One trip through the rotation during Cactus league play and the Chicago White Sox revealed something about how they plan to set up their starting staff for the upcoming season.
With three left-handers and a pair of wild-card right-handers, the White Sox were always going to have to be creative when lining up their starters once April arrives.
The clear-cut top three of the pitching staff is Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and John Danks. But since all three pitch from the left side, lining them up in order isn't ideal because it allows opponents to settle into a right-handed hitting lineup for multiple days.
But while talking to pitching coach Don Cooper this past week, he had a bigger concern when it comes to the order of the starters.
While acknowledging that breaking up the left-handers has been given consideration, his bigger focus is how to line up the rotation in order to best preserve the bullpen.
After getting at least 200 innings from Sale and Quintana last season, Cooper knows who his most dependable arms are. Pitching them back-to-back would reduce wear and tear on the relievers for consecutive days, but Cooper believes there is a better way of handling the situation.
The veteran pitching coach would rather separate his most dependable starters to fluctuate the potential heavy work days of the relievers.
While the White Sox have not committed to any rotation order, the first five Cactus League games had Sale, Danks, Felipe Paulino, Quintana and Erik Johnson pitching in that order. By separating Sale and Quintana, while also separating the unknowns in Paulino and Johnson, the bullpen will ideally have a light day followed by a potential heavy work day.
If it all works according to plan, Sale would pitch with minimal help from perhaps a set-up man and a closer. Danks, who had shoulder surgery in 2012, would ideally need help from just two or three relievers. Paulino, or whoever wins the first vacant rotation spot, likely would need more extensive relief help, but with Quintana pitching the next day, there could be a relative comfort level in using multiple relievers. After a light day when Quintana pitches, a heavy workload could be absorbed in support of the No. 5 starter knowing that Sale returns the following day.
"There's work to be done and the big work for the pitchers is to get their innings and pitches up to where we need to get them for the starters and to get regularity," Cooper said. "Spring training, to me, for our big league guys is getting them ready for Opening Day. That's what this time is for."
Cooper's point is that he isn't concerned with spring results from the pitchers he knows, but there are also others he still is getting to learn.
In his initial start of the spring, Paulino accomplished his first goal of throwing strikes, but he was also pushed around for four runs on eight hits in just 1 2/3 innings. The right-hander, who hasn't pitched in the major leagues since 2012 because of injuries, is guaranteed to make $1.75 million this season so the White Sox will give him every chance to prove himself.
Johnson, a second-round draft pick in 2011, who has had nothing but success in the system, made a strong showing for himself as a September call-up last year, going 3-2 with a 3.25 ERA over his first five big-league starts.
Johnson was solid in his Cactus League debut Tuesday, giving up one run on three hits over three innings. Two other starting hopefuls pitched in relief of Johnson Tuesday. Eric Surkamp, who was claimed from the San Francisco Giants this winter, gave up three runs on five hits over two innings. It also doesn't help his cause that he is yet another left-handed pitcher.
Andre Rienzo, who made 10 big-league starts last season, fared better Tuesday by throwing two scoreless innings despite the fact that he walked two batters. His biggest area of improvement is with his command, something that failed him during his stint with the White Sox in 2013.
"In some cases, we have to go on spring training and what they have done in the minor leagues because they don't have much big-league time," Cooper said.