With the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, the Chicago White Sox selected Carlos Rodon out of North Carolina State. Rodon was a consideration for the top overall pick in the draft, but the Astros and Marlins each went with a high school arm in Brady Aiken and Tyler Kolek. As the top college arm in the draft, Rodon came with high expectations and a presupposed shorter timetable for reaching the majors.
Sure enough, it didn’t take Rodon long to reach the majors. He was the second-fastest from the draft class to make his debut, trailing only Brandon Finnegan of the Royals (debuted in September of 2014). Rodon made his debut in 2015, along with other top-10 draft picks from 2014 like Kyle Schwarber of the Cubs, Aaron Nola of the Phillies, and Michael Conforto of the Mets. Rodon came out of the gate hot, going 9-6 in 23 starts with a 3.75 ERA/3.87 FIP.
Rodon has now played parts of five professional seasons with the White Sox, but he has yet to put together a complete campaign. All in all, he’s largely been a disappointment. For his career, he’s 29-31 with a 4.08 ERA/4.25 ERA with 8.8 K/9 versus 3.9 BB/9 across 529 innings. Rodon’s numbers fit comfortably at the back end of a rotation, but the White Sox hoped for much more out of Rodon.
Rodon’s track record cannot be separated from his injury history. A sprained wrist in 2016, biceps bursitis in 2017, shoulder inflammation when he returned in 2017 that bled into the 2018 season, and then Tommy John surgery that ended his 2019 season after just 7 starts. It’s been a rough road since making his debut.
Entering 2020, the 27-year-old Rodon is a legitimate afterthought. He’s lost velocity over the years, with his four-seamer peaking early in his career with a 94.2 mph average and dropping to 91.4 mph over his seven starts of 2019. He’s gone away from the sinker that was his trademark early on, relying more and more on a fastball-slider mix that profiles more like the repertoire of a late-inning reliever. As he returns from Tommy John surgery, it’s hard to know what kind of pitcher Rodon will be.
Because of the delay to the 2020 season, however, he will be healthy and ready to go when/if the seasons starts, per Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun-Times. That’s good news for Rodon and the White Sox, though it’s unclear if there’s room for Rodon in the rotation. Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel are locked into the first two spots in the rotation. Gio Gonzalez was given a $5MM contract to do what Rodon hasn’t been able to: provide innings. For the other two rotation spots, Rodon will have to beat out a pair of young arms in Reynaldo Lopez and Dylan Cease.
Lopez, 26, has taken his turn every fifth day for the last two seasons in Chicago, but the results haven’t been tremendous (4.64 ERA/4.83 FIP) – and he’s just a year younger than Rodon. Cease, 24, made his debut last year and struggled, but he remains a promising, hard-throwing righty. They’re slotted into the rotation for now, but there’s never been more uncertainty heading into a season than we face in 2020. Rodon could very well push for a rotation slot, but his future is no longer guaranteed. Michael Kopech could also join the fray, as Van Schouwen notes that the former Red Sox farmhand should be recovered from his own Tommy John surgery.
The fact is, the rotation is the biggest question mark of the White Sox roster heading into 2020 – despite the high-ceiling potential therein. Given the bizarre circumstances of the current climate, the bigger question is how much rope Chicago will give their young arms. With a shortened season and expanded playoffs, the White Sox have increased expectations. Fans will expect the Southsiders to join the crowded playoff field. To that end, the early games will matter like never before. A guy returning from injury like Rodon won’t have the leeway to round himself into shape. What’s worse, he might not have minor league games to provide that extra runway either.
If Rodon can come back as effective as pre-surgery, he won’t be the ace that some imagined, but he can hang in a rotation. Whether he’ll get that opportunity in Chicago is unclear. Injuries take their toll, and Rodon has been through the wringer. Whether through side sessions or spring training 2.0, Rodon will have to prove he’s ready to contribute.
If the season takes place, Rodon will have just one more season of arbitration eligibility before reaching free agency, and the White Sox will have to decide whether it’s worth giving him a raise on the $4.45MM (full-scale rate) he’s due in 2020. Rodon is still young enough to turn things around in Chicago, but the injuries are piling up, and time is running out.