Dunning learns big league lessons in camp

White Sox No. 6 prospect working curveball back into repertoire

Dane Dunning made 26 total starts last season, 22 for Class A Advanced Winston-Salem. (Chris Baird/MiLB.com)

By Tyler Maun / MiLB.com | March 21, 2018 8:00 PM

GLENDALE, Arizona -- Since he was drafted two years ago, Dane Dunning has become accustomed to the process of getting acquainted, and in some cases, reacquainted with people and things. This year, he's applying that to his game.

Training for his second full season, the No. 6 White Sox prospect strolled off the back fields at Camelback Ranch on Wednesday and paused before making his way to the clubhouse, taking time to sign autographs for and make conversation with dozens of fans. 

"I love it," Dunning said. "I love being able to interact with fans and be able to talk to them, see where they're from. It's really cool seeing all these people come out to watch us in Spring Training and wherever we go.

"When I walk back in, I usually try to take my time to go through. Every once in a while, I'll have to rush in and don't get to sign everyone's cards and stuff like that. I kind of feel bad about that, but it's a lot of fun seeing all these people. They support me and it's awesome."

The White Sox, like their fans, have embraced Dunning since Chicago acquired him from Washington on Dec. 7, 2016, and the right-handed pitching prospect has done the same in return.

"It's really no different," he said of his second trip to Spring Training. "I got invited to big league camp this year, which was a blessing. It's a lot of fun over there, a lot of good guys, a lot of veterans who were able to teach me a lot of stuff I can take into this year. Other than that, it's pretty much the same. Every year it's going to be a new group of guys. You've got to go and meet new people. It's nice and relaxed in the locker room. Everyone's having a good time, so it's really no different."

The White Sox were always high on Dunning, now the game's No. 92 overall prospect. Chicago eyed him coming out of Florida for the 2016 Draft, and after Washington nabbed him with the 29th selection in the first round, finally landed him as part of the trade that sent big league outfielder Adam Eaton to the nation's capital. Last year was a whirlwind ahead of camp for Dunning. This year has been steadier.

"Having my first full offseason -- where I wasn't traded at least -- it was nice," he said. "I had a program I was able to work through and work out, stuff like that. I kind of just stayed with my program instead of having to go from the Nationals where they wanted me to gain weight and then switching over to a different program [with the White Sox]."

Dunning spent a few weeks in Major League camp before being reassigned on March 16. Knowing his time might be limited there, the 23-year-old absorbed as much as he could.

Offseason MiLB include

"James Shields is a big guy I wanted to be able to talk with," Dunning said. "We did a lot. I listened to a lot of his conversations. He probably thought I was really nosy, but I was just trying to pick his brain at times because he's got almost 12 years of service time in The Show. He's had like 360-something starts in a row that he didn't miss. He's got to do something right if that's happening.

"Even like [Lucas Giolito] and [Carson Fulmer], I was talking to all them, just anybody who has been up there and has that experience. That way at least when I get up there, I'll have that knowledge. When I get the opportunity, I have everything I need."

Dunning worked in five big league Spring Training games, going 1 2/3 innings or more in four outings and not allowing more than a run in each of them. His only rough day came when Arizona tagged him for five runs on five hits in two-thirds of an inning on March 6. In his first taste of the game's highest level, the biggest takeaways for Dunning were the little things.

"At big league camp, everyone expects them to be the best of the best," he said. "The big leagues are the best of the best. One of the biggest things that I look at is everyone's human. They're going to make mistakes. We make mistakes. It happens no matter what. You just have to attack it. You can't be scared. You just have to attack all the time. You've got to do your thing, and then once that happens, everything else falls into place."

Now on the Minor League side, Dunning can focus on getting into the groove of the season. He's focused on honing his repertoire, after working on his curveball and changeup during the offseason.

"Last year, it was a little inconsistent, so this year I'm trying to get my curveball back into it," he said. "Last year was my first full season back to throwing it."

Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan emphasized Dunning's slider when the righty worked primarily as a reliever for the Gators, but the Nationals and White Sox -- who, like most teams, saw Dunning's ceiling as an effective big league starter -- encouraged the return of the curve.

"I like it," he said. "Shields was teaching me different grips and stuff, telling me little simple things, and it clicked in my head."

Dunning made 26 starts last year between Class A Kannapolis and Class A Advanced Winston-Salem -- after just 20 through three years in college -- and went a combined 8-8 with a 2.94 ERA. That included a 3.51 mark in the Carolina League, where Dunning admits he hit a little bit of a rut.

"The ball got a little bit elevated, and no matter what level you're at, if the ball is elevated, it's going to get hit hard," he said. "It just took me a couple seconds to get the ball down, and after that, everything fell in the right spot."

Dunning is likely headed to Double-A Birmingham to open the season, at the forefront of a rotation that should include Chicago's No. 4 prospect Alec Hansen and could welcome fifth-ranked Dylan Cease at some point. He's ready for that with an eye on the ultimate goal.

"Obviously, I want to get to The Show," Dunning said. "That's the big, big picture, but other than that, I don't look at, 'Oh, I need to have these numbers' or anything like that. I feel like that's just a good way to go backwards. I'm just going to take it one day at a time. I don't really look in the past. I just keep going."

Rutherford all settled in

Among the many top prospects the White Sox have acquired via trades was Blake Rutherford, who came aboard from the Yankees in July's Todd Frazier and David Robertson deal.

A well-rounded outfielder and the No. 7 prospect in the loaded Chicago system, Rutherford's numbers took a hit last summer after he moved from Charleston to Kannapolis in the Class A South Atlantic League. In 71 games before his acquisition, he batted .281/.342/.391. In 30 games after, he hit .213/.289/.254.

"I think it was a big adjustment," the 2016 first-rounder said. "I kind of just learned a lot about professional baseball and just going about my work."

Even still, the White Sox think Rutherford's post-trade performance was better than his numbers suggested.

"From a first glance maybe you see his production not being the same that it was with the Yankees," Chicago's director of player development Chris Getz said. "But if you look a little deeper in terms of how hard he was hitting the ball, his exit velocities are very strong to indicate there was still a lot of positive things there."

Getz praised the 20-year-old California native's attitude upon coming into a new system, and Rutherford was excited by the welcoming he got with the Intimidators and the organization as a whole.

"It's definitely hard to leave a team I grew up idolizing when I was younger, and just leaving the friends and the coaches and the relationships I had when I first started pro baseball as a teenager," he said. "But it was an easy transition as far as the White Sox welcoming me and the players welcoming me. This is a great organization and a great opportunity I have. The players made the transition really easy, along with the coaches I was with."

Rutherford is likely to open the year with Winston-Salem, and while he stands to produce more than he did in limited time with Kannapolis, he's staying modest about his goals.

"I had a couple bumps and bruises out there last year," he said. "I stayed healthy for the most part, though, so just the same thing -- to get out there and stay healthy and get all my at-bats so I can continue to learn and develop in this system and continue, hopefully, to make my way up closer to Chicago."

Tyler Maun and Josh Jackson are contributors to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with Tyler on Twitter @TylerMaun. Follow and interact with Josh on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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