The White Sox have learned on a number of homegrown products and prospects more than they might in a standard season that wasn’t compromised by a pandemic, but up until today, none of the central figures had been reaches.
Nick Madrigal was penciled in as the second baseman at the start of the season. Rick Hahn didn’t use ink because it would’ve cost him a year of service time. Matt Foster and Codi Heuer have emerged from relative obscurity to shore up the bullpen, but the former was on the 40-man roster before the season, and the latter had emerged as a legit relief candidate late last year. Dane Dunning is the perhaps the biggest revelation, but it’s more because of his Tommy John surgery than his track record. Set aside the repaired UCL, and he’s a 25-year-old with success at Double-A and nowhere else to pitch.
That’s what makes Jonathan Stiever’s start today against Detroit new territory for the 2020 season. The White Sox could have tried to get through five innings with Alex McRae and Bernardo Flores Jr. in the finale of a series against a lesser opponent and nobody would have thought twice. Instead, they’re rolling out Stiever, who hasn’t pitched above A-ball.
It could go poorly, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. Stiever’s got a good arm, and this is the White Sox’s last chance to introduce him to major-league competition against a softer lineup.
When he last saw Stiever, he had ascended into the top six of the White Sox farm system thanks to 154 strikeouts against 27 walks and a 3.48 ERA over 145 innings between Kannapolis and Winston-Salem. He broke through his previous ceiling by finding extra oomph on his fastball that has carry, and emphasizing a curveball that played well off that 95-mph heat.
It’s a similar body of work to fellow 2018 draft pick Kris Bubic, whom the Royals needed in their Opening Day rotation due to COVID-19 cases. Bubic isn’t a perfect comparison. He was a supplemental pick in the 2018 draft, whereas Stiever was a fifth-rounder. He’s a lefty while Stiever throws with his right hand. He racked up a league-leading amount of strikeouts, while Stiever didn’t quite reach that echelon.
But they’re similar in terms of how many steps they had remaining before the majors in a normal season. While an emergency pressed Bubic into starting under non-ideal circumstances, he’s held up rather well, posting a decent ERA (4.50) over a decent amount of innings (40 over eight starts).
Reynaldo López’s respectable five innings on Saturday make the need for Stiever less pressing, but there are enough question marks — López, Dallas Keuchel’s back, unprovenness elsewhere — to make Stiever’s state worth learning about.
The White Sox are starting his service time probably before they intended to, but they don’t guard years of control for pitchers as jealously as they do for position players. The bigger issue might be options, but not necessarily. If Stiever stumbles and he gets sent to Schaumburg before the end of the season, that’d normally consume one of his three option years, but I’m not positive how the league will regard time spent at alternate training sites for players not on the 40-man roster. With so little time left in the season, it’s possible he’d be eligible for a fourth option if he were sent down immediately.
Stiever can avoid those complication by pitching well enough to hang around the rest of the year, and then by figuring out the rest of his process over the next two seasons. That doesn’t seem like it’s out of the question, either.
(Photo by Scott Kinser / Chicago White Sox)