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Time for White Sox to let the Mat out of the bag

Mat Latos set to make Cactus League debut after spending the first weeks of spring hidden in the back fields

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Erik Johnson entered the spring with the odds for a rotation spot stacked against him. After allowing nine runs over six spring innings, he doesn't have an argument against his fate.

Johnson was reassigned to purgatory Triple-A Charlotte on Monday as part of the latest roster cuts, and his is the most telling one. Tyler Danish and Steve Lombardozzi were also sent to minor-league camp, but they didn't factor into the 25-man roster plans.

Johnson faced a tough slog for a spot in Chicago because Mat Latos and John Danks had the inside track on the last two spots, and fringy counterpart Jacob Turner was out of options. Even with this dose of realism, it would've been nice to see Johnson make it more of a contest. Velocity may or may not have been an issue -- damn you, lack of PITCHf/x -- but for his part, Don Cooper said fastball command was his downfall:

"That could have been better," Cooper said. "That probably, getting behind in some counts, that’s not what we would prescribe for anybody. I’m pretty picky on fastball command, and I always want it to be better. It’s always the biggest thing you are working on with each individual guy. It could have been better."

Turner outlasted him, but considering he walked three over his two innings on Sunday and was overshadowed by Carson Fulmer, the Sox might try shuttling him through waivers to Charlotte as well.

So now this sets the stage for the Cactus League debut of Latos. He's set to make his debut today after being secluded as part of the White Sox' back-field strategy. This has limited his press, which is a little surprising since he's effectively replacing Jeff Samardzija, who was the center of attention last spring. In fact, ZiPS says the White Sox fared well in rate-shopping:

  • Samardzija in 2015: 4.96 ERA, 4.23 FIP
  • Latos' ZiPS in 2016: 4.60 ERA, 4.20 FIP

What Latos lacks is the quantity, as he's only averaged 110 innings over the last two seasons. That's about half the workload Samardzija provided, and the Sox are going to need him to cut into that deficit. Because he hasn't been pitching in competitive environments, we don't have a good sense of what the White Sox expect after seeing him up close for a few weeks. If Cooper has any inkling about Latos, he isn't tipping his hand:

"Latos is now going to be given the real opportunity to see if he can take it and grab it and run with it," Cooper said. "If he does, fantastic. If he doesn’t, we’ve got some depth. We’ve got a guy we’ve seen him and what he’s done. We have more depth now."

Likewise, it'll be tricky for us to gauge what he's got. Arizona has a tendency to make pitchers look worse than they are, Camelback Ranch doesn't have pitch data, and he might be more concerned on laying a healthy foundation for the season instead of getting outs.

Latos has battled left knee and right elbow issues over a couple of rough seasons, but he has been building and preparing in side sessions and B games for his Cactus League debut on Tuesday against the Giants. White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper has talked about Latos, who has the edge for the team's final rotation spot, getting better with each trip to the mound.

"We've kind of made it to where there's a daily challenge as far as what we want to do," Latos said. "So far we've been able to do the challenge, complete it and then everything we've done so far has progressed.

With these restrictions in mind, it might be more useful to watch for differences in his delivery. He's had an unusual one -- a sluggish pace without a ton of drive, which puts stress on his plant leg. Since it's been a problem the last two years, I'd imagine the Sox might want to steer Latos clear of a trilogy if it's at all possible to alter his mechanics at this stage.

As for Samardzija, he's basically having the same spring with the Giants he had with the Sox -- lots of innings, lots of (home) runs. I'd wondered if Samardzija's self-assessments last season were bland in order to not further hamper his contract drive, but it turns out the money hasn't changed him.

Still in the getting-to-know-you phase with a pitcher who had mixed success in a 2014 stint with the A’s, first impressions of Samardzija can go something like this: He’s very approachable, not big on introspection, believes what he believes and questions won’t shake him off what he believes.