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MLB preview 2018: The White Sox will live or die with their young pitching

Chicago is relying on a bevy of young arms (and the aging James Shields) in 2018. It probably won’t go well this year.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Chicago White Sox Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

For all of the optimism surrounding the Chicago White Sox and their promising group of young hitters, their next contender will be built upon a foundation of good, young pitching. The Sox have one of the deepest and most talented groups of arms in all the minors — Minor League Ball’s John Sickels thinks they are second only to the Atlanta Braves — and a few of those arms have already arrived in the majors. Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Carson Fulmer all pitched a handful of big league innings last year, joining 2014 first round pick Carlos Rodon. Others will join them soon, including Michael Kopech, MLB.com’s No. 10 overall prospect.

However, they probably won’t be very good in 2018. There’s a learning curve for young pitching at the major league level, one that Giolito, Lopez, and Fulmer have already hit, to an extent. Injuries happen — Rodon missed significant time last year and isn’t going to be ready for Opening Day this year — and others simply can’t hack it in the rotation.

So, it comes as no surprise that the Sox are projected to give up a lot of runs. FanGraphs thinks they will cough up more runs per game than any other MLB team, while Baseball Prospectus is slightly more optimistic (they’re fifth-worst). It’s possible the young arms hit the ground running while Kopech and Co. provide a late season boost, but not likely. James Shields and Miguel Gonzalez are still going to get 30-plus starts apiece unless things really go sideways. The bullpen might be worse than Detroit’s.

...okay, that last sentence isn’t true. But I still wouldn’t set expectations too high.

Pitching at a glance

2017 runs allowed: 820 | 2017 ERA/FIP: 4.78/5.17 | 2017 team fWAR: 4.4
2018 runs allowed projected (PECOTA): 840 | 2018 projected WAR (FanGraphs): 8.3
Note: numbers below are based on FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projections.

RHP James Shields

2017 numbers: 117 IP, 5.23 ERA, 5.83 FIP, -0.2 fWAR
2018 projections: 159 IP, 5.36 ERA, 5.46 FIP, 0.4 fWAR

Good news, Tigers fans! Jordan Zimmermann won’t be the worst pitcher starting on Opening Day 2018 (if you trust FanGraphs’ version of WAR). Big Game James was anything but in 2017, as he coughed up an ERA above 5.00 for the second consecutive season. He BABIP’d his way to a 1.62 ERA in his first three starts, but was then sidelined for two months with a lat strain. After his return, he gave up 39 runs (36 earned) in his next 40 innings.

If you’re looking for optimism, Shields’ last two months weren’t so bad. He held opponents to a 4.33 ERA in August and September, and struck out 59 batters in 60 13 innings. His elevated home run rate still resulted in a 4.93 FIP during that stretch, but he was at least able to give the Sox some length, averaging six frames per start. With a young staff and inconsistent bullpen behind him, Shields will be called upon to eat as many innings as possible again this year.

RHP Miguel Gonzalez

2017 numbers: 156 IP, 4.62 ERA, 4.88 FIP, 1.4 fWAR
2018 projections: 159 IP, 5.19 ERA, 5.26 FIP, 0.7 fWAR

Since 2012, Gonzalez has made a living on mixing pitches, changing eye levels, and generating plenty of lazy fly balls. He has maintained a fly ball rate north of 40 percent during that six-year stretch — not an easy thing to do when you’re logging that many innings — yet has never given up more than 25 home runs in a season. More impressive still is that he has done so while pitching in bandboxes for his entire career.

While this solid home run prevention hasn’t made him a star, he has carved out a nice career as a back-end starter who often out-performs his peripherals. He did not do so last year, in part thanks to career-worst 14.6 percent strikeout rate, but was still a league average pitcher (100 ERA+) in over 130 innings. At 34, this highwire act might not last much longer, but he’s a nice veteran to have around a young, impressionable staff.

RHP Lucas Giolito

2017 numbers: 45 13 IP, 2.39 ERA, 4.94 FIP, 0.3 fWAR
2018 projections: 139 IP, 4.63 ERA, 4.75 FIP, 1.3 fWAR

Giolito is yet another example of why the phrase “There is no such thing as a pitching prospect” exists. Once a triple digit flamethrower with a curveball sent from the heavens, Giolito has already seen his stock (and his velocity) take a hit. Some writers — even the best of the best — were doubting Giolito’s ceiling shortly after he was dealt to Chicago, and his 2017 did him no favors (even with the shiny ERA). He only averaged 92.8 miles per hour with the heater in big league action last year, and topped out at 96 mph. The curveball hardly generated any whiffs, and he didn’t even throw it as often as his changeup.

But spring is the time for optimism, and Giolito has been generating plenty of it. He appears to have lowered his arm angle, similar to a trick Seattle’s James Paxton pulled before his 2016 breakout. The result? Giolito has 17 strikeouts in 17 23 innings, along with a 2.04 ERA. Better yet, he’s also touching 95 with regularity. Normally, I’d exercise more caution in a sample this small, but with pitching wizard Don Cooper on staff, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a big improvement from Giolito in 2018.

RHP Reynaldo Lopez

2017 numbers: 47 23 IP, 4.72 ERA, 4.75 FIP, 0.6 fWAR
2018 projections: 121 IP, 4.93 ERA, 4.98 FIP, 0.9 fWAR

Lopez represents the other side of the prospect world. Always playing second fiddle to Giolito throughout their rise up the Nationals’ minor league ranks, a strong MLB debut in 2016 left some wondering if Lopez would actually be the better pitcher long term. He also suffered a slight dip in fastball velocity last season, but that could be due to how he was used (he made five bullpen appearances for the Nats in ‘16). The strikeouts weren’t there, but he has two plus pitches and fanned over a batter per inning in the minors last year. The K’s will come.

It might take a little while, though. Lopez has struggled at times this spring, striking out nine hitters to just eight walks in 13 23 Cactus League innings. His curveball isn’t a true swing-and-miss offering, and the changeup is still a work in progress. He should improve, but might be one who takes another year or two to find his footing at the MLB level.

RHP Carson Fulmer

2017 numbers: 23 13 IP, 3.86 ERA, 5.69 FIP, 0.0 fWAR
2018 projections: 122 IP, 5.63 ERA, 5.65 FIP, 0.1 fWAR

Following Chicago’s acquisitions of Giolito, Lopez, and Kopech in December 2016, Fulmer became somewhat of a forgotten man in the White Sox farm system. The former No. 8 overall pick has always been somewhat of a question mark as a starter — some still believe he’s destined for the bullpen one day — but he has silenced most of his doubters so far. He blew through the White Sox farm system after a productive career at Vanderbilt, but didn’t post the best stats (4.63 ERA, 1.86 K/BB in 2016). Even last year, Fulmer had trouble with his command. He walked nearly five batters per nine innings in 25 minor league starts last year, and that walk rate only worsened in a cup of coffee in the majors at the tail end of the season. He’ll be a productive big league starter if he can keep the walks down, but a high-octane reliever isn’t a bad floor.

LHP Carlos Rodon

2017 numbers: 69 13 IP, 4.15 ERA, 4.69 FIP, 0.6 fWAR
2018 projections: 93 IP, 4.14 ERA, 4.16 FIP, 1.5 fWAR

When healthy, Rodon has looked like a potential top-of-the-rotation starter. He had a strong rookie season in 2015, striking out roughly a batter per inning while limiting opponents to a 3.75 ERA. He followed that up with an even better sophomore season, slashing his walk rate while maintaining a similar ERA and strikeout rate in more innings. Even his 2017 numbers looked good, although the walk rate went back up.

Unfortunately, Rodon was limited to just 69 13 innings last season due to a wonky left shoulder. He was shut down during spring training, and didn’t make his season debut until late June. That same shoulder flared up again down the stretch, and he underwent surgery to relieve the bursitis. He has been throwing without pain during spring training, but won’t pitch in any games, and probably won’t see any MLB action until June. While it would be nice to see him immediately get back to flummoxing hitters with his power fastball-slider combo, simply getting through 2018 without another injury would be a victory for Rodon and the Sox.

LHP Hector Santiago

2017 numbers: 70 13 IP, 5.63 ERA, 6.02 FIP, -0.2 fWAR
2018 projections: 46 IP, 5.50 ERA, 5.79 FIP, 0.0 fWAR

As someone competing for a spot in Chicago’s rotation, Santiago deserves a mention here. However, he won’t be part of their future plans. The 30-year-old lefty got off to a strong start last spring, holding opponents to a 2.43 ERA in April, but things quickly fell apart after that. He gave up an .888 OPS in May, and surrendered 36 runs in 40 23 innings the rest of the season. He ultimately succumbed to a back injury in July, and missed the rest of the season. The one-time White Sox prospect probably isn’t long for the rotation at the major league level, but might be able to carve out a career as a reliever down the road.

Bullpen

If you’re somehow scouring this article for tips on who to draft for save in your fantasy baseball league, this section won’t be very helpful. Righthanders Nate Jones and Joakim Soria have been battling for the closer spot throughout the spring, but manager Rick Renteria has said that he may “mix and match” the two (and maybe others) throughout the year as necessary. Jones certainly has the higher upside of the two. He’s almost two years younger than Soria, and averaged 97.8 miles per hour with his fastball last season (to Soria’s 93.4 mph). That velocity, along with his 88 mph slider, helped Jones generate an 11.3 percent whiff rate and a 30.6 percent strikeout rate. Soria bounced back after a subpar 2016 season to strike out nearly 28 percent of hitters last year, but was the beneficiary of an unsustainable 2.9 percent home runs per fly ball (HR/FB) ratio (league average for relievers was 12.8 percent). Still, his strikeout and walk numbers were strong, and his 3.08 xFIP suggests he was a little better than advertised.

The rest of the ‘pen isn’t so great. Luis Avilan is a solid lefty that will rack up some strikeouts before getting flipped for a prospect at the trade deadline. Juan Minaya struck out nearly 28 percent of hitters in 43 23 innings, but would be further down the pecking order on a better team. “Lord” Danny Farquhar is still walking too many hitters to be anything more than an average middle reliever, and he’s now on the wrong side of 30. One younger pitcher with some upside is old friend Bruce Rondon, a non-roster invite who has had a strong spring. Ditto righthander Jeanmar Gomez, who isn’t young, but has yet to allow a run in 7 23 Cactus League innings. Lefties Aaron Bummer and Robbie Ross are also competing for a roster spot.