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Good kinds of problems: Lining up the White Sox playoff rotation

With the South Siders looking like playoff locks, it's time to start looking ahead and setting pitchers in place for the postseason

The Chicago White Sox put the fanbase in a state of panic when they were swept by a long-idle St. Louis Cardinals in a doubleheader on August 15. The club dropped to 10-11 on the season, and the cries for Ricky Renteria's removal as manager were deafening. Since those harrowing defeats however, the Pale Hose have managed to bludgeon their way through a 16-4 stretch. 

With an overall record of 25-16 more than two-thirds of the way through this abbreviated season and sole possession of first place in the American League Central, August's problems have turned into September's strategy. The White Sox possess the No. 1 offense in baseball according to Fangraphs, with a team wRC+ of 119 and 10 fWAR. They have the best offense in the American League by a significant margin. The team has also accumulated the third most pitching fWAR as well. 

Run differential is generally a harbinger for success over the course of a 162-game season, with the teams with the best run differential usually qualifying for the playoffs. It's yet to be seen how accurately run differential will predict success in this shortened campaign, but the White Sox currently have the best mark in American League. 

Scheduling quirks 

The White Sox have two days off this week, and while time off is never a bad thing for a baseball club, what comes after the brief respite could be. The club begins a two-game set in Pittsburgh against the lowly Pirates on Tuesday and then they'll head home to finish off their season slate against the Detroit Tigers this weekend. The Tigers series is the start of 17 games in 17 days to finish the 2020 season. 

It's unclear just how the starting rotation will play out over the next couple of weeks, but it might be the most interesting storyline to follow as it unfolds. Dylan Cease will pitch Tuesday, and Wednesday Dane Dunning will take the mound.

James Fegan of The Athletic asked the skipper if the decision-makers were going to be making alterations to the starting rotation to more adequately set the club up to succeed during the playoffs. Renteria mostly dodged the question by echoing that it wasn't a primary focus just yet, but he astutely shed some light on the fact that it's definitely something in the back of their minds. On Tuesday, he reiterated that is is still too early to be tinkering with the rotation is preparation for playoffs that haven't been clinched.

The White Sox would like to win the American League Central, but it's not exactly imperative at this point with ESPN, FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus placing the team's postseason odds at 99%. Setting up the playoff rotation to feature Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel is the most important element of the chase at this point. 

Yasmani Grandal is heating up at the plate, and his leadership qualities have been present from jump. He's absolutely correct in noting that the players shouldn't be worried about the playoffs and looking ahead. 

Management absolutely should be, however. After the weekend, the White Sox close out the year with divisional rivals Minnesota and Cleveland as well as interleague contests with the Cubs and Reds. Winning a division would be a tremendous feat, but winning the playoff tournament would be better. 

Skipping starts

Now-No. 3 starter Cease is scheduled to pitch Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, with current No. 4 Dunning lined up to throw on Wednesday.

Gio González was just activated from the injured list on Tuesday, but will return to his "Swiss army" role of 1-2 innings, per Ricky. Carlos Rodón seemed a likely sub in to the rotation, until a minor setback derailed his most recent outing in Schaumburg. Lefties Bernardo Flores Jr. or Clayton Richard could make spot starts as well. 

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The easiest way to line up the starting pitchers in a way that benefits the White Sox for the playoffs is by slotting in Keuchel on September 30, and working the schedule in backward fashion. In this scenario, it would make sense for the Sox to skip Giolito's turn this weekend. 

Giolito could throw a specific number of pitches on Thursday in a simulated affair and pitch again against the Minnesota Twins on September 14. This would also give the ace of staff an opportunity to face the Reds on September 19, and end his regular season on September 24 in Cleveland. 

The organization could push back Keuchel as well, so that he's positioned one day behind Giolito in the face of a playoff run. The White Sox end their season against the Cubs, and the southpaw could make his final regular season start against the boys in blue on September 25.  

Six-man rotation 

While it's easy to put together a schedule that skips starts this weekend and solves the problem at hand, the organization may feel differently. Giolito has preferred not to pitch on extra rest in the past, but the bottom line is that he'll need to somewhere, at some point. 

In a perfect world, Giolito would pitch against the Twins and Cleveland in those important series, while also being lined up to pitch the first game of the initial playoff battle on September 29. The same goes for Keuchel. But instead of skipping starts this weekend against the Tigers, the White Sox could opt for a six-man rotation instead. 

With depth issues present and persistent, it may be tough to cobble together six starters over the next few weeks. It's another potential option that could be on the table, though. This plan would likely require the return of Rodón in addition to González remaining healthy. 

Giolito could take his normal turn on Friday night at home pitch again next week against the Twins, and make his final appearance in Cleveland in what will be the club's last road series. 

Decision time

The White Sox would love to make an emphatic statement to the rest of the league and win the American League Central. Trophies are more important than statements, though, and the winner of the postseason tournament gets the biggest and best trophy in the end. 

Giolito and Keuchel will very likely pitch to begin the playoffs for the White Sox in 2020. Eight teams will participate in the playoff field, and seeding will fall accordingly. At a neutral site or even in home ballparks without fans, the environment will be much different than usual. 

Starting at the end of the September and working backward is the ideal way to ensure that the postseason pitching rotation is ready and intact. The White Sox will almost assuredly make the proper accommodations to line things up appropriately, but the exact plan isn't set in stone. Even though Dunning is making his regular start in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, it's safe to assume that the wheels are in motion. 


Ricky Renteria video courtesy of the Chicago White Sox.