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Editor's Note:  Half-way through spring training, the Sox starting rotation starts to take shape.

Sizing Up the Starting Rotation

by George Bova

Spring training is half over, and it's time for Jerry Manuel and the front office to make the key decisions surrounding the 2000 roster.  Jose Valentin appears to have the starting shortstop role sewn up.  Greg Norton has hit beyond anyone's expectations and figures to get plenty of at-bats in numerous roles -- including starting third basemen.  Frank Thomas and Jerry Manuel have survived the national soap opera that has surrounded their relationship.  It's clear the manager will have far more flexibility this season when deciding who plays first base and who plays DH.  There is plenty of healthy competition in the outfield.  Catching options are wide open until Brook Fordyce returns from his foot injury next May.  All the key pieces of the puzzle are beginning to fit into place.  All except one -- the starting rotation.

Let's not get too upset about this problem.  There are at least twenty-five other major league teams who wish they had the same problem for their beleaguered staffs.  Their fans get positively aroused at night dreaming of ways their team could somehow manage to pry away one of the young Sox arms in trade.  From Seattle to Boston, everybody wants a piece of the Sox' action.  Pound sand, losers!

Our cup runneth over with young talented pitchers.  Now it's time to figure out what role each will play in the 2000 season, either with the parent club or down on the farm.  

The most critical of all decisions involves how to build the starting rotation.  With far less talent in 1999, Jerry Manuel employed a five-man rotation all season long.  The two losers of that staff, Jaime Navarro and John Snyder, will now be pushing up daisies for the Milwaukee Brewers.  Veteran Cal Eldred joins a fleet of minor leaguers vying for the remaining slots after Mike Sirotka, Jim Parque, and James Baldwin.  Here's a rundown of each player and possible scenarios Jerry Manuel might choose.

#1 starter.  This job is Mike Sirotka's to lose.  He was the most effective pitcher in last year's rotation and should start the first game April 3.  Unfortunately he hasn't gotten back his pitching form and has struggled all spring.  His ERA is over 46.  The Sox have been giving Sirotka extra work and have made allusions to stiffness and other non-alarming ailments.  He'll get the ball every fifth day, but you have to believe the team will shuffle the rotation if he doesn't shape up soon.  

#2 starter.  In a huge vote of confidence, the Sox have anointed rookie Kip Wells to this position.  He got several spot starts last season, impressed the front office enough to dump Navarro and Snyder, which opened the 290 innings of work they contributed.  Kip Wells will get roughly half of that, up from just 30 innings last season.  He'll pitch those innings from opening day +1 against some of the finest and most established pitchers in the American League.  All of this responsibility falls to a guy with four major league wins.  So far, he's shown he can do it.  Count this guy as a prime rookie of the year candidate.

#3 starterJim Parque is everyone's favorite to get this slot.  The lefty/righty/lefty combination should be especially effective in key series this season.  Jim hasn't done anything special this spring.  His second-half collapse in 1999 has the front office waiting patiently for the return of the pitcher who won nine games before last year's all-star break.  Perhaps it's just gamesmanship, but the Sox let be known through the media they would consider using Parque as the lefty long reliever if they couldn't acquire one in trade with another team.  While this might be a short term solution, Jim's obvious future is in the Sox rotation.  Perhaps the front office was shaking Jim of complacency, but they've never complained about such a problem in the past.  More likely they were sending a signal to the other teams trying to roll the Sox for some pitching talent.  The message is the Sox have options beyond overpaying for another team's southpaw relief reject.  Watch for Parque in the #3 slot this season.

#4 starter.  Free agent to be James Baldwin has been officially demoted to this spot after being the opening day starter last year.  The Sox are clearly unsure whether they should re sign James, trade him before the season ends, or keep him and let him go via free agency.  There are plenty of other teams who would take a chance on Baldwin's inconsistency -- especially that pitching-starved organization in Cleveland.  The Tribe has signed bottom-feeders worse than James Baldwin to lucrative contracts.  Baldwin in a Cleveland uniform is every Sox fan's nightmare -- or dream, depending on which way he's going.  In typical Baldwin fashion, he has again been victim of the big inning this spring.  He's talking tough but the quality results haven't materialized.  The Sox will wait till July, then make a move based on the club's position, including the progress of James versus the rest of the staff.  If the young guys look ready, James Baldwin becomes expendable.  

#5 starter.  Here's the slot nobody is sure about.  Cal Eldred was the favorite entering camp and has mostly pitched effectively this spring.  Eldred is a veteran and has no options if he can't make the major league roster.  However Jon Garland has clearly established himself as the answer for the future.  Though he's been tagged with the long ball, he's been very effective striking out opposing hitters.  Where does he fit if not in the #5 spot?  Long relief and spot starter duty might not give him the innings or experience he needs.  If he doesn't make the big league roster, look for him to get a quick call up should anyone falter or get injured.  He could easily slip into any of the five starter slots.

Plenty more pitching prospects on the horizon, too.  Aaron Myette, Lorenzo Barcelo, Kevin Beirne, and Tanyon Sturtze all expect big league starts this season.  It's going to be an interesting summer at 35th and Shields!

George Bova is editor and founder of White Sox Interactive.


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