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Woodworking could have been a fine career.
Jason Bilous is thrilled that it’s still just a hobby for now.
After the White Sox added Bilous to their 40-man roster in December, the big leagues don’t look as far away as they once seemed.
It wasn’t certain where the 6-2, 185-pound right-hander would start the 2022 season but he was officially assigned to the Birmingham Barons in a return to Double-A and he made his first start of the season on Sunday. He had set a goal of starting the season in Charlotte, but unfinished business remained.
The 24-year-old threw 65 innings with the Barons in 2021, and while the 6.51 ERA is worrisome at first glance, he outperformed the number with a 4.29 FIP. Bilous also averaged 11 strikeouts per nine innings, but his walk rate ticked up as the season progressed (4.15 walks per nine). Prior to the stint in the Southern League, he took big steps forward with the Winston-Salem Dash, where he was stellar over the course of 14.2 innings to begin the season.
“I thought I had to do more in Double-A and I was just trying too hard”, said Bilous. “Basically was overthrowing a lot. I needed to calm myself down and go back to what I was doing in Winston and just pitch my game. I started to figure it out again in Double-A.”
“I was very happy with how the season progressed on. Since we had that entire previous year off, a lot of people thought I struggled toward the end, but I was just dog-tired because I hadn’t gone that deep before. My first season I went like 112 innings, then I had an entire year off, and came back and finished with 70-something this year. The biggest part that was unfortunate was being on the innings limit. I could’ve gone 7-8 innings in starts but they always shut me down at five. It was all right. They’re just protecting guys.”
The White Sox protected Bilous from potentially being selected in a Rule 5 draft. Although the draft never actually occurred due to the prolonged lockout, it’s an indication that the organization is invested in his future, and the thought is that he could serve as potential pitching depth for a club trying to legitimately win a championship on the major league level.
“I definitely didn’t expect it. I wanted it but it was definitely a culmination of everything coming together and hard work paying off”, Bilous said. “I really didn’t know anything about what the 40-man was when I first got to the White Sox or just pro ball in general but then it kind of hit me once I got put on the 40-man: Wow, this is way bigger than a salary increase. It means the team is invested, they want to possibly use me in the big leagues.”
It really set in for Bilous once he was a member of big league camp this spring. Despite being sent to the minor leagues early on, it represented a jump in status four years since getting selected on the amateur draft’s third day.
As a hard-throwing prep, Bilous was one of the most highly regarded pitching prospects in the history of the state of Delaware. During his senior year at Caravel Academy, Bilous underwent Tommy John surgery, but he was still drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers and offered $600K in the 29th round. He ultimately turned it down and chose to attend Coastal Carolina instead where he contributed on their team that won the College World Series in 2016.
When asked if he was expecting to be chosen by the White Sox on Day 3, Bilous had an interesting answer.
“The White Sox didn’t have any contact with me during the draft process,” Bilous said. “I did one phone interview. I got drafted out of high school by the Dodgers and thought that they might try again. I had no idea what was going to happen.
“That was the first year that the analytics really started to kick in. I obviously threw hard and had lots of strikeouts but I had lots of walks too. The walks really hurt me in the draft. I honestly had no idea who was going to pick me. The teams were going toward the numbers instead of the eye test it seemed. [White Sox scout] Kevin Burrell called me up and said they were going to take me. Hearing from scouts during the draft process, I thought I was going to go higher. Everything happens for a reason. Everything turned out good and I’m grateful to be with the White Sox.”
Burrell started scouting with the White Sox all the way back in 1991. After stints with the Red Sox and Astros, he returned to the organization in 2007 and now serves as the area scouting supervisor for Georgia and South Carolina. The veteran scout believes that the former Chanticleer’s arm was just too good to pass on.
“I saw him in the fall in college and began to follow him,” Burrell said. “He was tall and lanky with a good frame that you could physically project on. His arm worked clean with good arm action and an easy, no-effort delivery.”
“He just really struggled commanding the zone and being a strike thrower and really commanding anything, but the more I watched him his draft eligible year, you could walk in there and see three above-average major league pitches on any given day. But yet he might have well below-average command of all of it. He might walk 10 or strike out 10. You didn’t know what guy you were going to get that given day. He had too good of an arm to just walk past.”
The White Sox signed the Coastal Carolina product for $185,000, which equated to about $60,000 over slot at the time.
“I had him much higher based on his stuff and projection and I felt like with some tweaks in his delivery, hopefully they could work with him to be around the plate more and throw more strikes,” Burrell said. “I wasn’t going to get off of the guy. I really stuck with him and fought for him in the draft. I really believed in his arm.”
Bilous was generally considered to be one of the top 200 prospects in the 2018 class. The righty was familiar with the draft process as he was well informed by his agent Reggie Jefferson of Larry Reynolds Sports Management. College arms with this profile don’t typically get drafted in the sixth through 10th rounds due to bonus-pool manipulation applied by teams.
Burrell believes that the White Sox were fortunate that so many clubs switched their draft process into a more streamlined analytical model at the time.
“In the current environment, some of these model teams do less scouting. I can see why they passed on this guy because the model wouldn’t allow them to take him. Fortunately, we still value scouting mixed in with analytics and it was too good of an arm to pass up in the right spot”, he said.
Burrell also noted that Bilous has developed into being more of a consistent strike-thrower, with a changeup that he deems a necessity to start long-term. He was thrilled to see his guy added to the 40-man roster, and lauded the development team for the achievement.
“It’s a testament to our player development coaches and the tremendous job that they’ve done with him to be more around the plate with his stuff. He has a chance to be a starter in the big leagues,” said Burrell.
Bilous has a preferred role, but like the majority of guys in his situation, he’d do anything to get that call to Chicago.
“I see myself as a starter and I think the White Sox do as well,” the righty said. “They’ve recently added a 12-6 curveball. I had a slider, changeup and four-seam fastball before, but now that I have a curveball, my fastball plays better up in the zone and it’s an extra pitch to confuse the hitter and throw something else in there.”
“I definitely do like starting but whatever gets me to the big leagues fastest, I will do. They want to stick me in the bullpen, they can go ahead and do that and I’ll be just as happy.”
With a fastball that sits in the 92-97 mph range with riding action and a low-80’s slider that often flashes plus, an equalizer to combat lefties was still needed. A hard curveball became the focus of the pitcher’s downtime in 2020. With the help of pitching coordinator Everett Teaford, tinkering ensued.
“A lot in the offseason is just trial and error. That Covid year, we really got a chance to just mess around with stuff and tinker due to the time off. If you mess up, you had that whole year to fix something. It’s much harder to do in-season”, the right-hander said.
Now Bilous uses the curveball to neutralize lefties while he throws the changeup to righties as well.
On the most recent prospect list at Baseball America, the publication ranked Bilous as the No. 14 overall prospect in the White Sox’s system. The total package looks like the toolkit of a potential No. 4 starter. Possessing a fastball with late life and movement, a swing and miss slider and improving changeup that shows fade out of a high three-quarters delivery, Bilous could debut in the majors later this year if he can consistently repeat his delivery and stay online toward the plate.
Towards that end, Bilous made a mechanical adjustment that Lucas Giolito made famous.
“The biggest thing I changed was my arm path. I used to have a long and lanky motion and I’ve shortened it up like a couple guys on the White Sox have been doing. It makes for an easier and repeatable delivery which should cut down my walks and misses.”
Bilous had a goal of starting the season with the Charlotte Knights in Triple-A and was ready to take on Truist Field and its hitter-friendly dimensions in stride. In his return to the Southern League instead, a few good outings with the Barons could help him accomplish his goal.
“I need to be more consistent,”Bilous said. “I can be great for multiple outings in a row. I need to eliminate the really bad ones. Keep it on a straight line instead of the ups and downs. That’s the next key for me as a pitcher. The higher I go, the better the scouting reports and I think that will help me”.
In regards to his other passion, Bilous could have a lucrative future in woodworking, but it’ll have to wait as long as he’s having success on the mound.
“I do all of that. I wasn’t at my house in Delaware as much but I took over from my dad and I started selling stuff in the offseason,” said Bilous. “It keeps my mind busy and keeps me out of trouble.”
With the season underway, Bilous is now busy trying to reach the majors. He has a goal of helping the White Sox this summer, and with the franchise’s pitching depth already being tested daily, he might get his opportunity sooner rather than later. Once it finally does happen, a big Bilous backer like Burrell will be ecstatic. He just won’t be surprised.