Chris Sale gives staff solid foundation

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Considered an area of strength for the Chicago White Sox, the starting rotation isn’t without questions as the club moves toward next week’s Cactus League opener.

Chris Sale is the undisputed ace of the staff and will no doubt take the mound on Opening Day, March 31 against the Minnesota Twins at U.S. Cellular Field. How the starting staff unfolds behind Sale is one of the stories left to be told in the desert over the next five weeks.

Jose Quintana and John Danks seem like rotation locks, although from there plenty of decisions are left to be made. Felipe Paulino and Erik Johnson could end up rounding out the rotation, but pitchers such as Andre Rienzo, Dylan Axelrod, Scott Snodgress and Eric Surkamp will all get a chance to show what they can do.

Pitching coach Don Cooper widened the debate even further this week when he mentioned Chris Beck and Omar Poveda as long shot candidates.

Even if Sale, Quintana, Danks, Paulino and Johnson make up the starting staff, there is no certainty on what order they would pitch to start the season. Sale, Quintana and Danks are all left-handed, while Paulino and Johnson throw from the right side, and surely the coaching staff will want to mix its righties and lefties as much as possible.

“Your balance becomes left-hander, right-hander, where they are at and where the other guys really fit into that,” manager Robin Ventura said. “On one hand, you are really happy with the way it shapes up with (Sale and Quintana) starting out. After that, you don’t know if you want to mix and match a right in there early or who is going to take hold of that.”

The 30-year-old Paulino might have the most to prove this spring. He’s guaranteed to make $1.75 million on the contract he signed in December, so surely the White Sox will try to get something for their investment.

But a pitcher who is coming of Tommy John surgery in 2012 and a procedure to clean out his shoulder in 2013 has a number of hurdles to cross before getting back on a major league mound.

So far, Paulino has kept up with his teammates after the first week of spring training, taking his regular turns on the mound.

“When I was meeting with the doctors about my shoulder, they said I’d be ready within three weeks; this was in September and by October I’d be ready,” Paulino said this week. “I was supposed to be pitching in winter ball, but I changed to no. I wanted to take care of my rehab at home with my family, working out and trying to be ready for spring and now I’m here. I think all the workouts in the offseason will start to show here in spring training.”

Nobody expects Paulino to suddenly turn back into the pitcher that went 3-1 with a 1.67 ERA in seven starts with the Kansas Royals in 2012 before his elbow injury surfaced. But the White Sox’s financial commitment shows they are expecting something positive.

In a sense, the Paulino signing shows that the White Sox are still putting their remodeled roster together. When they are closer to competing for the American League Central title, their willingness to take chances on projects like Paulino – and to some extent gambles on Ronald Belisario and Mitchell Boggs – figure to lessen.

One of the key stories of the summer will be Johnson and whether he can prove worthy of joining the core of the starting staff. If Johnson can solidify a spot in 2014, the White Sox will have no more than one rotation role moving into next offseason when salaries of guys like Adam Dunn, Matt Lindstrom and Paul Konerko come off the books.

Whether they are willing to spend that money on free-agent pitching figures to depend on how close the team is to contending once again.

Beck’s progress will also be monitored closely, as he could end up taking the role as the team’s next top pitching prospect. After posting a combined 3.07 ERA over 27 starts during separate minor league stops, Beck figures to open this season at Double-A Birmingham.

But his arrival in Chicago could end up being sooner than expected. Johnson started last season at Double-A and now has an inside track on a 2014 Opening Day roster spot in Chicago.

With the first intrasquad game four days away and the first Cactus League game another two days after that, there isn’t much to do right now aside from letting the pitchers build up strength for the internal roster battles that will take place.

“Right now you’re just looking at them and seeing how it comes out of their hand and where they’re at,” Ventura said. “Until hitters get in there, it’s hard to really see a whole lot, but you’re watching some guys and they look better than others as far as just velocity and things like that, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to get somebody out. It’s more of when you start playing games and how they’re throwing.