The Chicago White Sox used their first round pick, pick 13, in the 2010 draft to select Florida Gulf Coast left-handed starting pitcher Chris Sale. He paid immediate dividends as the first player from the draft class to reach the majors. He spent just 10.1 innings in the minors before the White Sox determined he was ready to face major league hitters. Drafted as a starting pitcher, he has yet to actually start a professional game at either the minor league or major league level. That could all change in 2012.
Life long White Sox starter Mark Buehrle is a free agent this year, which could open up a rotation spot for Sale. The team has five pitchers under contract or team control that spent time in the rotation this year. Those starters are John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Phil Humber, Jake Peavy and Zach Stewart. Danks and Floyd are safe bets to open the year in the rotation, but after them, it could be four pitchers battling in spring training for three spots. Humber had the best season of his professional career under the tutelage of pitching coach Don Cooper. Regardless of preferred pitching metric, he was solid last year with an ERA, FIP, xFIP, tERA and SIERA under four. It’s likely that he’ll open the season in the rotation as well. That leaves two spots, for three starters.
Peavy has been a colossal disappointment for the White Sox since they acquired his services from the San Diego Padres. The biggest culprit for his shortcomings has been injury. His most notable injury saw him tear the latissimus dorsi tendon completely off the bone in his shoulder. He had an unprecedented surgery to fix the tear, and was able to throw 111.2 innings in the majors, and another 29 in the minors. Unfortunately for Peavy, his fastball velocity was at a career worst last year, and his strikeout rate, 7.66 K/9, was his lowest since his second season in the league all the way back in 2003. His swinging strike rate was above league average, and his control, 1.93 BB/9, was elite. It’s clear though, Peavy isn’t the same pitcher that dominated National League hitters while in San Diego, and it’s unlikely that dominating version of Peavy will ever be seen again. Should he stay healthy, he’ll probably be the fourth member of the rotation. Of course, health will be a big question mark for Peavy. He hasn’t thrown over 200 innings since 2007. His innings total last year bested both his 2009 and 2010 totals.
That leaves one spot for Sale and Stewart to battle for, barring a trade of, or injury to, one of the other starters. Stewart was acquired as part of a three team trade involving the Blue Jays, Cardinals and White Sox. He has oscilated between starting and relieving since making his professional debut in 2008. As a member of the White Sox, he made eight starts and two relief appearances as well as one start in Triple-A. As a member of the Blue Jays organization he has started in all of his appearances the last two seasons with three in the majors in 2011, another 16 in Double-A this year, and 26 at the same level last year. He threw almost exclusively fastballs, both two seam and four seam, and sliders which made up 96.3 percent of his pitch mix. He didn’t miss a lot of bats, and lacks the ultimate upside of Sale. The White Sox could opt to use him in a bullpen capacity, or option him to the minors to continue working as a starter and insurance should something happen to one of the other starters.
The emergence of Sergio Santos as their closer, and the presence of Matt Thornton and Addison Reed as other late inning options are a big part of the reason the White Sox will have the luxury of giving Sale an opportunity to start in 2012. Unlike the previously covered reliever turning starter, Aroldis Chapman, Sale has shown good control, 3.53 BB/9, and the ability to throw two secondary offerings with his fastballs. His four seam fastball averaged 95.3 mph, and his two seam fastball averaged 94.8 mph. Even if he loses a couple ticks on both pitches as a result of having to work multiple innings as a starter, both pitches would still be considered plus velocity offerings for a southpaw. His change-up was considered his best secondary offering when he was drafted, and his 17.3 percent whiff rate confirms it’s a lethal offering, but it is his slider that generated more empty swings in 2011 with a 17.7 percent whiff rate. His ability to throw both a change-up and a slider means he has the weapons necessary to effectively neutralize both left-handed and right-handed hitters. His success thus far against each handed hitter suggests he has got the aptitude required to mix pitches in a way that allows him to get each out as well. He threw just 71 innings out of the bullpen this year, so he’ll most certainly be on some sort of innings cap as a starter, but if he is able to make a relatively smooth transition changing roles he’ll be a very intriguing draft day option. His ability to strike oodles of batters out while maintaining passable control and inducing groundballs (50 percent groundball rate in his career) is a tantalizing combination. He may receive less spotlight and fanfare than Chapman while transitioning to starting, but make no mistake, he’s the more desirable pitcher next year.