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White Sox, James Shields set stage for September auditions

Back injury is conveniently timed to spare woeful veteran further ignominy, allowing Carson Fulmer to get a few starts

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

For the Charlotte Knights on Monday, the math was simple: Beat Gwinnett, make the playoffs.

The execution turned out to be trickier. The Knights lost 6-2, Gwinnett won the International League South instead, and it’d all be more heartbreaking if the Knights finished with a better record than 65-79.

Instead of advancing to the postseason with a record 13 games below .500, the Knights are done for the year, and the White Sox can call up the rest of their September roster additions at any point.

The White Sox appear to be making room for one of them, whether it’s Miguel Gonzalez or Carson Fulmer, with the way they treated James Shields after his latest disaster on Saturday.

Shields shieldsed, allowing five runs on five hits (three homers) and four walks over 2⅓ innings. That’s good for a game score of 25, and by game score, Shields has had eight worse starts this season, with four in August alone. But this one came with an escape route:

Shields, who allowed three homers and five earned runs in 2⅓ innings against the Minnesota Twins on Saturday, experienced some back tightness. After being checked out by the trainer in the third inning, he remained in the game.

"We’re continuing to get treatment on that and pin down a little bit more if he’s going to be able to go out there and it’s not going to bother him," manager Robin Ventura said on Monday.

Shields said he "wasn't feeling too hot" before the game, but was "fine" once the game started going.

Maybe Shields’ back really is bothering him, but this is what it would sound like even if he were 100 percent, because his South Side tenure has been the worst run in the history of White Sox starting pitching. He has no precedents when it comes to ERA (7.50), ERA+ (54) or home run rate (2.8 per nine innings), all of which are easily the worst in franchise history for a guy with at least 80 innings. Throw in a realistic bid at 20 losses, and further starts would be inhumane — more so for the fans, but for Shields, too, I guess.

It looks more like a mercy flush than an injury, but those aren’t mutually exclusive outcomes, and it’s all the same in the end, anyway. Gonzalez can take his next start assuming he fully recovered from his groin injury. If we can equally assume that Carson Fulmer is joining him on the trip from Charlotte, that’ll turn Anthony Ranaudo into the sixth starter, allowing Shields to fully fade away from his 2016.

That could be a pretty radical departure in terms of watchability over the rest of September, because one rotation looks far more fun than the other:

  • Sale-Quintana-Rodon-Shields-Ranaudo
  • Sale-Quintana-Rodon-Gonzalez-Fulmer

Fulmer isn’t yet official, but Robin Ventura made it sound like September was the plan if Fulmer could get stretched out while pitching in Charlotte for the first time. Fulmer held up his end of the deal, throwing four, five and six innings over his last three starts and allowing just one earned run over those 15 innings (nine hits, three walks, 14 strikeouts).

His future sounds more certain than Zack Burdi’s. At one point, Burdi’s addition was a treated as highly likely, and the leading scooper called it a given ...

... but now the forecasts are starting to soften, and for legitimate reasons.

On the baseball side, while Burdi’s numbers at Charlotte stand out for a 21-year-old, he walked 11 in 16 innings, including eight over his last nine. That could be a mere blip over a small sample size. That could also be Triple-A hitters forcing Burdi to sharpen his stuff. That could also be fatigue from a whirlwind season, as he threw 30 innings over 27 games at Louisville before throwing 38 over 26 games with four different White Sox affiliates.

On the financial side, he could be subject to the same service time wrangling we saw with Carlos Rodon. If they don’t call him up in September, they can let him open the season in Charlotte without burning an option, then wait a couple weeks in April in order to gain the extra year of team control. That scenario creates its own complications, especially if the Sox have designs on Burdi as a closer. A late-April promotion puts Burdi on track for Super Two status, and the save statistic changes a reliever’s salary trajectory markedly.

If the White Sox are making one more run in 2017, then talent management should outrank payroll management here. The Sox will need a big bullpen arm or two with late-inning upside in order to fashion themselves as contenders, and Burdi can provide an in-house option if he’s able to hit the ground running. I can see an argument for letting him take his lumps now, but it’s equally valid to let him hone his command in Charlotte and isolate his development from the Sox’ inability to build roster depth.

The Sox could also wait on calling him up in order to see if they could mold him into a starter, but that only seems like a luxury available for a rebuilding club. If the Sox need a sixth-starter candidate and late-inning reinforcement as soon as possible, then they should start Fulmer in September and leave Burdi in the bullpen, subject to a promotion whenever it makes sense to them.