Coming off a breakout 2021 season, the question for Dylan Cease is how high he can fly.
Eye-popping expectations have been talking points for his Chicago White Sox teammates since well before the newly 26-year-old right-hander struck out 226 batters last year, a total that ranked seventh in baseball and third in the American League.
"This guy could be a Cy Young finalist. He could possibly be a Cy Young winner," White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal said last spring. "He's got the tools to do it, there's no doubt on that. Now it just comes down to the process. ... The future is only going to dictate whether we can get him to be what we want him to be or not.
"I think Cease, at this point, just with his repertoire and what he's got, he's able to survive in the big leagues, without a doubt. He has the swing-and-miss ability, he has the pitch capability. Now it's just a matter of narrowing down and making him more into a pitcher than a thrower."
Cease finally backed up the hype — and made his catcher look rather prescient — in 2021, rebounding from a poor showing in the shortened 2020 season. Credit his work with first-year pitching coach Ethan Katz, who worked the same kind of magic on Cease that he did on rotation-mate Lucas Giolito a couple years earlier. Now the two youngsters, each acquired in rebuild-defining trades, look to anchor the South Side starting staff for years to come.
What's next for Cease? The White Sox would certainly welcome more of the same, but Cease's youth provides reason to believe he's not done developing just yet. An emergence into a dependable member of a dominant rotation — the South Side starting staff was the AL's best during the regular season before four straight clunkers in a brief playoff stay — could be just the beginning.
"He's always had the stuff. But the way he's able to attack the strike zone with it now is the biggest development," Katz said in October. "He has a lot that we've envisioned for him that he still needs to do to develop, but how much can you give him at once? And everything we've asked him to tack on, he's really embraced it and kind of ran with it."
Cease's task for 2022 will be the same as that of every member of the rotation. With a full five-man boat at the moment, there might not be any further augmentation when Rick Hahn can resume his offseason work on the other side of the lockout. That could include no reunion with Carlos Rodón, who Cease recently joined as a client of baseball's most notable agent, Scott Boras.
Rodón, who placed fifth in last year's AL Cy Young vote, was a huge part of the rotation's dominance during the summer. Without him, Cease and the others will have to make sure there are no weak spots. That's a taller order for some as opposed to others. Cease, Giolito and Lance Lynn were all strong in 2021. Dallas Keuchel needs to deliver a bounce-back campaign, while Michael Kopech will have to step up in his ascendancy to the rotation from the bullpen.
But after flourishing under Katz's watch, Cease is no longer the looming question mark he was the last two winters. He's a reliable No. 3 on a team with championship aspirations.
Rodón seemingly came out of nowhere last year to rate right alongside Lynn and Giolito as the team's most effective hurlers. If Cease finds himself in that company — and in the Cy Young voting results — at the end of 2022, it will be no surprise, just like Grandal said. He's most definitely capable of joining the names at the top of the White Sox' rotation and with them, the names at the top of the sport.
"He's a guy that knows how talented he is," Giolito said in September. "We all know how talented he is, he has the best stuff in the big leagues. He knows that, and he had frustrations the last couple years not being able to show that on a consistent basis. But this year's been such a great step forward for him really coming into his own and showing everybody the pitcher he is.
"He'll turn it on, and you'll just see the utter domination. So anytime a guy like that's going out to the mound, we're pretty confident."