Dylan Cease knows he is an X-factor in World Series chase

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Jonathan Lucroy called Dylan Cease's stuff "devastating," and Yasmani Grandal said Cease "could possibly be a Cy Young winner."

Well, come Monday, White Sox fans will finally get to see what the team's catchers are seeing.

Cease is scheduled to make his Cactus League debut against the Cubs, his old organization, after an offseason and a spring camp full of work. New pitching coach Ethan Katz has come in with the task of working the same kind of magic with Cease that he did with Lucas Giolito after the 2018 season, when he helped turn the pitcher with the worst numbers in baseball into an All Star and the ace of the South Side staff.

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Cease isn't starting at the kind of statistical low point Giolito was, but his 2020 season did not go well. Despite a fine ERA — a 4.01 mark that plummeted from the 5.79 number it was during his rookie campaign in 2019 — the young righty struggled mightily with walks, home runs and repeated jams, getting to the point where the White Sox looked elsewhere for a No. 3 starter in their playoff series against the Oakland Athletics.

According to Cease, though, after months of working with Katz, things are a lot different these days. It sounds like we could see a different pitcher Monday.

"I think the biggest difference is just filling up the strike zone," Cease said Thursday. "I haven't pitched in any (Cactus League) games yet, but in my (live batting practice sessions), I've mostly been filling up the zone. I've been able to attack with my stuff, which is really refreshing.

"I've kind of had stretches where I've gotten in really good rhythms that I haven't felt in a long time. That's one of the biggest areas I'm noticing. I'll go through an inning where I'm throwing pretty much all my off-speed for strikes and having decent command of the fastball. Just putting together more consistent outings."

That's exactly what the White Sox are hoping to see out of Cease in a season where he could have as big an impact as anyone on the roster. While the South Siders seem built to compete for a pennant and a World Series championship, a potential Cease emergence could be the difference between climbing the mountain and reaching its peak.

Rick Hahn's front office made a win-now move to improve the starting rotation over the winter, trading Dane Dunning — who was tabbed instead of Cease in that third playoff game last fall — for Lance Lynn. The import from the Texas Rangers has been one of baseball's best pitchers the last couple of years, solidifying a rotation that had (and still has) some big question marks in Cease and several other young arms.

If Cease can answer the questions in a positive manner, the White Sox can take a group of three aces and turn it into an even deeper, championship-caliber rotation.

And Cease knows it.

"You see the talent on this team, and it's really easy to picture us going deep," he said. "The way I look at it, if I can contribute like I think I'm capable of, then we can really do something special."

It's easy to forget that Cease doesn't even have a full season worth of major league starts under his belt, just 26 of them in his two years with the big league club. The discussion since his 2019 promotion has revolved around being able to harness that "nasty" stuff, or as Grandal put it, "making him more into a pitcher than a thrower." We'll see, Monday and throughout the 2021 campaign, if the White Sox have cracked that code.

But the reports from everyone in Arizona have been glowing to this point. And that includes the ones from the man himself.

"Last year, it wasn't the best season for me," he said, "but right now, I'm as confident as I've ever been."

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