By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The White Sox continue to amaze and surge in the American League Central. This division was supposed to be the province of the Detroit Tigers and everyone else was playing for second.
But the Tigers have not fulfilled their promise and the White Sox have turned out to be an overachieving team that is having a lot of fun and winning games.
While all looks beautiful in early June, you have to be concerned about the state of the starting pitching staff. This was supposed to be the team’s great strength going into the season, but with John Danks (shoulder) injured and Gavin Floyd serving up meat balls, Robin Ventura and Don Cooper have good reason to be concerned.
However, it’s the healthy pitchers who are throwing well that may be even bigger concerns. Specifically, Jake Peavy and Chris Sale are the issues going forward. Of the two, Peavy’s issue is the most obvious.
He has pitched well this year, but arm difficulties have held him to 107.0 and 111.2 innings the last two seasons. Peavy has not pitched 150 innings or more since pitching 173.2 innings in 2008. White Sox fans who are worried about Peavy have legitimate concerns. Cooper, Ventura and general manager Kenny Williams can’t read the future. They may all put on a brave front about having confidence in him the rest of the season, but health issues with this bull-strong and bull-headed pitcher could be on the horizon.
The real concern has to be Sale. Sale has basically been in a White Sox big-league uniform since he was drafted in 2010. After a brief stop in the minor leagues, he made 21 relief appearances in 2010 and 58 more appearances last year. Now, he’s a starter who has the ability to dominate. He struck out 15 Tampa Bay Rays last week in a 115-pitch effort and then followed that performance with a 119-pitch complete game in a 4-2 win over the Mariners.
On the surface, Sale appears to be on a roll. He has a 7-2 record, a 2.30 earned run average and has struck 69 batters in 66.2 innings. He is among the most impressive pitchers in the American League. But that does not mean that Sale should be allowed to go out every fifth game and pitch 7-plus innings every time he ventures to the mound the rest of the season. He is too valuable a prospect and he is still developing.
That’s something that most White Sox fans don’t want to understand. They see a young Randy Johnson taking to the mound and they want to ride that horse. They want to go back to the days when starting pitchers would throw for at least 200 innings per season as if none of the arm injuries and issues that impact pitchers mattered at all.
Sale’s motion is violent and effective. The stress on his elbow seems all the more extreme because of his super skinny 6-foot-6, 180-pound frame. He puts stress on that joint every time he throws a pitch, particularly his sensational slider. That pitch breaks down and in to right-handed batters and has gotten him a majority of his strikeouts.
However, Sale had pitched 94.1 innings the last two years combined. If he stays on the pace he has established this season, Sale will throw close to 200 innings in 2012.
That’s a gamble that the White Sox don’t want to take. You’ll remember earlier this year when Cooper said that Sale would be going back to the bullpen and that he would stay there for the foreseeable future. That turned out to be one appearance before he went back to the starting rotations.
But while Cooper may not have been accurate, his concern about this young stud pitcher should not be misinterpreted. He does not want to see Sale do too much too soon and come down with an elbow injury that could lead to surgery.
Young pitchers go through a growth process now, and going from 71.0 to 200 innings in one year is simply too much. That’s a gamble that the White Sox can’t afford to make with Sale, no matter how good he looks in June.
You want your young pitchers to grow to become successful older pitchers. You want long, healthy and productive careers. You don’t want to burn them out before they reach their prime.
It may be difficult for all hungry fans to accept. It’s difficult for coaches, players and managers to accept. But if you want to keep a pitcher like Sale from turning into Mark Prior, you need to be smart in how you develop them.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.