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PHOENIX – Dylan Cease, you might have noticed, looks a little different this spring.
The right-hander’s sporty new ‘stache got some rave reviews from fans on social media.
From his teammates? Not so much.
Lucas Giolito started laughing at the mere mention of the thing.
Ethan Katz was even less kind.
“It’s terrible,” the White Sox pitching coach deadpanned.
Of course, it was Katz who helped Cease to a breakout season in 2021, all that “nasty stuff” we’d been hearing about for years finally coming together with consistent performance. Cease, a year after being denied a playoff start in a three-game series in Oakland, led the pitching staff with 226 strikeouts and started the team’s lone win during a brief stay in the postseason. Following a 2020 campaign that saw too many walks, too many home runs and too many jams he couldn’t work out of, Cease blossomed into a reliable, exciting member of the rotation.
And apparently, it’s just the beginning.
“I’m expecting a lot from Dylan,” Katz said. “Obviously, the year he had (in 2021), we need him, and I know he wants to go and take another step. Like I said last year, his development, there’s a lot to be had. I’m excited with what he did last year, and I’m also excited with what still needs to be done.”
“Yeah, definitely,” Cease told CHGO, asked if there was more room to grow. “I have too many games where I just waste pitches, obviously. So if I’m more efficient and getting myself in the zone, I can go deeper, and that will translate to better results over the season … Ethan and I kind of have the same vision, where it can be a lot better. The hunger level’s always been there.”
Like Katz said, the White Sox need Cease to be that guy, or preferably better, again in 2022. Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn are reliable presences at the top of the rotation. But there’s plenty of mystery surrounding what Michael Kopech can provide as the team manages his innings in his transition from the bullpen to the rotation. And though Dallas Keuchel’s accomplished track record gives the White Sox confidence the lefty can deliver a bounce-back season, fans refuse to hold their breaths following his career-worst performance in 2021.
And so Cease’s continued dependability is crucial if the White Sox are going to replicate the success their rotation had a year ago, especially now that Carlos Rodón is a Giant in the wake of his fifth-place finish in the AL Cy Young vote.
Quite simply, the team’s championship-level goals depend on Cease.
But the talk at White Sox camp isn’t about Cease just turning in a compelling sequel to his breakout campaign. It’s about Cease going full “Godfather Part 2” — or “Toy Story 2,” for a younger generation of movie watchers — and surpassing the first installment. Remember, this was the guy Yasmani Grandal pegged last spring as a future Cy Young candidate.
Cease alluded to how he was going to try to do this in that answer above, an unsurprisingly pitching-centric assessment from someone whose focus is always on execution.
For Giolito, the first of the White Sox’ Katz pupils, his career turnaround stemmed, in part, from figuring out how to recalibrate when things started going awry. It seems the ability to make such an in-game adjustment and make it quickly is an important piece of the improvement puzzle for Cease, too.
“I think I’m getting there. There’s still some work to be done,” Cease said. “But I’m kind of getting to the point where if I miss in a certain spot a couple times, I’m able to figure out what mechanically or whatever went wrong with that.”
There will be other challenges thanks to this bizarre offseason and shortened spring training. The White Sox couldn’t communicate with Cease or any other player during the three-month lockout, adding some difficulty to the normal improvement period.
“Dylan’s one of the guys, with the lockout, not having that communication, it was tough,” Katz said. “He was one of the guys where we really could have used that communication a bit more. But we’ll get him on track and get him going.
“He’s a guy that still has a lot of steps to take. He did do a good job this offseason working on the stuff we identified as something that could help him. Now it’s just about getting him ramped up and continuing that development now, in season, not having the month and a half like we’d normally have in spring.”
Additionally, Cease wasn’t able to face live hitters during the lockout, something his teammates were able to do. It has put him just a tad behind where Giolito, Lynn and Keuchel are in their ramp ups to the regular season, with Tony La Russa mentioning Cease alongside the innings-managed Kopech as someone the White Sox will have to somewhat slow play as the spring goes along.
But when spring turns to summer, Cease will be counted on as much as Giolito and Lynn, as someone who will not just be rewarded with a playoff start but someone expected to make a bunch of them as part of a lengthy October run.
Cease showed down the stretch last season that he can be that guy. But once the playoffs rolled around, he suffered the same fate as Giolito, Lynn and Rodón did against the Astros, walking three guys, tagged for three runs and only recording five outs before getting yanked in Game 3.
“It’s never fun or enjoyable,” he said of the team’s rapid playoff ousting. “You don’t really ever fully get over those things. It’s kind of just you learn from it, you move on, and you just try to do better the next year. I think a lot of us used that as motivation in the offseason.”
Motivation is good. But what did Cease learn?
“A lot of it’s just experiencing that intensity. I kind of learned this is what your body’s going to feel like with this adrenaline and this is what this intensity feels like.”
That’s been a common theme this spring when asking White Sox players about the ALDS: valuable experience, especially after most of these guys’ first postseason trip was in an empty Oakland Coliseum.
But this team and this fan base are hungry for far more than just the next step. It’s World Series or bust on the South Side, and Cease is as important a part of that equation as anyone. His reliability, his dependability and his hoped-for improvement will need to be a season-long thing.
As for the mustache?
“We’ll see,” he said, asked if the facial hair would be sticking around all year. “We’ll see how it performs early.”
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