MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Rodon the key for resurgent White Sox

Rodon the key for resurgent White Sox

USA Today is picking the White Sox to win the American League Central, and as radical as that seems, it just might be right.

The publication has the White Sox winning 90 games, which is a 14-game improvement over last season. That's not much when you consider that just so much went wrong along the way, especially the lack of production from Adam LaRoche, Jeff Samardzija and others, including some who salvaged their personal season after the team's chances were gone.

Nine teams won 10 games or more in 2015 than they had in '14, including four that improved by 15 or more wins. There are going to be teams that do that again this season, and part of the fun is that nobody knows which ones.

The White Sox look more prepared to compete with newcomers Brett Lawrie and Todd Frazier hitting on either side of Jose Abreu. The Sox started 2015 with Micah Johnson and Conor Gillaspie at second and third base, respectively. (Anecdotally, they were pounded, 10-1, by the Royals on Opening Day.)

Outlook: Rodon, SP, CWS

The biggest improvement -- the one that makes the White Sox dangerous for the Royals and the other teams trying to catch them in the AL Central -- comes from getting a vintage performance from Abreu and having Frazier and Lawrie working in harmony with Adam Eaton and Melky Cabrera, who came to life after a 28-38 start. Now that would be fun.

But this isn't how USA Today believes the White Sox can steal the AL Central. It sees the front of the Sox rotation as the key, citing a "possibly unparalleled 1-2 punch of Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, backed by a full season of Carlos Rodon.''

It's easy to see how 90-plus starts from those guys could add up to a whole lot.

You know all about Sale, and have heard how Quintana remains one of the best secrets in baseball. So there's nothing radical about this thought. But what if Rodon is too good to be anyone's sidekick?

What if Rodon is a first-time All-Star in his age-23 season and both Sale and Quintana continue their work from the last three years, when they've compiled a combined 3.16 ERA and 1,203 2/3 innings pitched over 184 starts?

Would there be a better 1-2-3 combination than this in the Majors?

Maybe Matt Harvey-Jacob deGrom-Noah Syndergaard. Maybe Max Scherzer-Stephen Strasburg-Lucas Giolito. Maybe Corey Kluber-Carlos Carrasco-Danny Salazar. Maybe Jake Arrieta-Jon Lester-John Lackey.

That's about it.

Rodon is one of the AL's biggest X-factors. I've been saying that since the White Sox selected him with the third overall pick in the 2014 Draft and raised the volume on the last day of March when he used his wipeout slider to get nine strikeouts in four innings against the Royals' contact-hitting regulars.

Eric Hosmer raved about Rodon afterward, saying he had two different kinds of movement with his mid-90s fastball and a slider that was "real devastating.'' The White Sox sent Rodon to Triple-A Charlotte, saying he needed to get about 10 starts to work on his changeup, but that fastball-slider combination got him to the big leagues by mid-April and into manager Robin Ventura's rotation by May.

Rodon experienced success and failure in his rookie season, finishing it 9-6 with a 3.75 ERA over 139 1/3 closely monitored innings. You couldn't miss how great he could be when he was on, but there were many days when the strike zone seemed to be a moving target. One AL manager mentioned to me that Rodon featured "uncontrollable movement'' on his fastball. That's a blessing and a curse.

Rodon's calling card was his slider, which he leaned on heavily but not nearly as much as he did in his distinguished run at North Carolina State and on Team USA, for whom he beat the Cuban national team in both Havana and the United States. Rodon threw his slider 31 percent of the time. That's a lot, but not as often as many of the game's best pitchers. Tyson Ross threw 41.6 percent sliders last year, with Chris Archer leading AL qualifiers at 39.2 percent.

Archer has the best velocity in that trio, averaging 96.1 mph with his four-seam fastball and 88.6 mph with his hard slider last year. Ross, who was pursued heavily by the Cubs and other teams after leading the National League in walks and wild pitches last season, doesn't throw quite as hard as Rodon, who averaged 94.1 mph with his four-seamer and 87.7 mph with his slider.

All three of those pitchers start enough of their sliders in the strike zone to get swings on more than half of them (Archer 53.4 percent; Ross, 51.9 percent and Rodon 50.3 percent). Ross got the highest percentage of swings and misses (45.4), but Rodon finished a tick ahead of Archer (39.1 to 38.9).

Now here's the kicker: Hitters batted only .160 off Rodon's slider, compared to .189 off Archer's slider and .195 off Ross' slider.

But about that control.

Rodon got whacked around a fair amount of times as a rookie. In his five worst starts, he was tagged for 31 runs in 19 1/3 innings. Rodon walked 16 in those outings, including six in four long innings at Oakland in May. But here are two things to like a lot:

Rodon took his lumps in those poundings without losing his confidence. He was his best down the stretch, going 5-2 with a 1.81 ERA in his last eight starts.

Rodon did not stick to any discernible pattern in that extended run in August and September. He used the pitches that were working the best, like an experienced ace.

In a Sept. 2 start in Minnesota, Rodon threw his slider almost as often as his four-seam fastball. His slider was flying out of his hand that day, with its best velocity (86.1 mph) since his first career start, when he matched up against the Reds' Johnny Cueto. But against the Indians on Sept. 19, working with extra rest and a little more zip on his fastball, Rodon threw 75 percent four-seamers and only 16 percent sliders.

Rodon threw enough changeups to let hitters know he has one. Rodon may never have the true three-pitch mix that has made Sale so dominant in his best stretches the last two seasons, but results show he can thrive while it remains a pitch in progress.

This is a special guy. Rodon could be a very important one for the White Sox.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.