White Sox playoff rotation: How starters could stack up in ALDS

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Sox playoff rotation: How starters could stack up in ALDS originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

CLEVELAND — The Chicago White Sox aren't ready to make their starting-pitching plans for the American League Division Series known quite yet. But their plans for the final week of the regular season are pointing toward some answers.

White Sox manager Tony La Russa said Sunday that Dylan Cease is slated to pitch in the regular-season finale next weekend against the Detroit Tigers. In a separate interview at Progressive Field in Cleveland, he also said that Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn will pitch the Friday and Saturday games of that series, though he didn't reveal which order they'll go in.

Giolito and Lynn pitching Friday and Saturday allows both to be on at least four days' rest for Game 1 of the ALDS the following Thursday, giving La Russa and the White Sox the choice of which pitcher to use in the postseason opener. Cease, then, could very well be the team's Game 3 starter in that best-of-five series.

RELATED: 4 injury questions Sox will try to answer before playoffs

Of course, the White Sox' plans are still plenty up in the air until they find out more about the availability of Carlos Rodón. The All-Star lefty is working his way toward a start in the upcoming two-game series against the Cincinnati Reds next week, penciled in for Wednesday's game. But after throwing just three innings in his most recent start and exiting after he reported to La Russa that he didn't feel right with persistent shoulder soreness, the White Sox are trying to find out what he can give them in the postseason.

That's what Wednesday's start is for, but he needs to get there first, with La Russa informing Sunday that a bullpen session Rodón threw in Cleveland would be important in that process.

La Russa said that the White Sox will gladly take whatever they can get from a healthy Rodón in the playoffs, even if it's as little as three innings. And in October, when starters have short leashes anyway and bullpen usage is cranked to 11, that would remain quite valuable, considering Rodón has pitched at a Cy Young-caliber level whenever he's been on the mound this season. But given the ample amount of extra rest the White Sox have given Rodón between starts this season, who knows how much time after making even a brief postseason start he would need before he was ready to go again.

"It's just a matter of him showing that he can compete and (be) healthy enough to compete," La Russa said. "We know what he can do when he's healthy. The stamina part is nice, but it's not all that. Because if somebody tells me right now, tells our team, 'Carlos can give you four shutout innings,' you take them. Five, take it. Three. Three is a third of the game.

"If he would pitch (in the playoffs), he would pitch as a starter. But he needs to show that it's a fair challenge for him physically, mechanically, but more so health wise."

Cease, too, was a brief concern after he took a batted ball off his pitching arm Friday night and made an early exit from that game. The White Sox believed they dodged a bullet with the ball bruising his triceps instead of causing more significant damage to his elbow. And indeed, Cease's optimism that he'd make one more start before the end of the regular season was confirmed by La Russa on Sunday.

"Dylan is feeling better, still has the bruise," La Russa said. "One thing we worked out, which I'm really pleased (about), he's going to take the ball last game of the season Sunday, which really gives him the chance to get the bruise totally gone and still give him a chance to throw the ball a couple times to get ready for it.

"We had the spot open, and he'll take it. It could have been worse, and we were lucky, and we'll get him back (out there) before the season is over."

Cease, should Rodón not be able to go, could wind up playing a massive role for the White Sox, and thankfully for them, he's looked up to the task of late. He was cruising in a brewing gem before leaving in the sixth inning Friday. He's gone from a rough 2020 campaign to a breakout 2021 season and has proven himself reliable and confidence-inspiring whenever he takes the mound.

Giolito and Lynn at the top of the rotation should strike fear into any opposing lineup, should it be the Houston Astros or the AL East-champion Tampa Bay Rays the White Sox square off against in the first round.

As for who's most likely to start Game 1, that might not even be apparent by the final weekend of the regular season, with both pitchers planned to be rested enough for the assignment. Whichever hurler gets the selection, he might need to be called on four days later to start a potential Game 4. While Lynn has seemed to be the "give me the ball" type that wouldn't mind short-rest nods in the postseason, he's still dealing with the knee issue that's bedeviled him throughout the season and got a visit from the trainer during Saturday's start in Cleveland, perhaps tipping the scales toward Giolito.

Regardless of who gets the ball in the playoff opener, the White Sox are relieved to have their top two starters back and pitching well after injured-list stays earlier this month.

"I think we were certainly concerned when both of them missed some time," La Russa said after Giolito threw six scoreless innings in Sunday's 5-2 win. "But it worked, we got the health issues out of the way, and it really refreshed them so their arms feel good and they've built up progressively.

"They both had talked about coming into (these starts) that they felt strong. Both of them threw around 100 pitches, And they'll get one more (each) over the weekend, Friday and Saturday. So I think we're all breathing a sigh of relief that they're healthy and they've got stamina."

While a best-of-five series might not present the need for a fourth starting pitcher — that is, if La Russa and the White Sox are comfortable throwing whoever pitches in Game 1 on three days' rest in a potential fourth game — any subsequent series surely would. That's where the South Siders might need to come up with another starting-pitching option should Rodón be unable to go.

If that's the case, Reynaldo López could slot in as a replacement. Michael Kopech could serve as an opener of sorts, just recently starting the second game of Thursday's doubleheader in Cleveland, to kick off a bullpen day. And there's always Dallas Keuchel, who despite being thought of as the odd man out of the playoff rotation has ample playoff experience and could provide some effective innings.

But so much hinges on what Rodón is able to do, and the White Sox will find out what that is soon enough.

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