En route to becoming the first Brazilian born pitcher to make it to the major leagues, Andre Rienzo had some highs and lows. Signed as an 18 year old out of Sao Paulo, Rienzo never really took anyone by storm and ultimately wound up as one of the older guys in the organization’s lower levels. But due to a lack of high-end pitching prospects, he ultimately became a mainstay in top-10 and top-20 organizational prospect lists, never really falling out of favor.
As a 23 year old in 2012 with the Winston-Salem Dash of High-A ball, Rienzo earned himself a 50-game suspension after testing positive for steroids. At that point you really had to wonder just how good the chances were that Rienzo would pan out and make it to the big leagues.
But once he came back from the suspension, his career got some wheels under it and really began to accelerate for the first time.
At 23 he was finally promoted to AA Birmingham, something that seemed to be well overdue. And from there on out he has not looked back. He put up some very nice numbers for the Barons before ending the year with the Charlotte Knights of AAA, making one appearance.
Rienzo went on to put up respectable numbers over 20 starts for the Knights in 2013 before being called up to the big league club to start in Cleveland on July 30. He stuck around for the rest of the year and, for the most part, impressed over his ten starts.
He notched six quality starts over that span, a pretty good rate for a rookie playing on a team that was on its way to 99 losses. He was roughed up a few times and finished the year with an uninspiring 4.82 ERA and 1.482 WHIP, but what stood out to most was that he found success, one way or another, more times out than not.
The vibe around the team over the offseason was that Felipe Paulino, brought in on a free agent contract, would start the season as the team’s no. 5 starter despite Rienzo almost certainly deserving another chance.
Understandably, many asked why the team ultimately did go in that direction … and there are a few reasons. First of all, there was very little rotational depth. They also seemed to like Paulino’s upside. And frankly, in a transitional year for the Sox, there was really no reason to rush things with Rienzo if you didn’t absolutely have to.
But now with the 2014 season’s 50-game mark recently in the White Sox’ rear-view mirror, Rienzo’s uncertain beginning to the season couldn’t seem further behind us.
Like last year, Rienzo’s season is off to an encouraging start. Through eight games (seven starts), Andre has a 4.39 ERA and a 1.317 WHIP to go with his 4-1 record. He’s walking 0.5 less batters and giving up almost one fewer hit per nine innings pitched while striking out one extra guy per. He’s logged three quality starts and has come awfully close two other times.
All around, he’s been pretty darn solid. And I write this after one of his worst starts to date in which the Yankees really got to him. It was a start in which, to put it simply, Rienzo was hurt pretty bad by the Bombers early on before he was able to bounce back and settle down.
If he can manage his poorer starts like he did that one, Rienzo may just be able to stick around.
He has proven that with his stuff, he can outdo a major league offense more times than not. He’s got a plus curveball as his go-to out pitch, a cutter that is quickly improving and some natural running, tailing action on his pitches, including his low-to-mid-90’s fastball that can jam righties and induce plenty of ground balls.
I think it’s fair to say that his stuff is better than that of a typical no. 5 starter, so unlike with most other guys destined for the back-end of a rotation, his ability or potential is not the issue. With Rienzo, control is the issue.
He has always been a high-WHIP guy. His lifetime minor league WHIP is a very respectable yet underwhelming 1.311, and this year in the majors it’s right there at 1.317. In his ten 2013 starts, he walked 4.5 hitters per nine, and while that number is down this season, it’s still at 4.0, which is higher than any pitcher would like. While there’s certainly room for more improvement, he may never get much better in that department as he did walk 3.7/9 IP throughout the minors.
Obviously minimizing free passes is key for every pitcher, but because Rienzo is a pitcher that predicates so much of his success on the downward action of his pitches, locating the ball within the zone is also key. If he can keep his pitches down, though he may never figure into the front-end of a White Sox rotation, he’ll still be a hard guy to shake.
With Chris Sale and Jose Quintana manning the top of the rotation, you know you already have the leaders that can go out there and win you ball games. Erik Johnson still figures into the plan as someone that could very well be an extremely solid middle-of-the-rotation guy, John Danks is around for a little while longer and while depth is key, it’s nice to know that with Rienzo, you can already account for five starters you feel, at the very least, pretty decent about.
And that’s before you take into account guys rising through the organization, draft picks, and the money General Manager Rick Hahn will be able to spend over the next couple offseasons.
With back-end guys and depth as the biggest rotational need in the near future, a young option that could be around awhile at a cheap price would appear to be the best fit. Rienzo, who’s just 25 and under club control until 2020 (arbitration eligible in 2017), is exactly that.
And let’s not forget it’s not as if Rienzo doesn’t have upside or any room to improve. He’s already taken some nice strides under the tutelage of pitching coach Don Cooper, and with what appears to be a solid grasp on a spot in the rotation moving forward, he has the opportunity to prove a lot to us throughout the rest of the season.
If he can indeed prove enough to the White Sox over the next few months, he may have just found himself a cozy spot in the organization’s plan going forward.
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