Michael Kopech is back. Now, what’s his immediate future?

“I wouldn’t say that I’ve had nothing going on.”

That’s about as close as Michael Kopech got to detailing the personal reasons that led him to opt out of the 2020 season in his Zoom conference with reporters on Saturday. Then again, when the not-nothing can be found by googling his name, he can leave the work to others.

He might’ve talked around the turmoil, but he still centered it in the conversation for sufficient honesty. Last year’s team-involved dialogue swung between Don Cooper fretting and wondering aloud, “I sure hope he’s OK,” and Kopech’s side saying that he merely didn’t trust the path back from Tommy John surgery during a shortened season. The news items that leaked afterward to celebrity news outlets over the summer suggested Cooper was closer, even if he was unwise in how he voiced his concern.

Some might say the specifics are none of our business. I’d argue it helps us to know a little bit, mostly in order to know if we’re even considering the correct things. His previous candor regarding anxiety and depression is as rare as it is welcome, but it can make it too easy to draw wrong conclusions about baseball struggles, as though mental health concerns are pertinent to only him. Sometimes it just might be a mechanical thing.

Here, the questions are:

  1. Was there any fallout from last year’s decision?
  2. Is he in the right headspace to contribute from here?

Regarding the former, no, although having a new manager and pitching coach kinda cleaned the slate for him. Tony La Russa has issued nothing but support so far. He sounded giddy — by La Russa standards, anyway — about Kopech’s first bullpen session. With Kopech joining the Zoom call after the manager’s session on Saturday, reporters asked him about the reintegration to the team.

“He’s totally embraced,” La Russa said. “The guys are really happy to see him, everybody’s celebrating the birth of the baby. We’re all celebrating the way he’s throwing.”

As for his path back to the majors, which Rick Hahn said could take the shape of a bullpen spot if it’s the best place to face live hitting at the start of the season, La Russa left it more open-ended.

“I think he’s excited to be back, excited to be healthy, and we’re making it real clear: This is going to be a competitive camp. The guys that pitch and play the best are the ones that get to pitch and play.”

* * * * * * * * *

Kopech didn’t sound as excited. Partially because audible excitement isn’t in his natural vocal arsenal, partially because he sounds like he’s been through a lot and wanted to avoid airing it out, and partially because being two years away from actual game action means that he’s not in a position to let his guard down.

He chose a different word when asked him how he felt: “Relieved.” And when asked about the moment where he felt fully back in the saddle, Kopech said it hasn’t happened yet.

As Kopech addressed the second question above, it sounds like such a moment should be around the corner. Reading his body, Kopech said, “My arm’s feeling as good as it has been in a long time.” As for his mind, he spoke a lot about regaining perspective and being the best version of himself, but not just for himself.

“I think that the past year I’ve really had an opportunity to kinda sit back and look at things from the outside and I’ve been around a lot of people who care about my career, but also care about me as a person,” Kopech said. “I’ve just spent a lot of time trying to better myself for my teammates when I got back, and my life moving forward. I think taking that time away from baseball was kinda hard, but I think it was important for me. But now I’m back and ready to compete.”

Kopech’s time away was so away that he said he didn’t watch much of the White Sox last year, but removing baseball from his life to the extent that he did made its role more understandable.

“I think I learned that I need this game a lot more than I realized,” Kopech said. “It’s a lot easier said than done to take a step away from something you’ve done for your entire life. Taking a step back from that and realizing how big of a piece it is to this entire puzzle for me has kind of just put it all in perspective.”

Later on the call, he drew a tie to his new fatherhood status:

“Like any young person does, I’ve lived a life that’s pretty selfish for the past six, seven years, whatever my minor league career has been. Now I have a life that I have to look after that’s a lot more important than being selfish. My career doesn’t just dictate my future anymore, but it dictates my son’s, and that’s kinda all the motivation I need.”

* * * * * * * * *

Kopech sounds open to any plans the White Sox have for his return to the 26-man roster. He said the team proved it could succeed without him, so he’s ready to help however they want him to, with designs on proving himself along the way. He said that the plans for 2021 are still vague, and we probably won’t have more defined answers until players begin accruing real spring workloads.

If you’re impatient and looking for details of any kind, James Fegan relayed Dallas Keuchel’s ideas for a Kopech plan, which are even more bullpen-centric:

“In my opinion as well, he would be better suited in the bullpen for an inning or two, and then you could kind of vary his innings to match what you want (in order) to give him a full season. And if we’re playing 20 games in the playoffs you have to add those extra innings, as well,” Sox starter Dallas Keuchel said. “I would rather see somebody else start if they’re going to go five or six innings, bring Mike back in for an inning or two and start adding his innings up to where, hey, you’ve got an inning or two at a time, let’s focus on those two and everybody else fills in the last two innings or something like that.”

That sounds great, but it’s contingent on a couple things, such as Kopech’s routine shifting seamlessly to relief work. More pressing, it requires the White Sox having enough non-Kopech options who are able to go five or six innings, which was the primary reason why many stumped for the Sox to sign rotation depth more durable than Carlos Rodón. It already feels like wishcasting to hope the Sox could avoid requiring Kopech’s starting services for the first month or two. This plan requires the Sox avoiding that option for seven months.

Then again, with a new manager and pitching coach on board, the consideration of alternative starter strategies is no longer quixotic, and we shouldn’t be thinking in strict terms of “five or six innings” from the fifth spot. Perhaps La Russa and Ethan Katz will eschew the opener or tandem plans like Rick Renteria and Cooper did, but I don’t think the Sox would overhaul their coaching staff only to preserve the strategies of 10 years ago. I wouldn’t have trusted the old administration to get through a 162-game season without Kopech in a traditional form, but that old framework is no longer relevant. It’s nice to sit back and see how a new usage plan unfolds, and it’ll be even better to see Kopech take part in it, regardless of the part.

(Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire)

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Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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MrStealYoBase

Nice write-up, Jim.

I was reminded recently that Reynaldo Lopez has back-to-back 180+ inning seasons under his belt in ’18 & ’19. As frustrating as he’s been as a starting option, if he can give them at least 150 innings of sub-5 ERA, that would play with the rest of the staff and reduce the need to push Kopech any farther than he’s comfortable with.

jhomeslice

If Lopez has to throw 150 innings, god help us all! If you look at their roster and consider that Fry should be back by May with Kopech hopefully on the team by then as well, either Rodon or Lopez will likely be dropped from the roster if everyone is healthy.

Giloito, Keuchel, Lynn, Cease, Kopech, Crochet, Liam, Bummer, Foster, Marshall, Heuer, Fry is 12. That leaves one spot for Rodon and Lopez. I cannot picture a scenario where both of them are performing so well that they push a decent reliever off the team. They combined for an ERA of near 6 for 2019 and 2020. It is more likely that both of them are terrible than both good, and I would consider it close to a miracle if even one of them was not awful. Rodon is likely to be on the DL in the first place, of course. But as bad as either or both of them might be, it won’t matter much if Kopech is up and doing reasonably well. They hopefully will not need either of them, not for very long at least. Even Cordero might be a better option than either of them out of the bullpen as a last reliever, he was reasonably good in 2019 at least. I think there is a good chance neither Rodon or Lopez will be on the roster in the 2nd half.

Last edited 1 year ago by jhomeslice
MrStealYoBase

*If everyone’s healthy

Which is a pretty big astrix in my opinion because we are talking about major league pitchers.

Last edited 1 year ago by MrStealYoBase
jhomeslice

Sure, that’s why so many have been disappointed and ticked off at how little depth the Sox added this offseason. If they have injuries, Rodon almost certain to be among them, they will rely on Lopez. We can only hope that doesn’t happen, because the probability of success is not high with him. Sure there’s a chance. Any major league pitcher could do better than usual, literally anybody COULD. But chances are not good. The health of the Sox starting pitchers is more important than ever because of that, and the fact that they chose not to add anybody reliable as a starting pitcher.

I’m not sure why they forgot about Detwiler… I don’t think he’s great either, but he had an ERA under 4 and they left him off the postseason roster and went with Rodon. They have made some strange and horrible choices that nobody understands the past 12 months. I am optimistic though that Lopez won’t be much of a factor.

Last edited 1 year ago by jhomeslice
Dr. Chuck

Thanks for the write up on Kopech! Does anybody know how long he’s is under team control? The TJ after call up and opting out of 2020 confuses me.

HouseOfTheRisingSox

I understand the seriousness of Tommy John surgery and get how tough it could be to ramp back up after years away. However, I tend to view his arm as fresh, and I would not be surprised if he could handle a “full-ish” season in starting rotation. Its not like he’s 40+ years old and has been just drinking beers on the couch like me. He is young and works out a ton, not to mention highly motivated. Constant pitching is an abuse on the arm, and although many say the same thing in spring, it doesn’t shock me that he feels this is the best his arm has felt in a long time. I’m cautiously optimistic the Sox can get a lot out of him this season.

David

I’m glad he feels relieved. I’ll feel even better when he feels started.

jhomeslice

I am sure they are going to be very careful with him. I don’t think that means they will need to baby him though. He is over 2 years removed from TJ surgery, so by mid season there is no reason he can’t go 5-6 innings or so. Maybe more by the end of the year if things go well. Many guys recover very strongly from that, look at Strasburg and Wainwright with much less rehab time than Kopech. Kopech may be quite important in the postseason.

It’s certainly not just arm health but Kopech adjusting to the major leagues. I think he is probably ready though, I sense his debut season will be much better than what we got from Cease. Anyway it sounds quite positive with him, we’ll know more in a month or so as the season approaches.

LuBob DuRob

Having a strong, fresh arm is very different than having an arm built for stamina. If they plan for him to be an important piece in September and October, he should start in the bullpen. If he’s not cut out for a bullpen role, then you let him get his bearings in the the minors and bring him up in May. This could lead to a similar approach to Strasburg’s and Nats 2012, where he’s shutdown after 150 innings.

mikeyb

I’m actually less concerned about having him for the playoffs. Giolito, Lynn, Keuchel is a strong unit, especially when you consider how excellent the bullpen should be. If Kopech is feeling good at the start of the year, I would get him out there starting right away. I’d like to see the team start as strong as possible, so they have a good sense for what needs to be done once the trade deadline rolls around.

LuBob DuRob

This would seem to be the move to me as well. There’s too much uncertainty about 4 and 5 starters to not have a healthy Kopech part of the convo as a starter early in the year.
I don’t put a lot of faith in the idea that a guy who has never pitched outta the pen easily transitions into a meaningful role there, and then transitions back into the rotation as the season goes on.

ParisSox

I like him as an opener a couple of times a month too. 2 to 3 inning stints as an opener paired with Crochet? Mercy!

denny

I don’t think it’s Dallas Keuchel’s place to opine about where Kopech should fit it the W Sox pitching corps and what the best way he should be used. There’s management, coaches, doctors, and maybe even agents who are qualified for such opinions, but not a fellow player. I look forward to the day when Kopech takes Keuchel’s place in the rotation as #2.

dongutteridge

It’s only the start of spring training of the “championship season” and already the talk is about counting on Kopech, Lopez and Rodon.

The Sox are starting out by having only 7 viable starting pitching options as opposed to the 10-12 that the best teams have.

  1. Giolito
  2. Keuchel
  3. Lynn
  4. Cease
  5. Rodon
  6. Lopez
  7. Kopech

4 of the 7 have a recent history of pitching poorly, being injured or both. And, if Kopech is only good for 2 innings then they really only have 6 starting pitchers.

I hate to sound like a broken record but how many times are the Sox gonna do the same stupid thing and expect different results?

Trooper Galactus

Until more players who can pitch like Lance Lynn will do it for under $10 million.

jhomeslice

Performance and health will work everything out. I am disgusted that they did not add more depth and share your sentiment, but the truth is if everyone is healthy they might not need a lot. I don’t think Lopez or Rodon will be significant, personally. In fact, at least one of them should be off the team in May when Fry gets back assuming Kopech is up by then… they would have 14 pitchers otherwise. Kopech may have an innings limit but it’s not like he is not going to be able to go 5 innings this year, 2 1/2 years removed from surgery. 5 from him is better than 2 or 3 awful innings from Lopez or Rodon. Always a small, small chance that one of Rodon or Lopez is not absolutely terrible, although I think that is slim to none, realistically. Neither of them will keep getting innings unless they improve drastically from 2019/2020. They would go with Stiever or someone else if there is an injury, at some point, unless either Rodon or Lopez has at least some value.

I don’t know what teams you are talking about that have 10-12 good starters. The Yankees are not one of them certainly, they are struggling with their rotation as well. Other teams have depth issues as well, excluding only maybe like the Dodgers.

Cease and Kopech are the keys to this rebuild and to 2021. If they are healthy and doing well under Katz, assuming the big 3 are ok, Rodon/Lopez are not going to be significant. They will both likely be terrible, and therefore won’t pitch much or be on the team at some point. I bet both will be gone in 2nd half. Which is a total waste of 5M, but does not mean their rotation will not be pretty good. Their bullpen might be the best the Sox have every had, among other things.

In the choice to be optimistic or pessimistic, I’ll go with optimistic at the moment. Until the you know what hits the fan, if that happens.

ndsoxfan

I want to see him start the season slowly in the minors throwing a couple of inning to start and stretch it out and by starting in the majors by June