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Hot Hand Luc, warming a cold news day

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Giolito’s case as Opening Day starter is airtight. For mid-February, at least

Chicago White Sox v Kansas City Royals
Fire When Ready: Giolito should be penciled in wearing the road greys on Opening Day in K.C.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Set aside the fact for a moment that discussing an Opening Day starter in mid-February is ludicrous.

We must set it aside, because on Thursday, White Sox skipper Rick Renteria was asked whether James Shields could be the team’s Opening Day starter at the Kansas City Royals on March 29—and the consummately cheerful mentor said, why yes, he could.

To be fair, given Renteria’s unflinchingly positive statements about his starters, he may have pushed Black Jack McDowell and Gary Peters for an opening nod as well. So don’t take Renteria’s statement too seriously, Sox fans:

“Would [Shields] be a natural fit [as Opening Day starter]? Absolutely.”

The Glendale gaggle has already handicapped Shields as the Chisox No. 1, with Darryl Van Schouwen representative of the polite vagueness in writing, “[Shields] figures to get the Opening Day start because of his experience.”

Fair enough. Somebody’s gotta step to the front lines in a rebuild, after all.

But Renteria leaves some hope that the Opening Day starter will be determined not by tree rings or colorful nicknames, but by some combination of 2017 track record, 2018 promise and 2018 spring training results.

Skip, to wit: “When [the Opening Day starter] decision is made, I don’t think there will be any surprises on who we end up going with.”

Renteria the vigorously fun ceviche cook promises in the caveat above to knock your socks off with his Opening Day pick—a pick he slyly implies he may have made already.

Renteria the bunt-overdosing traditionalist could well be telegraphing the most underwhelming White Sox Opening Day starter choice this side of Jamie Navarro in 1998, coming off of a 5.79 ERA, -1.3 rWAR, 1997 masacree of a first season on the South Side.

Listen, Shields is a fine enough fella. On Thursday he acknowledged, again, his subpar performance so far in Chicago, and indicated some understanding of fans’s, erm, uneven reactions to that performance.

But there is absolutely zero cause to be inking in Shields as the first man to take the pill onto the hill in K.C. There is little cause, short of food poison ravaging the flight down to the City of Fountains, to even pencil in Shields as Chicago’s Opening Day starter.

Heck, there’s a better Opening Day case to be made for the White Sox’s other veteran starter, Miguel Gonzalez, who was Chicago’s best before being shipped out to the Texas Rangers at the end of August.

But the strongest case for Opening Day starter—if indeed you can make it within 24 hours of Valentine’s Day—would be to pluck one of the two pitchers on the forefront of the South Side’s youth movement and rebuild, Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito.

The White Sox took an agonizingly long time to call Lopez up from Charlotte, where he was burning up the town. The strapping righty finally made it to Chicago on August 11, and clocked in at about what you’d expect in 11 late-season starts: Flashes of tasty, moments of agony, and overall, roughly average major league performance: 4.72 ERA, 48 game score (GS) and just 30 Ks in 47.2 innings.

Giolito accomplished more, in less time. Called up on August 22 after an extremely shaky season in Charlotte, the tall drink almost went right to work, spinning back-to-back gems in his second and third starts, against the Detroit Tigers and Tampa Bay Rays. In seven starts overall, Giolito outperformed even the haughtiest expectations: 2.38 ERA and 61 GS in 45.1 IP, with 34 strikeouts.

Yes, this is a small Chicago sample size.

Throwing Shields as the Opening Day starter is based on no Chicago sample size—negative sample size, even.

For those who feel there is no precedent for running the 23-year-old Giolito out on Opening Day, bah. You don’t have to travel out of the Jerry Reinsdorf Era to see an example of an even younger babe in the woods.

The babe in this case was Burns, Britt Burns, and the woods was that menacing Monster of a wall, looming less than 300 feet away from a lefthander facing the dastardly likes of right-handed mashers Jim Rice, Dwight Evans, Joe Rudi, Tony Perez, Carney Lansford and others of their kin drooling at a chance to seven-iron an offering somewhere between that green wall and the Citgo sign.

Burns, at 21 younger than both Giolito and Lopez, handled the Carmines deftly, scattering five hits over 6.2 innings, punching out eight, and leaving Fenway’s mound with a 61 game score but a 2-0 deficit. The tall Texan was taken off the hook for the loss rather famously by Carlton Fisk’s three-run shot in the top of the eighth, winning the game for the White Sox in his first return to Boston.

By the way, Burns wasn’t the No. 1 starter on a veteranless staff, as may have been the case in the seasons immediately preceding 1981. In fact, he and Richard Dotson (mere weeks Burns’s senior) were the babes of the rotation.

And Tony La Russa’s selection of Burns was no mere folly of a rebuild. The 1981 season was the first of Reinsdorf’s ownership tenure, and the club had gobbled up Fisk to pair with a number of go-for-it vets: Greg Luzinski, Jerry Koosman, Jim Essian and Ron LeFlore, among others. (The team in fact finished third in the AL West in the pre-strike first half of the season, 2.5 games behind the A’s, but with one fewer loss and the random penalty of having played seven fewer games than Oakland before the pickets.)

Since Burns tamed Boston on Opening Day 1981, several White Sox have been named first-time, Opening Day starters at 25 or younger, and all but one of those starters slung strong outings:

  • 1990: 24-year-old Melido Perez handcuffed the Milwaukee Brewers, 2-1, giving up four hits over six innings and earning a 65 GS.
  • 1991: 25-year-old Jack McDowell stymied the Baltimore Orioles, 9-1, throwing a complete game four-hitter, with 10 Ks and an 84 GS.
  • 1995: 25-year old Alex Fernandez was rocked by the Brewers, 12-3, earning a 20 GS, failing to get out of the third inning, and being relieved by a scrap heap succession including Atlee Hammaker, Isidro Marquez and Tim Fortugno.
  • 2002: 23-year-old Mark Buehrle beats the Mariners, 6-5, earning a 67 GS.
  • 2013: Chris Sale, who turned 24 two days earlier, handcuffed the Royals, 1-0, whiffing seven batters and pocketing a 71 GS.

Trotting out a young starter on Opening Day based on merit and promise is not only precedented on the South Side, but has been pretty doggone successful venture. In the absence of reasonable other contenders, with the caveat that to address the issue with six long weeks of spring training left to conquer is slow news day folly, let’s see Hot Hand Luc get some honest consideration for the gig.

Year of the Hamster has been told the legend of the Sammy Sosa two-homer Opening Day vs. the Orioles in 1991 more than once, until now believing it to be apocryphal.