Without a proven third starter to turn to in Game 3 of the American League Wild Card Series, White Sox manager Rick Renteria’s decision to go with an “opener” and maneuver through the franchise’s first ever winner-take-all playoff game with his bullpen was understandable.
However, every move that was made after arriving to that conclusion is rightfully open to questioning. If using an opener, why start the game with a starting pitcher? Why manage backwards by using your three best bullpen arms first? Why use Carlos Rodón as a reliever at all?
These are all fair questions that Renteria did his best to explain after the game. Fans are unlikely to accept those answers and it remains to be seen if Renteria’s bosses are satisfied by those answers.
But it also needs to be pointed out that the manager was put in a tough situation in Game 3 because he didn’t have a proven third starter to turn to. That’s not to defend Renteria’s actions during the game, especially after Garrett Crochet left the game early with an injury. The manager is paid to manage situations that are presented to him and the playoffs are full of tough decisions based on matchups and many, many pitching changes. Thursday’s Game 3 won’t be forgotten within the organization and it won’t be forgotten by Renteria, who cited a 2013 World Baseball Classic game he managed as a reason for why he turned to the bullpen so early. Perhaps the White Sox’s final game of 2020 will be banked in the manager’s library as an overcorrection.
But separate from Renteria’s evaluation is the reality that the White Sox went into the postseason with only two reliable starting pitchers in Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel. If they had been fortunate to win the wild card series, how would the White Sox have maneuvered a best-of-5 series with no off days? How would they have maneuvered a best-of-7 series with no off days?
They would have needed a fourth starter, let alone a third.
Right before the season started, I made the case that the key to success for the 2020 White Sox came down to three pitchers: Carlos Rodón, Reynaldo López and Dylan Cease. Even after Michael Kopech opted out of the season, the White Sox felt like one of their strengths was starting pitching depth. And it was true that they had depth in that they had a lot of options. But how proven were those options?
The White Sox really needed at least one, but more realistically, two of those three pitchers to emerge as reliable starting options during the course of the 2020 season. We’re not talking about Cy Young candidates. They just needed to be reliable -- take the ball and pitch at least six solid innings and give your team a chance to win.
“It's vitally important for us to have those three guys do well,” Renteria said back in July. “It goes without saying, I think we're going to try to do everything we can to maximize their effectiveness. They're the ones that obviously have to go out there and be efficient and do what they have to in order to give us innings -- and that requires efficiency, commanding the zone.”
Fast forward to the playoffs: Cease and Rodón were in the bullpen and López wasn’t even on the wild card roster.
It was certainly an ominous start to the season for both López and Ródon. López didn’t even get through one inning before landing on the injured list with a shoulder problem. Ródon couldn’t get through his second start before having the same issue.
For a while, Cease looked like he could be a reliable third starter. From Aug. 2-23, he went at least six innings in four of five outings and the White Sox went 4-1 in those games. But walks were still an issue and Cease never made it past five innings of work the rest of the season. After walking a total of 12 batters in just 7.2 innings of work over two starts in mid-September, it became obvious that he wasn’t going to be a viable starting option in the playoffs.
To realistically win a World Series this year, the White Sox needed two of those three starters to emerge as good, reliable starting pitchers. To win a series or two in the playoffs, they needed at least one. So with none of them working out, it’s not surprising they didn’t make it out of the wild card round.
So where do the White Sox go from here? Some of that will depend on Michael Kopech, who hasn’t pitched in a regular season game in over two years. Dane Dunning remains an intriguing piece of the future, and he did his best to contend for that No. 3 spot before essentially running out of gas. And no one is giving up on Cease yet. But the White Sox would be wise to take a serious run at Trevor Bauer in the offseason. There are still plenty of intriguing young arms in the system, but almost every one of them has a major question mark attached to them – and that now includes rookie Garrett Crochet, who left Thursday’s game with “left forearm tightness,” three words no pitcher ever wants to hear.
A top-end arm like Bauer would insulate the White Sox from many of these starting pitching questions.
In the end, 2020 was a massively successful season from a developmental standpoint, but not when it came to the back end of the starting rotation. They say you can never have enough starting pitching. In the White Sox’s case, that starts with at least finding a third starter they can use in the playoffs.