine over five innings

Buren Foster/Charlotte Knights

For the upcoming episode of the South Side Sox podcast, I talked to White Sox assistant general manager Buddy Bell about the state of various prospects at the start of the minor league seasons.

No discussion of the White Sox farm system can be complete without a question about Carlos Rodon, and so I asked Bell whether Rodon's starts at Charlotte would look more like:

  1. His spring training outing against Kansas City, where he went for the kill with the slider and only threw a handful of changeups, and struck out seven Royals over four shutout innings, or...
  2. His spring training outing against the Dodgers, where he threw twice as many changeups as sliders, and limited Los Angeles to only one run over 5⅓ innings despite striking out two.

"I'll tell you the one we would prefer: the guy we saw against [the Dodgers]," Bell said. "This is why the pitching coach and the catcher are so important at these levels, is to make sure they throw all their pitches.

"In Carlos' case in particular, I think he's such a competitive kid, all he really cares about is getting outs. He doesn't necessarily care what pitch it is, he just wants to get people out. He has to trust us that we have a pretty good idea of what it should look like in a couple of years, as opposed to just pitching against the Kansas City Royals in spring training.

"That's great, it gives us an idea of what we have, obviously more from a makeup and competitive standpoint, but from a talent standpoint, this kid's got a really good changeup. The problem sometimes is these guys can't hit his other stuff, so I'm sure that confuses him, like, 'Why do I have to throw anything else?'

"That's why there has to be a trust factor in Carlos' case, as far as how we develop him. He's athletic, he's a hard worker, and he's a smart kid, so there's plenty there to work with."

You'll be able to hear the full interview on Monday.

Star-divide

As far as Rodon's first start in Charlotte on Saturday ... well, he split the difference between those two Cactus League starts, and looked damn good doing it. Rodon struck out nine over five innings, allowing two runs (one earned) on two hits, two walks and one hit batter.

Rodon gave his own evaluation to friend of the podcast Seth Lakso:

"My fastball command was real good. My slider wasn’t at its best, but the changeup was a lot better. I don’t know, I threw 14 changeups and 17 sliders, but those 14 changeups were better than most of those sliders."

I kept my own tally of Rodon's pitches before reading Seth's account, and counted nine distinct changeups (with four whiffs), although there were two or three in the dirt that were offspeed of some variety. But even if my lower number were correct, that mix would still be varied enough, especially with the fastball command that Rodon showed.

In fact, before we get to the changeup GIFs, here's Rodon striking out the final batter he faced, Chris Parmalee, with three beautiful fastballs. The sequence: one on the hands, one above the hands, and one dotting the outside corner, and all at least 93-94 m.p.h. (Lakso says the gun is slow):

Booya, Grandma.

The quality of Rodon's changeups varied, and I was somewhat surprised to see him say he thought they were his better offspeed pitches. Then again, his standards for his slider might be so high that even subpar ones get the job done.

The best change was his first one, which he used to strike out Christian Walker one pitch after blowing a 94-mph fastball by him.

Rodon changeup 1 GIF

He threw a similarly good one to Jayson Nix, but his second attempt stayed up more, and the Shetland Pony forced Matt Davidson to make a nice play:

Rodon changeup 3 GIF

The rest of his changeups more closely resembled the latter GIF, but while that changeup isn't ideal on the Y-axis, there's nothing wrong with its horizontal location. He did a nice job of keeping everything on the outside corner. Nix pulled it, but Nix pulls everything. The other contact on his changeup resulted in softer batted to the right side -- one  one an infield single, and one a lazy fly to right.

He used it pretty conservatively, against righties, and usually once per plate appearance. During the few times he was under duress, he stuck to the fastball-slider combo, and that's probably what you'd want him doing, anyway.

In the fifth, he had a runner on third and nobody out with two runs in, the result of an RBI single and a two-base error by Trayce Thompson. Rodon had walked the first two batters of the inning, but he rediscovered his command and saved his best fastballs for last.

The penultimate plate appearance shows why Rodon doesn't need a great changeup. On a 1-1 count to Nolan Reimold -- a guy who's had some MLB success -- Rodon threw his softer, slurvier slider and induced the worst "swing" of the night:

Rodon slider 1 GIF

Which set up the outer-half, 94 mph fastball with which Reimold had zero chance:

Rodon Fastball 1 GIF

His evening ended with the strikeout of Parmalee in the video above, and these sequences show that fastball command is more crucial than his changeup. When he can throw his heater where he wants it, he can use his slider as a change of pace. The changeup is merely an additive, something that can widen the plate to righties, and provide a different look when the fastball isn't as sharp.

Based on what we saw in the spring and Rodon's 2015 debut in Charlotte, he's pretty much ready to ply his trade against the best of the best. And so now our attention turns to the next turn through the White Sox rotation -- and the bullpen appearances that follow those starts -- to see which pitcher is the weakest link. If it's anything like the first week, that could be more difficult than it sounds, and for the wrong reasons.