<
>

5 for '15: What/who holds rotation's big key?

Slice and dice the Chicago White Sox's rotation any way you’d like and the most “important piece” keeps coming back as Chris Sale.

Yet, depending on how you define “key piece,” another name might come to mind.

John Danks sits in a unique spot of being the highest-paid player on the roster at $14.25 million but having moderate expectations in the rotation’s No. 4 spot. He will pitch in the third game of the season because everybody was moved up a spot with the foot injury to Sale.

The White Sox feel like steady results are ahead from Sale, Jeff Samardzija and Jose Quintana. If Danks can also deliver his best season since undergoing shoulder surgery in 2012, with steady contributions from start to finish, the rotation would wind up with a foursome to envy.

It won’t be easy, as Danks clearly has lost the top velocity he had before surgery. But the reinvention of his pitching arsenal is heading into its third season, meaning that the left-hander has plenty of lessons to fall back on now.

Of the 39 pitchers that qualified for the American League ERA title in 2014, Danks was 36th with his 4.74 mark. It was only a fraction better than his 4.75 mark from 2013. But Danks did manage to pitch 193 2/3 innings, completing a season when he was healthy and made all his starts.

Of the goals he was willing to reveal for this season, Danks wants pitch more than 200 innings, admitting that falling short of that goal in 2014 left him with an incomplete feeling.

“John Danks going out and giving us 180 some odd, 200 innings of similar ball to what we’ve seen from him in the past is going to be valuable even if he’s not part of that Cy Young consideration,” general manager Rick Hahn said at the start of spring. “It’s a matter of getting as many quality innings filled as we can and we think we are in a good position to do that with quality stuff.”

Another positive sign from the soon-to-be 30-year old is how Danks closed strong last year, even though he was throwing more innings than he had since 2010. He went 2-0 with a 1.89 ERA over his final three starts with opponents hitting just .141 against him in that stretch.

On Sept. 27, his final start of the season, he shut down the Kansas City Royals, who were building a World Series run at the time. He hopes his mechanical refinements allow him to continue his late-season success.

“We’re just trying to cut out the movement in my motion,” Danks said. “The more movement I have, the better chance I have to mess it up before I let go of the ball. We’re trying to find a way to get more movement on the fastball, and by doing that help me keep it down in the zone, keep the ball in the ballpark.”

All this focus on Danks, though, still means that guys like Sale, Samardzija and Quintana have to produce. And in order to produce, they will need good health.

Sale will already start the season on the disabled list after fracturing a bone in his right foot just as spring training was starting. The good news is that he will miss just one start and is expected to make his season debut on April 12.

That won’t put to rest all of the injury concern when it comes to the lean left-hander. In each of his first three seasons as a starter, Sale has dealt with an early-season bout of arm soreness. In 2014, his forearm issues were enough to put him on the disabled list for the only time in his career.

In addition, reliever Jake Petricka will open the season on the DL with arm soreness, but he isn’t expected to be out long either.

So although the person who could hold the biggest key for the pitching staff’s success is Danks, the health factor is even more vital in potentially making a playoff run.