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Reasons for Optimism: An elite staff is right around the corner

You’re not gonna believe this, but things are about to get better.

Chicago White Sox v. Detroit Tigers
Lucas Giolito returns Sunday, and that signals good things ahead for the South Side.
Mike Mulholland/MLB Photos via Getty Images

One week ago, I considered writing about the narrative shift from ’21 to ’22 in regards to the White Sox’ newly-minted ability to beat good teams after having a sub-.500 record against playoff foes during the 2021 regular season.

They were fresh off of back-to-back series victories against Seattle and Tampa Bay, and even though the offensive output was low, the peripherals suggested the barrels would translate to runs in due time.

Fast forward seven days, and a combination of sloppy play, fresh injuries, and unthinkable lineups have the White Sox suddenly a single run better than Kansas City for the WORST run differential in the AL. There’s plenty of blame, and plenty of people both on and off the field who should be shouldering it, but the fact is: The active roster is hanging on by a thread. Leading me to the first reason for optimism, moving from this desolate moment forward.

Aces Up

In any given series, the White Sox have no choice but to throw out Dallas Keuchel, Vince Velásquez, and often times both. Jimmy Lambert has more starts than Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn combined. Johnny Cueto bombed Saturday in Charlotte, but it matters not one iota because he’ll be throwing pitches in a Major League Baseball game ASAP.

In games not started by a player named either Dylan Cease or Michael Kopech, the White Sox are 2-5, and those starting pitchers have an ERA of 8.44. The White Sox are playing with a brutal handicap this April.

The good news is that every starter not named Cease or Kopech will be uniformly replaced over the next three weeks, with the first re-entry of a workhouse coming Sunday.

Lucas Giolito’s first start resembled the pitcher with Cy Young aspirations, throwing his familiar devastating changeup in any count or location, with poise you’d expect from the staff veteran he is. Whereas Giolito took the bump in a quasi-ace role on Opening Day, that pressure has alleviated given the emergence of the Cease, who’s primed to put up a monster season. And while it’s fair to question what to expect from Lance Lynn, who’s three weeks away from turning 35 — save that critique for October, friend, because we’re talkin’ hot starts in this space.

Here’s how Lance has done his dance for the first two months in each of his last two seasons:

April/May 2021 (nine starts): 52 23 IP, 1.20 ERA, 33 hits, 57 Ks, 15 BBs
July/Aug 2020 (eight starts): 51 13 IP, 1.93 ERA, 30 hits, 56 Ks, 17 BBs

And this is to say nothing of Yoán Moncada’s eye returning to a lineup starved for walks. And the ability to trim Quadruple-A fat from the bullpen with the return of a power arm in Joe Kelly.

But replacing Hail Mary starts with Cy Young finalists means the White Sox will soon have one of the elite starting pitcher groups in the game.

Thanks in no small part to our next subject.

The Biggest Question Mark, Answered

The emergence of Cease into an ace-caliber starter was a trendy prediction prior to the ’22 season. The less predictable emergence has come from Kopech, who despite the elite repertoire, hadn’t yet made the transition to steady starting pitcher. While Cease is on his second leap, Kopech is clearly making his first. For a guy who didn’t throw more than two innings total in an appearance between May and September of the ’21 season, Michael sure is looking comfortable here in the unfamiliar heart of the ballgame:

In his dominant start Friday vs. the Twins, Kopech — for the second straight time — weathered first-inning storms that seemed moments away from capsizing the boat. After throwing 24 of his 83 pitches in the first, Kopech settled in to allow only two more hard-hit balls all afternoon, keeping the Twins off the board through five. In his previous start vs the Rays, Kopech threw 25 of 75 total pitches in the first, but again settled down for a sterling starting line, holding a legit lineup to zero runs and plenty of highlight Ks. Kopech has doubled his career starts of more than five innings in the last two weeks, and did so with conservative pitch counts well within range of any reasonable expectation for a pitcher wrapped in proverbial bubble wrap.

Like Cease before him, and Giolito before him, Kopech is taking the step from tantalizing-yet-unrefined talent to the most coveted asset in the game — a dependable, front line starting pitcher. How deep into the season we can expect this version of Kopech is a valid concern, but as the team stares at rock-bottom in April, we can look forward to a May with plenty of chances to win, behind four elite right arms.