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Technically, Michael Kopech’s season isn’t over. He’s eligible to return from the injured list on Sunday, Oct. 2, which would allow him one more start, or a couple of relief appearances for all-hands-on-deck situations.
Maybe Kopech would prefer to throw one more outing regardless of the stakes in order to prove that his shoulder inflammation was a minor, limited episode that has no bearing on his 2023 plans. The next few days will go a long way in determining whether the 2022 White Sox will need Kopech for anything before the regular season draws to a close on Oct. 5.
These 2022 White Sox open a three-game series against the Guardians at Guaranteed Rate Field tonight. They trail Cleveland by four games, so the Guardians will leave town in first place no matter what, but there are four potential outcomes after Thursday:
- White Sox sweep: 1 GB, own tiebreaker
- White Sox win 2/3: 3 GB, effectively 4 GB
- White Sox win 1/3: 5 GB, effectively 6 GB
- Cleveland sweeps: 7 GB, effectively 8 GB
In the first environment, the White Sox only have to be one game better than Cleveland over the final 12. Anything less requires the Guardians to crap the bed over the season’s final fortnight; the White Sox going 8-4 while the Guardians go 4-8 is the best-case scenario. Considering Cleveland ends the season with six straight at home against the Kansas City Royals, there are more worthwhile uses for prayers.
Kopech might have another appearance or a few more innings to add to his season line, but the improbability of postseason baseball has me closing the book on his impact, even if the topic will remain an open question into the offseason.
In the P.O. Sox mailbag, Asinwreck asked such questions:
Did the White Sox mishandle Michael Kopech? What’s the best plan forward with him?
My first instinct was to answer the first part of the question with a “no,” saying that everybody involved probably did a terrific job of toughing through some physical hardships to get to 119 innings of helpful pitching. But that requires sealing off Kopech from the bizarre injury management elsewhere on the roster. The White Sox pushed several players through weeks on the MLB roster when they were physically unready to contribute. Maybe Kopech should’ve taken 3-4 weeks off when his knee popped in early June, rather than skipping only one start and pitching as less than his best self for the rest of the way.
Even if you don’t give the White Sox the benefit of the doubt, there’s still an argument for holding their handling of Kopech as an exception. Unlike Yasmani Grandal, Yoán Moncada, Luis Robert and others, Kopech was able to provide average-or-better production despite any shortcomings in condition. Also, after missing the entirety of the 2019 and 2020 seasons, you could argue that Kopech simply needed to pitch as much as his body would allow, if only for the value of knowing.
The standard road map for integrating Kopech into a contender more or less evaporated after he opted out of the 2020 season. Maybe they could have allowed him to step back and start 2021 in Charlotte’s rotation, but that wouldn’t have been a safer route. Maybe he wears down after 100-plus innings and is unable to help the White Sox for a postseason push. Maybe he gets hurt and the Sox can’t use any of his bullets.
Given all the uncertainty — and given the way Kopech lost his slider halfway through this season and his ability to generate strikeouts disappeared on him — the 25 starts and 119 innings of above-average pitching looks like an above-average outcome. He more or less met the projections in terms of run-prevention, and over a greater number of innings.
Kopech’s current game reminds of the situation Reynaldo López found himself in entering the 2021 season. The fastball had been trustworthy for so long, but without a threatening secondary pitch, it made it harder for him to absorb any fall-off in life or location. He’d also suffered shoulder issues the year before, although it turned out that his vision was his biggest physical issue.
Over the course of about 10 baseball months and an offseason in between, López was able to restore his entire game, and the shift to relief gave him an opportunity to set aside his other secondary pitches and focus solely on reinvigorating his slider. It’s not a dynamite pitch, but it commands a newfound respect from hitters.
Unlike López, Kopech has not yet failed as a starter. This season was fine, especially considering that Davis Martin ended up being the only viable backup plan in the minors. There’s reason to let him keep plugging away, with the hope that his body better understands the grind, and he understands how to maintain a more complete arsenal even as fatigue sets in. He’s probably better in the bullpen, and if another team sees starting upside and wants to pay for it, the Sox should hear them out. If every team is as skeptical, then they may as well continue following López path by giving him a fifth starter’s set of expectations. If he somehow lives beneath that lower bar, there’s always room in relief.