10 things to know about battle for Sox fifth-starter spot


With a roster as prepped for a championship run as the White Sox have at the outset of spring training, there aren’t too many spots to be claimed during camp.But one of the position battles that will draw plenty of attention is the fight for the No. 5 spot in the rotation.Here are 10 things to know about this spring battle, including who’s involved, why and who the favorite to win the gig is.

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The White Sox claimed two of the best starting pitchers in baseball during their ascendant 2020 campaign, and Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel are back to top the rotation in 2021. Rick Hahn’s front office addressed what was perhaps the team’s biggest offseason need, solidifying the No. 3 spot with a trade for Lance Lynn, giving the White Sox a trio of aces in their starting-pitching hand.

Lynn’s arrival means the White Sox won’t be scrambling to find a reliable third starting-pitching option in a playoff series like they were when they made a quick postseason exit last year. But they’re also expecting new pitching coach Ethan Katz to work his magic on Dylan Cease, who after struggling with walks, homers and jams in 2020 is set to occupy the No. 4 spot in the rotation for 2021.

That leaves just one job on the starting staff up for grabs.


Kopech seemed the likely candidate to assume the fifth-starter spot for the majority of the 2021 season before camp started. But given that he hasn’t pitched the last two years, Hahn opened camp by talking about the “creative” ways the White Sox would look to use Kopech this year. And though the team has made no specific announcement, more and more, it’s sounding like the fireballing youngster will open the season pitching out of the White Sox bullpen.

An important thing to remember is that the “creative” way the White Sox are approaching getting Kopech his innings could mean a mixture of roles. Perhaps he starts the season out of the bullpen but is pitching as part of the rotation to end the season. The White Sox want Kopech to be strong come September and October, when he can help them reach their goal of winning the World Series

In other words, just because someone wins the No. 5 spot this spring doesn’t mean he’s locked in there for the remainder of the season, Kopech, perhaps, ending up a main reason why.


As will become clear the further we go, the idea of roster management might end up pointing to a clear favorite in this preseason battle. But if it’s up to the White Sox new manager, every pitcher vying for this job — and any other job — is starting at zero.

“We're making it real clear, this is going to be a competitive camp,” La Russa said over the weekend. “The guys that pitch and play the best are the ones that get to pitch and play.”

It’s a logical approach, but it’s not always how things work out, with roster rules dictating certain realities. Still, depending on how much weight La Russa’s evaluation carries in these decisions heading into the April 1 opener — not to mention the role the team’s championship aspirations could play — perhaps, truly, whoever pitches the best this spring takes that No. 5 job.


The White Sox surprised a bit when they signed Rodón to a free-agent contract just a few months after non-tendering him. Rodón’s White Sox tenure has been defined by his inability to live up to the expectations that came along with him being picked with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft, mostly due to persistent injuries.

Rodón is healthy this spring, but he’s only pitched 42.1 innings the last two seasons, with a 5.74 ERA in the 11 games he’s played.

But make no mistake, he’s not just trying to latch on wherever he can. Rodón’s in camp with the intention of starting the season in the rotation and showing the White Sox what he can do.

“When we agreed upon the contract,” Rodón said Sunday, “it was to come into camp as a starter. That's what I'm showing up working towards.

“I know it's there, I know it's in the arm. Now it's time to go do it. I just want to get on the mound and face hitters and show that I can still pitch.”


Rodón’s new manager had this to say about the left-hander:

“I did get to see when he came into Glendale in January. … It’s one of the darnedest velocity-movement pitches I’ve seen. Got a kick out of watching the guys who were trying to catch him. It’s unique and very, very effective," La Russa said. "That’s a unique talent that works as a starter and can definitely work as a reliever, as well.”

Obviously, Rodón is committed to being a starting pitcher, but if he doesn’t win the job, could he still pitch for the big league club out of the bullpen? Maybe. Certainly La Russa seems to think he can. But things didn’t go well when the White Sox tried that at the end of last season.

Rodón returned from an extended injury absence during the team’s late-season stumble, and the few relief appearances he got contributed to that poor stretch. He faced three batters in Cleveland, giving up two hits and a run in a blown game. He faced six batters in a scoreless 1.2 innings against the Cubs but still hit one of them with a pitch. Then, as part of the infamous bullpen parade in Game 3 against the Oakland Athletics, he faced three batters, walking two of them, giving up a hit to the other and surrendering two runs.

That sample size is incredibly small, of course.


In an offseason where every team across baseball was attempting to save wherever they could, that Rodón’s deal is a big league one — and therefore guaranteed — is interesting, at the very least, and potentially significant. The White Sox, by non-tendering him and then signing him to a $3 million contract, saved on the $4.5 million salary Rodón was projected to receive in arbitration.

Considering that sport-wide quest for savings, a mission to be efficient in spending, it seems hard to imagine that the White Sox would guarantee Rodón that money without planning to use him on the major league roster.

He’s the lone guy in this roster battle with a major league deal — and there are no financial consequences to keeping the other guys in the minor leagues, if even for a bit — so maybe that alone makes him the favorite to win the job.


Rodón’s main competition for the job figures to be López, another White Sox mainstay of recent vintage. Like Rodón, López also spent a significant time on the injured list in 2020, and like Rodón, López has struggled to produce consistent results the past two years. Since being arguably the team’s best starting pitcher in 2018, López put up a combined 5.52 ERA in 2019 and 2020.

Considering López has been around for a while now — and he had at least some positive outings last season, as opposed to Rodón — it doesn’t take a wild imagination to suggest he could pitch better than Rodón over the next month-plus and win the No. 5 starter job.

“Every year, you come here to compete,” López said Sunday through team interpreter Billy Russo. “It doesn’t matter if you have a secure spot in the rotation or not. When you come here, you come here with that mindset that you have to fight for a spot. This year is no different.

“I think we are on the right track, I’m just going to prove that.”

But Rodón has one big advantage that neither guy can control: López has an option remaining, which means the White Sox can send him down to the minor leagues without losing him to a waiver claim. Rodón, signed to a free-agent deal, doesn’t. The team can keep both guys by sticking Rodón on the major league roster and stashing López for a bit, until he’s needed at the big league level.

Or, heck, maybe one guy makes the team as a starter, the other as a reliever, and La Russa can swap them around however he sees fit.


The theme of the White Sox offseason was an influx of dependability. With so much young talent already on the roster, the front office made moves that filled holes with reliable, veteran players. Lynn, Liam Hendriks and Adam Eaton all fall into that category, as does La Russa.

It’s what makes the fifth-starter battle particularly curious, because not only is there no slam-dunk dependable option, but it’s been Rodón and López who have sent the White Sox scrambling for starting-pitching alternatives in recent years. Even if Kopech ends up in the rotation when the games matter most, the depth behind him will be these two, who have been among the reasons the White Sox have had to exhaust their starting-pitching depth early and often the last two seasons.

Now, in the times when injuries have been the cause, that hasn't been Rodón and López’s fault. And perhaps blessed with full health for an entire season, they can prove that they are those dependable options. But it will take more than a single spring to prove that, considering they've each struggled to produce consistent results when healthy.

“You guys know I've been through two major surgeries now, I guess. Well, one major surgery and one shoulder debridement,” Rodón said. “It's been up and down and I'm just trying to look forward and hopefully have a healthy season. It's been about four years, I think.”


If La Russa’s approach is the way the White Sox are approaching things, then maybe we should be talking about more than just Rodón and López.

The names that jump out among the other possibilities are youngsters Jimmy Lambert and Jonathan Stiever. Stiever has been frequently mentioned as a pitching prospect on the rise the last few years, and he made a couple of starts in the majors last year, succeeding in a brief appearance against the Detroit Tigers and bludgeoned in an even briefer outing against the Cincinnati Reds.

Lambert, meanwhile, made the Opening Day roster last year as part of the bullpen and was a candidate to slide into the rotation, if needed, before suffering a forearm injury after just a couple outings. He’s back in camp, telling The Athletic he’s out for a rotation spot and receiving rave reviews from a Cy Young winner.

“I look at the little things in guys, especially young guys that have a little bit of the knowledge upstairs, more so than the other guys,” Keuchel said Saturday. “With Jimmy, if you see him on the street, you don't really see him as a prototypical athlete, but the competitive edge is there and the knowledge is there.

“The way the ball comes out of his hand, it's so heavy. You don't expect that from a guy who's sitting 6-foot and 180. The breaking ball's plus, the changeup is there. He's got three plus pitches that, at an early age, is advanced. And I think the mental mindset is also there. So I'm anxious for him to have a healthy first full season in there to see what he's going to be doing.”


It seems Rodón could very well be the favorite to win the job before the competition even gets started. He’s got a major league deal, López — and everyone else, for that matter — has options remaining. From a pure roster-construction standpoint, in which the White Sox would give themselves the most options for the length of the season as a whole, this could make the most sense.

Rodón could very well put the injury demons behind him and turn the flashes of brilliance we’ve seen from time to time into a more consistent string of outings. The White Sox don’t need him to be an ace, they have three of those already. They need him to be reliable every fifth day, and perhaps not even for six whole months, depending on what their plans with Kopech are. Katz’s arrival could help Rodón the same way the White Sox hope it helps Cease, Kopech and their other pitchers.

But remember, too, that the White Sox are past the rebuilding stage of their multi-year overhaul, and contending teams don’t have much appetite for fliers. The time for “let’s see what he can do” is behind them, and if there’s someone who jumps out at La Russa & Co. during the spring, perhaps his message of “whoever pitches the best gets to pitch” ends up being the case.

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