Despite a few inches of snow in the forecast here in Chicago, Opening Day is right around the corner with the third week of Cactus League action starting later on this afternoon for the White Sox, and some of the regulars that were absent in the early days of Spring Training are getting things going with just 17 days until the White Sox visit the Angels in Southern California on April 1.
One of those regulars was Dylan Cease, who will make his Cactus League debut on Monday afternoon against the Chicago Cubs at Camelback Ranch. Cease, 25, is entering his second full season with the White Sox, or maybe even his first if you don’t count the truncated 2020 schedule as a full season per se, and to this point, he’s struggled to find consistent success through is first 26 major league starts.
After struggling to command the strike zone and pitch deep into ball games for much of the 2020 season, then manager Rick Renteria opted not to give the ball to Cease in Game 3 of their Wild Card Series with the Oakland Athletics, a stinging reminder that Cease’s body of work just wasn’t up to snuff for a White Sox club with Postseason visions.
Since switching sides of town back in the summer of 2017 when Cease joined Eloy Jimenez as the headliners in the Jose Quintana blockbuster with the Chicago Cubs, Cease has been billed as a right-hander with one of the highest ceilings in the entire organization. But since making his major league debut in 2019, Cease has pitched to the tune of 5.00 ERA (5.71 FIP) with and averaged nearly five walks per nine over the course of 131.1 innings of work.
Non-roster invitee and veteran backup catcher Jonathan Lucroy reminded everyone earlier this month that the mound can be a lonely place when things aren’t quite clicking for a young pitcher like Cease.
“The pitching mound is a very lonely place,” Lucroy said. “And we all know there are expectations for this team, and younger pitchers can get emotional and they can get worked up, they can get a lot of anxiety. And I try to do my best to not only attack the game-calling and physical part of the game, but also the mental side.
“If they weren’t physically capable, they wouldn’t be here. We have to do our best with these guys mentally. As a catcher, I believe it’s one of my biggest priorities is to get these guys mentally prepared and keeping them mentally locked in, and keeping them mentally ready to execute every pitch as best they can and stay within their ability. I’ve experienced it before. If we can do that on a consistent basis, we’ll be successful.”
Lucroy, 34, has seen his fair share of young pitchers with lofty expectations during his major league tenure, and despite Cease not being able to reach his billed potential just yet, Lucroy already sees what the 25-year-old right-hander is working with.
“I knew he had good stuff, but his stuff is really good, really good. A very, very devastating arsenal of weapons that that guy has.”
“The secret with him is we just have to get him in the [strike] zone,” Lucroy said. “I worked with him back there today. He threw really well. We had three innings (in live batting practice). He can really be a big part of this, as well. He has devastating stuff. But again, he’s a young guy, and that mental side is going to be a big part of that with him.”
Dylan Cease got to work this offseason, after a ringing bid of no confidence from his former skipper in the playoffs, with new White Sox pitching coach, Ethan Katz. Katz had Cease begin using a core velocity belt to help refine his delivery in an effort to establish the fastball command that has eluded him to this point, and for Cease, that’s his primary focus right now.
“Right now there’s a heavy emphasis on fastball command,” Cease said. “We’re at the point where it’s pretty much compete mode. When I’m going into my live batting practice or even my bullpens it’s more competing than it is working on stuff right now.”
Cease has spent the first month of camp working on the side through bullpens and live batting practice and is encouraged by the early returns on his efforts this winter.
“I’ve had stretches where I’ve gotten really good rhythms that I haven’t felt in a long time, so, that’s one of the big things I’m noticing. I’ll go through an inning where I’m throwing pretty much all of my offspeed for strikes and commanding my fastball.
“I think the biggest difference is just filling up the strike zone,” said Cease. “I’ve been able to tackle my stuff, which is really refreshing.”
As far as the lofty expectations placed on Cease, and more specifically, how he deals with them, it’s still an ongoing process.
“I think that’s kind of an evolving thing,” said Cease. “I think, with me, the stuff is all there so it’s really easy to dream on so at this point I expect a lot of myself. I know I have good stuff, so I just expect to execute at a higher level.”
In all likelihood, Cease will be the fourth starter for the White Sox on Opening Day in a couple of weeks, but the goal for him right now as he gets set to make his first start of the spring is simple as he works towards, “just putting together more consistent outings.”
If Cease can accomplish that goal it’ll go a long way towards him reaching his potential, and more importantly, the White Sox reaching their potential.
“You see the talent on this team and it’s really easy to picture us going deep, so, the way I look at it is that if I can contribute like I think I’m capable of, then we can really do something special.”
Featured Photo: AP Photo/Gregory Bull