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White Sox reach for "high notes" with September strategy

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James Shields will start, Carson Fulmer will not, which makes the offseason more intriguing than the final month

The White Sox made the rest of their September call-ups on Tuesday. True to their 2016 form, they were more notable for what they didn’t do.

Miguel Gonzalez returned from the disabled list, with Leury Garcia and Jason Coats joining him from Charlotte. Blake Smith also received a surprise call, and he’s more than meets the eye. A second-round pick of the Dodgers in 2009, Smith switched to pitching from the outfield three years ago, and he’s only getting better. He finished the year in Charlotte with 12 scoreless appearances out of 13 in the second half, and a call-up is his just reward. He’ll be fun to watch, and the same can be said for Coats now that he can rest easy for a month.

However, the Sox avoided calling up the most intriguing September options — Carson Fulmer and Zack Burdi. We talked about their short-term futures on Monday, and I went 1-for-2.

Burdi was the easier one to explain, as he’d thrown 68 innings between Louisville and four White Sox affiliates this season. He also encountered some rocky episodes with his command at Charlotte, although he still pitched well on the whole. Independent from his performance, the Sox would have had to add him to the 40-man roster, and there aren’t any open spots now that Smith is on board. All in all, the Sox chose restraint.

"We felt enough was enough for him," Rick Hahn said, who added that Burdi can end his year on a positive note and show up ready for a non-roster invitation to spring training.

The absence of Fulmer isn’t nearly as intuitive, as most of the excuses for Burdi don’t apply. Fulmer is on the 40-man roster, he’s not close to approaching his previous career high in innings, and his last three starts at Charlotte couldn’t have gone better. Robin Ventura suggested a promotion was likely if Fulmer could get stretched out, and Fulmer reached six innings by his Charlotte finale.

What else is there? Here’s what Hahn had:

"He’s been at three levels this year. We’ve moved him from rotation to bullpen back to rotation, and the thought was bringing him up here now probably wasn’t going to result in him getting a lot of quality innings for us down the stretch, given who else is here, and we didn’t want to continue to move him back and forth between roles."

Hahn takes liberties with treating "who else is here" as a given, considering he’s referring to James Shields, aka the worst pitcher to ever throw 80 innings for the White Sox. It’s a choice to throw Shields at this point, and one they could have easily sidestepped by pointing at his sore back, and his very realistic shot at 20 losses. Instead, the Sox ignored all hints and signs, saying Shields was fine and has the all-clear to attempt to end the year on a high note.

(I did feel sorry for Shields before the game. His good news is everybody else’s bad news, which has to suck.)

The idea of the "high note" or "strong finish" was the through-line for Hahn in explaining Burdi, Fulmer and Shields. The first two had attained it, and Shields will get every opportunity to find his. It’s a romantic notion, although if you’re not the romantic sort, you might wonder if the Sox are willfully deluding themselves.

For Shields, he showed what his theoretical high note might look like -- six consecutive quality starts, over which he posted a 1.71 ERA despite paper-mache peripherals. Shields’ collapse is especially concerning because everything says he’s supposed to be this bad. If he rallies with another July over the last four weeks, that offers zero information about his future.

For Fulmer, the Sox are closing his book with a month left to go when they gave him most of a month off due to the ill-fated bullpen transition. They won’t know whether he fares any better against MLB hitters this time around, and they’re missing an opportunity to see how he holds up over a six-month season. Both of these things are useful to know if the Sox are counting on him to contribute in 2017 ...

... which makes me wonder if they’re not.

The one thing the "high note" does for a guy like Fulmer is preserve trade value. Due to the Sox’ express-lane standards, it might seem like Fulmer is feeling around for a foothold. For most other first-round picks, ending a first full pro season with Triple-A success is ahead of schedule. He left us wanting more, and perhaps he’s done the same with teams who previously eyed him in discussions with the Sox.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the Sox want to trade Fulmer, but it does acknowledge the reality that they might have to trade him if they want to load up for one more run in 2017. Assuming the Sox have no desire to part ways with Zack Collins, Fulmer is their most intriguing asset based on pedigree and recent performance. He’s their "give something to get something" guy.

If Fulmer received a September promotion and made three miserable starts, it wouldn’t cement his future, but it would change the way third parties talked about him. As it stands, Fulmer finished his first full season leaving all avenues open in Triple-A. That’s a disappointment if you’re comparing him to Carlos Rodon, but it’s on the positive end of the spectrum for his own 2016 outlook, which is how he should be judged. It’s going to be rough watching — or not watching — Shields start September games in Fulmer’s stead, and it’ll be kinda pointless if Fulmer’s still around in March. Keep an eye on November and December.