Fifth starter's job should be wide open
Recent acquisitions will be part of the mix in Spring Training
CHICAGO -- Hearing the words "fifth starter" and "open competition" used in the same sentence might make White Sox fans recoil in a moment of fear and break out their respective copies of the 2005 World Series DVD over the Christmas holiday.
Those same phrases came together during Spring Training 2004, eventually leading to Dan Wright winning the battle in Arizona. That job responsibility transferred to Jason Grilli, Arnie Munoz and Josh Stewart, to name a few, before the season was complete, with nine hurlers trying, but never able, to bridge this particular gap.
When pitchers and catchers report to the White Sox facility at the Kino Sports Complex in Tucson, Ariz., on Feb. 17, 2007, that fifth starter's job will stand out as one of the very few glaring vacancies to be filled on this strong postseason challenger. This opening was created Saturday, when the White Sox traded Brandon McCarthy and Minor League outfielder David Paisano to Texas in exchange for pitching prospects John Danks, Nick Masset and Jacob Rasner.
McCarthy was penciled in as the fifth starter after Freddy Garcia was traded to Philadelphia during the recent Winter Meetings in Orlando for two more prospects on the mound in Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez. The latest maneuver involving McCarthy seemed to shock the White Sox faithful, but simply added more high-quality arms to the mix to join one of baseball's best front four combination of hurlers.
"I have confidence in what we can get done as a coaching staff, and I have confidence in what we have as players," said White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper of the potential fifth-starter competition. "I'm always believing we can get it done until proven otherwise. I never enter a season thinking we are not going to get it done."
Comparisons to 2004 really aren't fair, in the sense that the team from two years ago had far more pitching problems than simply finding a fifth starter. Jon Garland was hovering around .500. Esteban Loaiza's record was above .500, but his statistics didn't exactly convey effectiveness. And Scott Schoeneweis battled numerous injuries.
With Jose Contreras, Mark Buehrle, Javier Vazquez and Garland in 2007, the White Sox have the potential for a quartet of 15-game winners and 200-innings eaters. Factor in the potent offense, and the eventual fifth starter for the White Sox will be pitching from a position of relative comfort, as opposed to heavy doses of pressure.
Who are the pitchers ultimately working toward this final starting slot? The group includes Floyd, knuckleballer Charlie Haeger, Danks and Masset. Cooper added Lance Broadway, the team's top pick from the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, and left-hander Heath Phillips, who finished 13-5 for Triple-A Charlotte last season.
Danks, 21, still could be a full season away from the Majors, after making just 13 starts for Triple-A Oklahoma in 2006. But the southpaw liked the confidence shown in him by Williams during their inaugural talk Saturday morning.
"It's always good to have an opportunity, but the ball is in my court to prove I'm the one out of the three or four who deserves the job," said Danks of Williams' plans.
"I'm in baseball to be in the big leagues," added Danks from his home in Round Rock, Texas. "If it were up to me, I would be thrown into the fire right away and find out what I'm made of. All I asked for was an opportunity, and I'm getting a good one with the White Sox."
By Danks' own description, he's a typical left-hander. His fastball falls in the 90-to-92 mph range, with a change that is a work in progress, and a curve that serves as his out pitch. Masset, 24, who very well could break with the White Sox as one of six power arms in the bullpen, has a little more zip on his pitches.
"Masset had the best stuff in the Rangers' organization," Danks said. "Just a hard-thrower with a hard cutter and a bigger slider. When he's on, he's untouchable."
Buehrle, Garland, Vazquez and Contreras all were officially pulled out of any trades in the immediate future by Williams after the McCarthy deal was done. Of course, Williams could package a few of these young arms and bring in another big-name position player or use them as a bargaining chip at the non-waiver trade deadline this July.
Then again, as chairman Jerry Reinsdorf pointed out recently in a talk with MLB.com, it often takes the build up of six pitching prospects to find two who truly succeed. Williams believes at least one from this group will emerge in Arizona.
Cooper, meanwhile, categorically stated that his goals for the 2007 season haven't changed from two weeks ago. It's true the White Sox had confidence in McCarthy, but as Cooper mentioned, they are confident in their newly-acquired group of young arms.
"It's going to be interesting to see these guys, watch them throw and talk to them," Cooper said. "I want them to have the best year they ever had here with the White Sox and on my watch. No matter who shows up, we are trying to win another World Series title."
"I can't put together a plan that sustains success while trying to please the masses," added Williams, regarding public concern over the McCarthy trade. "We'll never conduct business that way, and if we had, I don't know if we would have been as successful the last couple of years. We'll keep doing business the way we have -- scouting players and not players' numbers."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.