April 20, 2015
The situation: Since Madison Bumgarner's final pitch of the 2014 World Series, the White Sox have revamped their roster as much as any team in baseball other than the Padres; and while it’s far too early to panic, the moves haven’t provided early success as Chicago sits at 4-7. After two quality starts at Triple-A Charlotte, Rodon getse the call-up on Monday as the Pale Hose hope their top pitching prospect can make a difference out of the bullpen.
Background: Coming into the 2014 draft, Rodon was as prohibitive a favorite to go first overall as anybody since Bryce Harper in 2010, but some mixed results and concerns over his usage—and yes, money likely played a factor, too—saw the former N.C. State ace fall to the White Sox with the third overall pick. In his short time in the organization, he’s been dominant, and many scouts I’ve spoken with believe he’s the best left-handed pitching prospect in baseball, with apologies to Dodgers southpaw Julio Urias.
Scouting report: Rodon had some consistency issues with his fastball velocity as a junior, but as a professional he has typically sat 92-94 mph and has touched 96. Commanding the pitch has been an issue, as there are times that Rodon will struggle with his finish, and there’s some head movement in his delivery. It’s been better as a professional, and the White Sox are one of the more underrated organizations at working with pitchers who have questionable mechanics (see: Sale, Chris).
The piece de resistance here is the slider; it's a pitch I should just show you a GIF of and leave it at that, but I’m a fan of superlatives. With its velocity, bite and spin, it’s the best amateur slider I’ve ever seen, and it’s not particularly close.
On second thought, here’s a GIF. This is not fair.
Is it always an 80 offering like in the clip above? No, here and there the pitch will flatten, and when he cuts off his delivery the pitch is in the dirt before it has a chance to do its damage. When he’s at his best, Carlos Rodon’s slider has a chance to be one of the best—if not the best—breaking balls in baseball.
Rodon will also throw a change, and though it will flash average, it’s not consistently a competent big-league offering. The arm speed is inconsistent, which hurts the deception, though there is some tumble to it that allows it to not be walloped when hitters pick it up early. When you’re throwing a plus fastball and an elite level slider it doesn’t have to be a great offering, but it’s one of the things that could keep Rodon from becoming an ace.
The other issue that could keep Rodon from pitching at the top of the rotation is his command, but that has seen a drastic improvement since he joined the White Sox organization as well. I still saw times in spring training where he’d cut the delivery short, but the arm slot is repeated on a much more consistent basis than it was in college, and he’s generally within the margin of error with all three of his offerings. Greg Maddux he is not, but he’s also not Lucas Harrell.
Immediate Big League Future: If Rodon is the 65 fastball, 70 to 80 slider pitcher that he has been for most of his professional career, he’s going to dominate out of the bullpen, and he won’t be in the bullpen very long. Just keep in mind that consistency has not always been his friend, and as good as the White Sox are at polishing prospects, it wouldn’t surprise me if at some point we see Rodon go through some struggles – particularly if/when he does get a chance to start and faces a team of patient right-handed hitters. Still, the upside here is on par with any hurler in baseball, and Rodon has a chance to make an immediate impact for Chicago, and he and Chris Sale could form one of the nastiest 1-2 left-handed pitching duos we’ve seen in quite some time. —Christopher Crawford
Fantasy Impact: There's always something slightly bittersweet in the fantasy realm whenever a top pitching prospect is called up to pitch in relief, but we have seen his before on the South Side. With David Robertson manning the closer's role, it's very clear that, barring an injury, Rodon will not see anything more than a fluke save or two--meaning he'll have to earn his keep in the same way that all other middle relievers must in our cruel world.
At this point, it would be a surprise if Rodon wasn't in the rotation within the next six weeks--and that would render this time in the bullpen a far better education on getting major-league hitters out than waiting around in Charlotte until June. In the bullpen, he is capable of being a top-10 middle reliever right off the bat, with the ability to strike out 10 or 11 batters per nine and help in the ratio department. As a starter, Rodon's biggest contribution will be his strikeouts—which might near one per inning. The drawback is that his WHIP and win potential will lag behind due to the likelihood for high pitch counts and the possibility of a few too many walks.
Right now, Rodon needs to be owned in all 12-team mixed leagues and deeper in redraft formats, even with the initial assignment in relief. After all, he can return value in the interim, and once it's announced that he's earned a spot in the rotation, it's likely too late in a first-come, first-served league. In an AL-only league where he's available, I'd be comfortable going up to $35 for his services. If you play in a keeper/dynasty league, regardless of depth, someone already owns him (and for good reason). If he is available, maybe it's time to find a new league. —Bret Sayre
PECOTA (with two-thirds of his appearances coming in relief):
Christopher Crawford is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @CVCrawfordBP