Chris Sale went from first-round draft pick in 2010 to big league reliever in a span of two months, beginning what has turned out to be a brilliant five-year career with the Chicago White Sox.
This year, the stage has been set for fellow left-hander Carlos Rodon, the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft, to follow in Sale’s footsteps, as his recent promotion to Triple-A Charlotte has fueled speculation that his professional debut will conclude in the major leagues.
Earlier this month, Scott Merkin of MLB.com reported there was a "better-than-average chance" the White Sox will promote Rodon to the major leagues in September, just as they did with Sale five years prior.
Since then, the front office has tried to temper expectations regarding a potential Rodon call-up, with general manager Rick Hahn recently discussing the situation on the Mully and Hanley Show (h/t MLB Trade Rumors).
Hahn explained that "the decision to bring him up or not bring him up is going to be about what’s best for his long-term development. We’re going to have to be real cautious before we decide just to bring him up and run him out there in big league games this year.”
However, based on the organization’s handling of Rodon thus far, all signs point to the promising southpaw receiving his first taste of the major leagues next month.
After agreeing to a franchise-record signing bonus of $6.582 million, Rodon made his professional debut in the rookie-level Arizona League before moving up to High-A Winston-Salem and rattling off three consecutive scoreless appearances.
He wouldn’t be at the level long, though, as the White Sox promoted Rodon to Triple-A Charlotte in early August.
So far, the 21-year-old has been outstanding at the minor league’s highest level, allowing two runs on two hits and five walks with 11 strikeouts over seven innings (two starts). In his latest outing, the left-hander yielded one run on one hit and struck out eight batters (including five of the last six batters he faced) over four innings.
Amazingly, at least in retrospect, Sale wasn't a consensus elite prospect headed into the 2010 draft, even after his outstanding junior campaign at Florida Gulf Coast. While the left-hander’s unorthodox delivery and slight build scared off most teams on draft day, the White Sox were thrilled when he fell into their lap with the No. 13 overall pick.
On the other hand, Rodon—who has much cleaner mechanics than Sale—had been considered the favorite to go No. 1 overall in this year’s draft since 2012, when he opened eyes with a stellar freshman season in N.C. State’s starting rotation. However, late surges by preps Brady Aiken and Tyler Kolek ultimately pushed him down the board to the White Sox at No. 3.
Even though Rodon came off the board 10 picks higher than Sale, a closer look at the numbers for both left-handers reveals glaring similarities between their respective college careers.
The Baseball Cube
Specifically, Sale (11.57 K/9) and Rodon (11.34 K/9) both were big-time strikeout artists in college, which shouldn't come as a surprise given the nastiness of their pure stuff. Along those same lines, both hurlers proved to be difficult to barrel, posting WHIPs just north of 1.00 during their careers while seldom allowing the ball to leave the yard.
The one noticeable difference between their college careers is that Sale (2.01 BB/9) demonstrated better command than his future rotation-mate Rodon (3.04 BB/9).
In Rodon’s defense, however, he did log 118 more innings in college than Sale, which was a product of him emerging as a fixture in N.C. State’s rotation as a true freshman. Therefore, the fact that he was able to maintain comparable numbers to Sale’s over a large sample size is actually a testimony to Rodon’s overall consistency and durability.
Yet it's hard to envision Rodon developing command that rivals Sale’s, which is anything but a knock on the 21-year-old; Sale is simply that good. In 60 starts over his five-year career with the White Sox, Sale has posted respective strikeout and walk rates of 2.6 BB/9 and 9.6 K/9 over 547.1 innings.
In terms of pure stuff, however, Rodon isn’t that far behind Sale.
Reports from Rodon’s final outing at Winston-Salem (per MLB.com) had his fastball in the 93-98 mph range with an average of 95 mph, which is the same velocity he showed when at his best with N.C. State. Plus, as you can see in the below video from his most recent outing with Triple-A Charlotte, the ball absolutely jumps out of his hand.
Meanwhile, Rodon’s slider will always be his bread and butter, as it’s long been viewed as an easy 70-grade offering and a viable out-pitch at the highest level. Basically, it’s the pitch that will help him pile up strikeouts in the major leagues. Yet it’s Rodon’s ability to bury it in the dirt and throw it for a strike in virtually any count that makes it such a dangerous pitch.
Here’s an example from Rodon’s latest start (at Triple-A Charlotte), which highlights his ability to miss bats with his slider:
And now one of him throwing it (from the same outing) for a called third strike in a full count:
With similar fastball/slider profiles, the only thing that seems to separate Sale’s present stuff from Rodon’s is a consistent changeup. However, that’s not to say the latter’s doesn’t have at least plus potential.
Doug Laumann, director of amateur scouting for the White Sox, said the following of Rodon in an interview with MLB.com: "Actually, we had some guys there in attendance, along with staff, that gave him a 65/70 changeup. He always had a changeup. He didn't quite use it as much in college. He didn't really need to. He's progressed just kind of like we thought he would."
The South Siders’ approach to Rodon this season parallels the team’s management of Sale in 2010, as both hurlers had short-lived stints at High-A Winston-Salem before moving up to Triple-A, bypassing the Double-A level entirely. The only reason Sale reached the major leagues before September was because he signed shortly after the draft, whereas Rodon, a Scott Boras client, waited over a month before agreeing to a record bonus.
Will the White Sox promote Carlos Rodon in September?
Rodon’s overall command is in need of refinement, naturally, and his changeup requires further development, but the White Sox seem confident that their promising left-hander can make swift adjustments on the go against the game’s top hitters.
Rodon is likely to work out of the bullpen if promoted in September, though a start or two shouldn’t be ruled out. After all, the southpaw projects as a high-end No. 2 starter (possibly more) with the floor of a durable No. 3 for the White Sox at maturity.
Regardless of whether the White Sox offer Rodon a look in The Show next month, the organization's decision to develop Sale as a reliever, only to later move him into the starting rotation, was enormously successful, so there’s no reason to question the aggressive handling of Rodon.