White Sox season preview: Starting rotation

White Sox season preview: Starting rotation
April 5, 2012, 12:36 am
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Every day this week leading up to Friday's Opening Day contest against Texas (1 p.m., Comcast SportsNet), we'll be previewing a different unit of the White Sox. Be sure to check out the looks at the White Sox infield and outfield if you haven't already. Today's topic: the starting rotation.

From 2004 -- Don Cooper's first full year as the pitching coach -- through 2011, only one team in baseball has seen its starting rotation provide more value than the White Sox. Per Fangraphs, White Sox starters have been worth 142 Wins Above Replacement from 2004-2011, topped only by Boston's 143 starter WAR.

Of course, Mark Buehrle has accounted for the largest percentage of that value. Long-term, replacing what Buehrle did shouldn't be a focus -- it'll be a long time before another pitcher comes along like Buehrle.

Short-term, though, the Sox should be able to shoulder the loss of Buehrle thanks to Chris Sale's move to the rotation.

Sale shouldn't be expected to throw 200 innings -- for someone who's only thrown 94 13 in his major-league career, that's an unlikely goal to be reached. A baseline of 150 innings is likely, although don't be surprised if he throws a few more.

How Sale handles his transition to starting will have a long-lasting impact on the organization -- if he succeeds, he'll join John Danks as a long-term building block. If he struggles, he'll probably slide back into the bullpen in 2013.

If anyone is going to be expected to replace Buehrle, though, it's Danks. He'll enter the first season of a five-year deal in 2012, which, when it's over, would put him in Chicago for nearly as long as Buehrle (2000-2011 for Buehrle, 2007-2016 for Danks).

But Danks is coming off statistically his worst year since his rookie debut, with his ERA creeping over the 4.00 plateau for the first time since 2007. The good news is that Danks, if healthy, should be expected to see his ERA fall back below 4 given his 3.82 FIP in 2011.

Gavin Floyd is probably the steadiest pitcher of the bunch -- his ERA and accompanying peripherals have barely changed in the last three years. The good news is that Floyd has pitched better than his ERA, per FIP, so there's a much better chance of a positive departure from the near-4 ERAs he's put up than a negative one.

That Floyd is under contract through 2013 could make him an attractive trade target in July if the Sox fall out of contention. But that's a long way off, and even if the Sox are out of contention they may opt to wait until the winter to deal Floyd.

And that brings us to the two keys to the Sox rotation: Jake Peavy and Philip Humber.

If Peavy can stay healthy and make 30 starts, he should be effective -- his 4.92 ERA last year was a bit of a mirage. But Peavy hasn't made 30 or more starts since 2007 and he hasn't made 20 or more since 2008, so expecting the 31-year-old to hit that mark probably isn't the best idea.

Peavy has repeatedly said he's healthy. That's good, but his ability to stay healthy will be one of the key stories to follow in 2012.

Humber has kind of flown under the radar this spring as most of the starting pitching attention has focused on Sale and Peavy, but he's just as important to the success of the team. A regression back to the Humber of old could leave the Sox scrambling for a fifth starter, while a repeat of his 2011 performance would provide a huge boost.

Given the Sox starter depth beyond DanksPeavyFloydSaleHumber is essentially Dylan Axelrod and a bunch of question marks, it's paramount for those five starters to stay healthy and effective. If there's an injury to or an ERA spike from any of them, it could doom whatever playoff hopes the White Sox have.