The Elbow Gods Punish the White Sox Again

On Tuesday, the White Sox announced that Carlos Rodón will undergo Tommy John surgery, prematurely ending his 2019 season. With a 12-to-16 month rehabilitation period generally the norm for pitchers undergoing TJ, even a sunny scenario for Rodón would put a serious dent in his 2020 season; a cloudier one makes it unlikely he returns to Chicago until his 2021 season.

For Rodón, it’s obviously a disaster, another setback in a career that had already been largely derailed by injuries in 2017 and 2018. Rodón was drafted third in the 2014 draft out of NC State. At the time, one of the things about Rodón that interested the White Sox was that he was quite polished, even for a top college pitcher, and as a result, was likely to get to the majors very quickly.

The White Sox were correct in this analysis. Rodón’s major league debut, a relief appearance against the Cleveland Indians early in 2015, was only his 12th game as a professional. Three relief appearances later — including two rather lengthy ones at 60 and 63 pitches — Rodón entered the rotation. He acquitted himself quite well as a rookie, with a 3.87 FIP in 139.1 innings, good enough for 1.8 WAR, even as he was a little lucky in his homers allowed. He showed continued progression in 2016, dropping over a walk a game, and ended up with a 4.04 ERA, a 4.01 FIP, and 2.8 WAR.

Since mid-2016, Rodón has racked up an unfortunate injury history. First, he missed a month in 2016 slipping on the dugout steps, spraining his wrist. Sadly, this is a story I know all too well, having been forced to wear a wrist brace about a decade ago after a similar fall on my stairs; there was feline involvement.

In injuries of a less-freakish variety, Rodón missed half of 2017 due to elbow bursitis and at the end of the season, missed time due to shoulder inflammation that eventually lead to surgery. His velocity wasn’t noticeably worse than it had been in the past, but he was missing three strikeouts a game and was generally more erratic than usual.

Rodón still feels a lot like a pitcher who hasn’t touched his upside and it’s hard to know exactly how much of that to attribute to the injuries. But regardless of why, you can see the change in his career trajectory that the missing time and lack of forward development have caused.

ZiPS Career Projections – Carlos Rodón
Year IP ERA WAR Rest-of-Career Rank (P)
Before 2015 1258.0 4.11 18.6 80th
Before 2016 2215.7 3.93 34.2 11th
Before 2017 2138.0 3.88 37.7 9th
Before 2018 1981.0 4.01 31.1 23rd
Before 2019 1799.7 4.16 23.9 59th
Before 2020 1412.7 4.20 18.2 181st*

The asterisk is where his rest-of-career WAR would rank compared to pitchers before 2019. I obviously can’t project how everyone’s projection will look before 2020, because, well, it’s May.

The cumulative effect has been to set Rodón’s long-term risk back to about the level where it was before he ever played a major league game. And relative to where he was going into the 2016 season, that has cost him, on-average, $85 million in career earnings.

The loss of Rodón also puts a serious damper on the White Sox’s already-slim postseason odds. ZiPS doesn’t project seasonal numbers by using a single roster-strength projections, but by first estimating a likely distribution of roster-strength, based on variability of the projections and variability in playing time. For the latter, each starting player has a skewed distribution of expected playing time (there are lots of things that can make Mike Trout have 500 fewer PA than expected, and none that can give him 500 more).

Before the announcement of Rodón’s Tommy John surgery, after his second opinion, ZiPS projected a 0.4% chance of the White Sox making the playoffs. But in 77% of those playoff appearances, the roster strength was derived from a scenario in which Rodón pitched at least 100 more innings (which he was projected to do 50% of the time).

In other words, Rodón’s health was a key factor in the White Sox making a Cinderella run, and not a simple preference. Now Cinderella doesn’t have magic rat-horses to pull her pumpkin carriage. To get to the playoffs, she’ll now have to call some kind of turnip Uber on her zucchini phone, which is totally preposterous — we know they didn’t have internet in that world.

This isn’t the first elbow-related disaster that has struck White Sox pitching recently. Michael Kopech and Dane Dunning both saw their 2019 seasons end early (or never begin) due to Tommy John surgery. Before surgery, the top three projected White Sox pitchers by ZiPS WAR for 2019 were…Michael Kopech, Carlos Rodón, and Dane Dunning. While I’m increasingly confident that Giolito’s work with his nasty changeup means his improvement is mostly for real, losing three such pitchers didn’t just make Chicago’s playoff quest in 2019 more difficult; it makes the future ones more challenging as well.

ZiPS Projections – Rodón/Kopech/Dunning
Player Projected WAR (pre-injury) Projected WAR (post-injury)
Carlos Rodón (2019-2021) 5.8 1.9
Michael Kopech (2019-2024) 15.2 11.4
Dane Dunning (2019-2025) 10.3 7.1
Total 31.3 20.4

At least in the eyes of the ZiPS projections, the respective surgeries for this trio have knocked off about a third of the number of wins they’re expected to generate for the team, assuming no contract extensions past the first year of free agency. Losing 11 future wins is not a rounding error. It’s something that has to be made up for somewhere. And since teams can’t just decide “Hey, let’s develop more pitching prospects,” it’s likely the difference will have to be made up financially.

Chicago’s rebuilding process continues, but it’s a little farther back now than it was a month ago.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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3 years ago

In the immediate Cease and Kabat are the most likely options. Covey is basically a place holder and Banuelos was pretty much the same. Now that Rodon is gone for next year and Nova would need to be resigned, if the White Sox are contending after the draft, should they make a run at Keuchel on a long-term deal?

3 years ago
Reply to  brood550

Forget Keuchel and 2019. Take that money and more toward signing upcoming free agent Gerrit Cole. If the Sox are ever going to spend big on a free agent and soon, Cole should be the one.

A 2020 rotation of Cole, Giolito, Lopez, Kopech, and Cease would be impressive.

Psychic... Powerless...
3 years ago
Reply to  Buford

I question whether Cole would sign with the White Sox unless they’re the highest bidder, which seems unlikely.

3 years ago

Don’t the vast majority of free agents sign with the highest bidder?

However, I agree that the Sox are unlikely to outbid the big spenders especially the Yankees who first drafted Cole out of high school but were unable to sign him.

Psychic... Powerless...
3 years ago
Reply to  Buford

Yes, the one exception I can think of offhand is my all-time favorite player, Mad Dog 31.

3 years ago
Reply to  brood550

No, DepthCharts projects the White Sox at 70-92 so even if they continued to stay within 4 games or so of the Wild Card 3 weeks from now, the White Sox shouldn’t be buyers. I’d rather apply the $80M over 4 years that 31yo Keuchel wants to get 29yo Gerrit Cole (who’ll probably fetch something close to Corbin’s $140M) or Anthony Rendon in this winter’s FA.

3 years ago
Reply to  Shalesh

Great minds think alike.