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White Sox pitching depth thrown out of order

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After Spencer Adams' injury and Zack Burdi's rough Double-A debut, Carson Fulmer might be the best way to upgrade the bullpen

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Entering Wednesday, the White Sox had a fairly straightforward situation with their top three pitching prospects.

  • Carson Fulmer: Improving as a starter in Birmingham, he’d be intriguing as both a trade asset and a second-half bullpen improvement.
  • Zack Burdi: The White Sox selected the flame-throwing Louisville reliever with the idea of fast-tracking him to the majors this season if he could handle it, and he was set to make his Double-A debut.
  • Spencer Adams: Still years away from contributing as a starter, Adams was probably their most expendable asset.

Today, it’s considerably cloudier.

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First, this happened to Adams during the front end of Winston-Salem’s doubleheader on Wednesday:

The severity is still unknown, but Adams couldn’t put any weight on it while being helped off the field. Ideally it’s just a really bad sprain, and the word "rupture(d)" doesn’t appear anywhere.

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Then Burdi had a Double-A debut to forget. He failed to retire any of the five batters he faced, allowing four hits and a walk.

Unfortunately(?), the game was in Chattanooga instead of Birmingham, so I can’t see for myself. The park does provide Gameday data, and that’s somewhat enlightening. Knowing nothing else about the game, I’d assume that Burdi was all over the place, throwing just 10 of 26 pitches for strikes.

That isn’t quite the case. The hit he allowed was an infield single, and he got ahead of the hitter 1-2 on three of his four walks. He just couldn’t find a putaway pitch, as the Gameday maps hammer home.

If you’re going to walk three batters, this is either the best way or worst way to do it. Perhaps it’s kinda both -- maybe the most frustrating, but also the most indicative of competence otherwise?

Considering it was Burdi’s sixth overall game and first at Double-A, it doesn’t warrant a tremendous amount of concern. It’s only more newsworthy than a typical promotion because the White Sox wouldn’t mind seeing him in the majors later this season. No one game changes the forecast — OK, a game like Adams had does -- but it’s a reminder that the express lane for Burdi can’t be assumed.

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That leaves Fulmer, who preceded Burdi with a start that is pretty representative of his game right now:

  • Five innings
  • Five hits
  • Two runs (both earned)
  • Three walks
  • 10 strikeouts

After a rough first couple months (which may have caused, or been caused by, an identity crisis), Fulmer has found himself over the last month. He had two starts of seven scoreless prior to five innings on Wednesday, and he’s struck out 54 batters (to 17 walks) over his last 41 innings, during which he has a 3.51 ERA.

I’ve talked about this on the podcast, but I like the idea of Fulmer as one of the potential bullpen additions, and I think it’s approaching the time to do it.

Chris Beck and Michael Ynoa have failed to distinguish themselves, and behind them in Charlotte are guys who would’ve beaten out Beck and Ynoa by now if they could (Tommy Kahnle and Tyler Danish). With Zach Duke, Nate Jones and David Robertson all humming along, the Sox don’t need another high-leverage arm, but they need somebody besides Matt Albers being the next best choice by default.

If he gets two more starts, Fulmer will be at the 100-inning mark, give or take a few. He threw 150 innings between Vanderbilt and pro ball last year, so he still should be stretched out for future starting plans.

But his next start will likely be delayed because he’s on the roster for Sunday’s Futures Game in San Diego. Should he appear, he could get the opportunity to showcase what his stuff looks like 1) for an inning, and 2) with elevated stakes. We saw the adrenaline spike for Frankie Montas in last year’s Futures Game, so there is pressure involved.

If Fulmer is up to the challenge, it doesn’t seem like the worst idea to test him further with a promotion to Chicago, with the hope of him missing bats for one or two innings at a time. His fastball-curve combo is MLB-caliber, and he won’t need much of his changeup if he’s limited to facing guys one time through the order.

Scott Merkin asked Don Cooper and Robin Ventura about it, and such a move sounds possible, perhaps even likely:

"I'm always thinking that. I've been thinking that for a while," White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said. "We did it with Sale for a year and a half. Why wouldn't it be the same deal with him? Maybe getting your feet wet in relief, finding spots and getting some experience, getting a lay of the land. We'll make a change if and when we think it's appropriate."

"You're always looking for ways to improve, and sometimes you've got to be creative with him as well as anybody else in the organization, to see what you need to fill to get through the year," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. "Part of it is going to be to see if he can handle it out of the bullpen."

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In a perfect world, the Sox would get a proven reliever from the outside, matriculate Burdi in short order and leave Fulmer for September. But circumstances forced the Sox to start their midseason improvements out of order, so they may as well carry the theme into August. Burdi is rendering the fast-track idea premature, Adams’ injury potentially takes the best trade chit off the table, and Alex Avila’s injury might have the Sox looking at other areas to improve, anyway:

The White Sox inquired on Wednesday about Yankees catching prospect Gary Sanchez. The talks never got serious when, a source in the know said, the Yankees’ asking price was "far too high.’’

That’s why it’s worthwhile to try Fulmer with a little time before the trade deadline, because they're thin all over. For instance, the Sox have zero catching options outside of Dioner Navarro, nothing close to what Fulmer could give the bullpen right now if he hits the ground running. That can’t be assumed of course, and if Fulmer looks overwhelmed over his first few games, then the Sox know that they’re going to need help and/or prayer to take the load off Robertson and Jones. If the transition looks even somewhat natural, it might be the best the Sox can do.

And the Justin Morneau signing becomes ever smarter...