It’s now or never for Carlos Rodon on the South Side

Expectations have always been a part of the deal for Carlos Rodon during his professional baseball career since he was selected third overall by the Chicago White Sox in the 2014 MLB Draft. Until now that is. Now, Carlos Rodon is, in his own words, “kind of like a low-risk signing.”

I remember being in attendance for Carlos Rodon’s major league debut in 2015, just about 10 months after he was drafted out of North Carolina State the previous summer. It was a cold, overcast April day in Chicago, and that appearance was to be a microcosm of Rodon’s career to this point — wildly inconsistent but still oozing potential.

Rodon entered the game in the top of the sixth inning and walked Brandon Moss on four straight balls to load the bases. Rodon then worked a full count against Ryan Raburn before allowing a two-run single to left field. He finally induced a groundout by Lonnie Chisenhall to end the inning.

In the top of the seventh, Rodon ran the count full before walking both Roberto Perez and Jose Ramirez to put himself right back into a jam. A sacrifice bunt by Michael Bourn moved Perez and Kipnis into scoring position, and a sac fly and line-drive single to centerfield by Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley respectively would plate two runs for the Tribe before Rodon escaped the inning.

Rodon got the ball again in the eighth inning and tossed a scoreless frame. He notched his first-career strikeout when he rang up Lonnie Chisenhall swinging. Those 2.1 innings of work were Carlos Rodon in a microcosm — nasty stuff with an inability to locate it consistently that often results in walks, baserunners, and an eventual mistake pitch that gets hammered to do the brunt of the damage.

Six years later, nothing much has changed.

Photo: Getty Images

Over the years since then, I’ve written ad nauseam about Carlos Rodon. Some good, most not, and all revolving around a (formerly) kid out of N.C. State who was supposed to be the future staff ace in the Chicago White Sox rotation, who just hasn’t been able to put it all together. Most of Rodon’s adversity over the past five years can be attributed to a series of injuries, but a fair share falls on Rodon and his lack of consistency when healthy.

In the time since that blustery cold day, Rodon has fallen from top-three pick and future staff ace to non-tendered and brought back on a one-year, $3 million deal to compete for a spot in the back end of the rotation in his age-28 season.

Maybe that fall from grace, coupled with a clean bill of health, was something Carlos Rodon needed to wake up and smell the coffee.

“There’s definitely motivation there,” said Rodon on Tuesday. “I was a little surprised at first, but it was more of a business decision. I understand that from the club’s perspective. But that doubt, when people doubt you, that’s fine. And maybe that’s not what they were thinking. But for me, I thought that. That was the motivation I had.”

That motivation has paid off early on for Rodon in 2021 as he has locked up the fifth and final spot in the White Sox rotation, at least for now, on the heels of nine scoreless innings over the course of three appearances (two starts) this spring. Rodon has allowed just four hits while striking out 10 opposing hitters, and most impressive of all allowed zero walks. Next to his health, walks have always been Rodon’s downfall.

While it’s only March 24, Rodon looks like a different pitcher in his small sample size this spring. His delivery is cleaner thanks to work he’s put in with new pitching coach Ethan Katz, who quickly identified some lower body issues in Rodon’s previous delivery when he began scouring video of his new pupils on the Southside upon taking the job back in November.

Photo: Chicago Tribune

Rodon’s fastball is hitting the mid-nineties and showing life and movement that we haven’t seen on it in years, and he’s locating his secondary pitches for strikes. In 31 batters faced this spring, Rodon has only thrown 49 pitches, a sign of his newfound ability to find the strike zone with consistency.

“Granted, right now, it’s a small sample size, but we are hoping it translates into the regular season,” said Rodón during a Tuesday Zoom. “I think a lot of that has made me more consistent with my fastball and my command of all my pitches.

“My mechanics have cleaned up a lot and taken a lot of stress off my body as a whole. It’s less stress on my arm the way I’m throwing now than I was before because I utilize my lower half better. It just takes that energy, or that stress, out of my arm. I feel confident that it can carry me through a whole season.”

Of course, given his previous track record, this feels like one of those situations in which you’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop, and Rodon knows that as well as anyone.

“The track record of durability has not been great,” Rodon said. “But they know what I can do when I am healthy. So for them, I guess it was kind of like a low-risk signing — take a shot. And I get that.”

Low-risk signing indeed, and one that can have a major impact on the 2021 team’s success this season. If Rodon can pitch like he has this spring, the White Sox rotation becomes one of the best in baseball, and it creates no reason to rush fire-ballers Michael Kopech and Garrett Crochet into the mix, and out of the bullpen where they will both open the season and likely remain for most of — if not all of — 2021.

Pitching, and more specifically the starting rotation, was the downfall for the White Sox in 2020 and the biggest question mark in 2021. If Rodon can solidify the back of the rotation, that question becomes answered in a resounding affirmative, and the White Sox will truly be World Series contenders.

For the first time in Carlos Rodon’s professional baseball career, the pressure of living up to his once lofty expectations is gone. No longer does Rodon have to be the man in Chicago. Now he’s just a guy looking to do what he can to help the White Sox compete for their self-anointed goal of winning a World Series.

Featured Image: USA TODAY Sports

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