Fifth starter a key element for Sox

Reliable fifth starter a key factor for White Sox

TUCSON, Ariz. -- When the great fifth-starter fiasco played out for the White Sox during the 2004 season, John Danks had yet to turn 20 and was practicing his craft for Clinton and Stockton within the Texas Rangers' Minor League system.

Charlie Haeger had just returned from a one-year retirement and was struggling to find his form for Advanced Rookie Bristol and Class A Kannapolis as a White Sox Minor Leaguer. Gavin Floyd actually had the opportunity to appear in six games and make four starts for the Phillies during that same season.

Basically, none of these three young hurlers had anything remotely to do with the South Siders' inability to fill out the 2004 starting rotation. But if the White Sox don't find a fifth starter in 2007, Danks, Floyd and/or Haeger could be the objects of the pundits' finger-pointing.

As of late March, while the search for a fifth starter moves on in Arizona, not one of three appears to be fearful of failure.

"There's going to be some growing pains," said Haeger of the candidates vying for the fifth starter's job. "But whoever they go with has the capability of getting it done at the big-league level."

"The pitcher who wins it is going to do a great job," Danks added. "If something happens where he is not as good as he could or should be, I think anyone could come here and step up between myself, Charlie and Gavin."

In order to properly address the fifth-starter concerns in the present, a brief study of the troubles caused by this spot in the very recent past needs to be examined. During the 2003 season, Jerry Manuel's last year at the helm, the White Sox had a solid starting four comprised of Bartolo Colon, Mark Buehrle, Esteban Loaiza and Jon Garland.

Dan Wright made 15 starts in the fifth slot, followed by five from Josh Stewart, four from Neal Cotts and three from Mike Porzio. The quartet was less than auspicious.

But they were all Cy Young candidates compared with the 2004 struggles. Ozzie Guillen's first rotation featured Buehrle, Garland, Loaiza, Scott Schoeneweis and Wright once again at the back end.

Before the season was complete, such quality hurlers as Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras had joined the White Sox through trades. But Felix Diaz, Jason Grilli, Arnie Munoz, Jon Rauch, Stewart, Schoeneweis and Cotts all followed Wright as fifth-starter candidates and eventual disappointments.

Some of their starts were passable, with Diaz outpitching the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano during a crosstown battle. Other starts, such as one by Munoz in Montreal, left the franchise a bit shell-shocked. Even without factoring in Schoeneweis' one forgettable trip to the mound in Kansas City as the fifth starter, this group finished with a 5-15 record and 9.08 ERA over 25 starts.

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But the problem in 2004 centered more on the rotation's lack of stability above the fifth slot, putting even greater stress on the untested commodities at the bottom. With Contreras, Buehrle, Garland and Javier Vazquez leading the way, along with a high-powered offense back in place, the pressure doesn't seem quite as intense for Danks, Floyd or Haeger.

"I'm not saying they're any better or any worse than the guys we had in 2004, but I don't think we'll have that problem -- especially with the offense we have," said Buehrle of the vacancy. "I think they're looking for those guys to throw five, maybe six innings."

"In 2004 we didn't have anybody," Guillen added. "Right now we have too many. I keep saying, it's going to be a tough decision."

Depending on the most recent round of starts made by any or all of the prime candidates, Danks, Floyd and Haeger each has taken a respective turn as the frontrunner at No. 5. If all three fall short of their appointed goal, then other young standouts -- such as Adam Russell, Lance Broadway, Heath Phillips and Gio Gonzalez -- are waiting patiently.

What goal actually would be considered reasonable for this particular pitching responsibility? Danks provided a perfect answer for all parties involved.

"Really, I want to go out every time out and give the team a chance to win," he said. "I don't want to be thought of by my teammates, when they get to the field, as 'Oh, Danks is throwing today. Get ready for a long one.' I want to be thought of as a very capable starter.

"My dad always says statistics are for losers. I don't worry about statistics too much, obviously, because my Minor League stats are brutal. If I can work into the sixth, seventh or eighth inning and get to the bullpen with a chance to win, I think we'll do all right."

Age and lack of experience have little if anything to do with the final decision. Guillen broke camp last season with a virtually untested Boone Logan in relief and has moved Russell from prospect to roster contention for the final week of Spring Training.

Simply put, the White Sox want an aggressive hurler who will attack the strike zone and keep the team competitive every fifth day. Unlike in years past, the team appears to have plenty of options.

"These guys shooting for the fifth spot could pitch in the upper rotation on other teams," said catcher Toby Hall of the fifth starters as a group. "Instead of just putting someone in there and saying he's going to be our fifth guy, there's competition. That's a good problem to have."

"In 2004 they got pinned into a corner with the fifth starter, and that's not taking away anything from Danny Wright," Haeger added. "We have a lot of different options to go with this time around."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.