COMMENTARY | John Danks told reporters on Wednesday, May 8 that he expected to make at least one and maybe two more starts on his rehab assignment before making his return to Chicago. In his latest outing for AAA Charlotte, he surrendered 2 runs over 5 innings, walking 5 batters and striking out 4. Despite the mediocre stat line, he was encouraged by the quality of his pitches and the way his healing shoulder felt throughout the outing.
There have not been concrete reports on Danks' velocity, but he says "there weren't many heaters under 88, 87. I looked up and saw a couple of 90s." From the sound of that, he may be meeting a minimum threshold of velocity for being effective in MLB. In his last healthy season, according to FanGraphs, he averaged 91.6 miles per hour on his fastball and last season he averaged 90.1. It seems another drop in velocity is in store based on this report as well as pitching coach Don Cooper saying Danks "is going to have to pitch a little more like a Buehrle."
Danks seemed more or less unconcerned by his walk total in his latest outing, which is probably the correct approach. He did not struggle with walks in spring training and it was not an issue during his previous rehab start. A relatively encouraging sign was his strikeout total; after managing just 1 strikeout in his first rehab outing with AA Birmingham, he struck out 4 on Wednesday with AAA Charlotte. This is by no means a high amount of strikeouts nor was Danks ever an especially impressive strikeout pitcher. What is important, though, is that he induces swings and misses.
The main problem during Danks' forgettable spring training performance was his inability to miss bats. This is fairly clearly related to velocity, as he had struggled to even reach the 87 miles per hour minimum he reported about his latest outing. Chicago White Sox fans must hope that his current fastball velocity is fast enough that he is not forced to need a Mark Buehrle level of precision like his pitching coach mentioned.
At this point, it appears that Danks will not be a complete disaster upon his return. Reports on his velocity will need to be closely monitored and the White Sox are clearly taking the situation seriously, as general manager Rick Hahn was spotted at Danks' start in Charlotte. The results in these minor league outings have been fine, but not stellar. The lack of strikeouts will be a point of concern, but it is important to keep in mind that he is being forced to adjust to higher levels of competition quickly.
The John Danks that returns will not be the same pitcher that earned a $65 million contract before the 2012 season. It is too soon to speculate whether Danks will permanently lose velocity, but not even the most optimistic observer would predict that he will make his first appearance this season with full velocity. While his velocity is not and should not be the sole predictor of performance, he has never been a precise pitcher. Danks will have to learn to make fewer mistakes because his pitches will be less deceptive. White Sox fans will have to tolerate some frustrating innings or outings while Danks grows accustomed to his recovering repertoire.
The White Sox will be fine while they wait for Danks' return, as I wrote earlier this week. While I am optimistic that Danks will be serviceable upon his return, it is not clear at this point that he will out-produce the starter he will replace, given how strong the performances of all five current White Sox starters have been. A further complication is which starter he will replace; both Dylan Axelrod and Hector Santiago have gotten off to hot starts this season. Santiago is arguably the more talented pitcher and manager Robin Ventura has indicated he is willing to have a rotation with four left-handed starters if Santiago continues at his current torrid pace.
On the other hand, with the decline of Matt Thornton and the recent demotion of Donnie Veal, the bullpen has been weakened in the absence of Santiago. Ventura and the White Sox may be tempted to send him back to the bullpen to give them a more reliable left-hander. Likewise, keeping the right-handed Axelrod in the rotation will retain more righty-lefty balance.
Another possibility, which I endorse, is the White Sox going with a six man rotation for the short term once Danks returns. This will buy Danks extra rest as his workload increases as well as give Axelrod and Santiago more opportunities to fight it out for the last spot in the rotation. If Danks hits any speed bumps in his recovery, the six man rotation setup will allow a seamless transition to a five man rotation instead of once again moving Santiago or Axelrod between the bullpen and the starting rotation.
When John Danks inevitably receives his call back to Chicago in the near future, do not be fearful that he cannot produce. Be wary of the roster decisions made, however, especially when it comes to the reshuffled rotation. The White Sox may very well be forced to send their best starting pitching prospect in Santiago from the rotation to the bullpen, just for the bullpen's sake.
Patience will be necessary, but John Danks will begin earning his large contract soon. He will not be the same as before right away, but he will survive and improve.
Jacob Long, a native to the Chicago area, is a writer for the Yahoo! Contributor Network. He has experience covering sports and news for WMC-TV in Memphis, TN and has contributed to sports blogs such as The Flapship. Follow him on Twitter @jlongrc.
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