Other than Jimmy Lambert, none of the starting pitchers in Charlotte or Birmingham have yet to establish themselves as possible spot starters.
Fortunately, there isn’t a pressing need — yet. Although Lance Lynn is out at least another month and Dallas Keuchel has struggled, Vince Velasquez is showing promise and Johnny Cueto will likely head to Chicago after he starts in Charlotte tonight (he can opt out if he’s not added to the 26-man roster by Sunday).
But what happens if all these options are still not enough? Who would get the spot start?
There are multiple guys on the Knights vying for that top spot, though the answer could actually be found in Birmingham. More on that in a bit.
You have to feel sorry for Lambert, who worked his way back from Tommy John surgery in June 2019 and found himself at the top of the spot-start list, only to suffer more setbacks. First, he got COVID-19 this past winter, which delayed his spring training. And, more recently, he’s found himself on the IL with shoulder stiffness. It doesn’t seem serious and he may be back in the rotation as soon as next week, but he is a guy who seems due for some good luck.
Kade McClure and John Parke are next up in terms of Triple-A experience, with a combined 31 starts in 2021-22. Neither has yet to demonstrate enough consistency, which admittedly is hard to do when half your starts are in a launching pad like Charlotte. Still, like pitch clocks and robo umps, there’s nothing you can do about that, is there? They will likely continue to get every opportunity to take that next step.
That leaves Wes Benjamin, the team’s most successful starter to date; Emilio Vargas, who is coming around after a tough intro to Triple-A; and Davis Martin, who impressed last week in his first start for Charlotte after posting good but not overpowering numbers in Birmingham in 2021-22.
(Johan Dominguez also looked intriguing in 7.2 innings for Charlotte before his season ended with TJ surgery.)
Benjamin has been rock-solid in all his outings until this past week when he was roughed up twice. The 28-year-old lefty has so-so career MiLB numbers, but credits his newfound success to the development this past offseason of a sinker and changeup that break into righties and away from lefties, respectively. He leads the team with a 3.58 ERA and 1.19 WHIP.
Martin, meanwhile, dazzled on the road in Gwinnett but it will be interesting to see his adjustment this week to his first start in the much smaller Truist Field. Likewise, Vargas posted his best effort to date in Gwinnett, with five innings of two-hit ball.
Whichever of these guys steps forward this year, they all share two things in common. First, without an overpowering fastball, they have to locate consistently to be successful (duh!). Second, they are all members of the Knights.
But there’s one guy in Birmingham — Jason Bilous — whose five starts this year have moved the 13th round pick of the White Sox in 2018 into the conversation as well. Bilous has dominated Double-A hitters thus far, with a 3.04 ERA and .174 BAA. Perhaps the White Sox agree — Lambert and Bilous are the only two guys in this group currently on the 40-man.
PERTINENT: White Sox Prospect Focus: Jason Bilous
Lambert (No. 14) and Bilous (16) are also the only members of these arms currently ranked in Baseball America’s White Sox top 30 prospects. A trio of unproven, younger arms — Sean Burke (9), Matthew Thompson (11) and Jared Kelley (13) — are ranked ahead of Lambert and Bilous. (Speaking of Burke, he was promoted to Birmingham this past week and is positioned to be part of the spot-start conversation in 2023.
And so we wait and watch, to see what happens in Chicago, Charlotte and Birmingham. But, with 120 games left in the minor-league season, guessing which arm will emerge is as sure a thing as an 80-to-1 longshot winning the Kentucky Derby.
After Lynn gets healthy, I would assume the team preferences for spot starts are:
I’m of the opinion that even if Keuchel falls out of favor that we try to find a way to keep him around (finagling the IL, rotating relievers with options left, etc.) because I assume that a healthy Keuchel is going to be a best bad option somewhere along the line and we’ll be paying him anyway. I don’t want to put too many eggs in the Cueto/Velazquez basket, so unless there’s a legit innings eater available at the deadline Keuchel may have some value.
So far Velasquez has shown more value than Keuchel. Will be interesting how DK and VV do their next turn in the rotation vs the Yankees. I don’t predict great things from either.
With today’s postponement, Keuchel might be skipped so he’ll do just fine. As far as Velazquez, it’ll be interesting to see. On one hand he’s pointing to specific improvements he’s made that (if real) might be sustainable rather than just saying, “I had a good day.” On the other, it’s the Yankees. They’re going to beat up on a lot of back of the rotation types so we should probably just wait until the end of May before reading too much into his short-term improvement or any hypothetical pummeling the Yankees put on him.
Was trying to figure out why the ERA mentioned for Bilous doesn’t match up with his season stats, realized that this must have been written before his May 8 start.
Burger+Kath+Thompson for Mahle
More than I’d pay for a year and a half of a guy that’s had 1 good season and is struggling with command right now.
It’s also very sad that the only minor league position players that could possibly help the Sox this year are Romy Gonzalez or Yolbert Sanchez.
I wonder if the Phillies will move Segura at the deadline.
They would have to be well out of playoff range, I would think. He’s playing very well and they are all-in on this year.
Cueto gave up no runs through 5 tonight, got touched for a couple in the 6th. Pretty decent outing. I have no idea what they will make of him compared to Keuchel and Velasquez. Will he get called up at all? Will it depend on what those two do this weekend?
Tough call, I liked Cueto the best of the 3 when they first signed him, but with the hopes that Keuchel might do better than he has and make Cueto irrelevant. There might not be a huge difference among the 3, although I do think it is dreaming to think Velasquez will have sustainable success, his track record is too miserable for it to be likely even if he has looked ok recently. I’d like to see Cueto get a chance, personally.
Given the lack of depth, Cueto is worth a shot. I wouldn’t mind seeing Keuchel paired with VV or Cueto somehow. But they could really benefit from keeping all three around.
However, there is analogous precedent for VV in Lance Lynn.
Also VV looks so much like a W and Ws are what you want from your spot starters, no?
My guess is that the Sox need to figure out a way to hold onto Cueto (all 3 really) until Lynn comes back healthy and solid.