Michael Kopech gets back to work
Feb. 13, 2020
Latest White Sox Talk
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Before you ask, no, we don’t yet know where Michael Kopech will start the 2020 season.
All logical guesses have assumed the answer is Triple-A Charlotte, what with the White Sox starting five seemingly locked in at Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Reynaldo Lopez, Dylan Cease and Gio Gonzalez.
But ask Rick Hahn if Kopech is going to start the season in the minor leagues, and you will not get an affirmative response.
“It's Day 1,” he said Wednesday. “Let's hold off on cutting guys just yet.”
OK, so we’ll have to wait a while before we get a definitive plan for Kopech, who's making his much anticipated return from Tommy John surgery and still rated as one of the best pitching prospects in the game. But there is a plan, or at least the makings of one.
The White Sox will slow play Kopech’s return to the big league mound, it seems, but not because he isn’t needed at the major league level. Actually, a competition involving Kopech for a spot in the rotation would provide some exciting spring drama. No such luck.
Nor is his return being delayed because of a lack of health, with everyone describing the young fireballer as 100 percent and without restriction as pitchers and catchers reported for duty Wednesday. Instead, it’s about workload. Kopech has just four big league appearances under his belt totaling all of 14.1 innings. He’s never thrown more than 134.1 innings as a pro, that high-water mark logged in 2017, when he pitched mostly at Double-A Birmingham.
Considering he hasn’t pitched in anything more than instructional league since September 2018, easing Kopech back into things makes a lot more sense than letting him loose in late March, only for the potential that he would run out of gas late in the season, when the White Sox hope to be competing for a playoff spot.
“Over the course of this year, we're really going to spend most of the time responding to how he looks, how he feels, how he reports, in terms of setting what's next for him,” Hahn said. “Part of it will be because of the absence of facing hitters last year. It will be a little bit slower of a climb for him than it would be with any other pitcher coming off a full season.”
Kopech had nothing to report to the media Wednesday, either, saying the White Sox haven’t given him any further clarity on how they’ll handle him in 2020. But expect him to be limited in some fashion, and that could include him starting the season in the minors.
What everyone seems to be on the same page on, however, is how impactful they expect Kopech to be once he does return to a big league mound. Even with a year away from competition, he’s still ranked as one of the top 20 prospects in baseball.
Kopech still sounds capable of cranking things up to triple digits, but among the differences you’ll notice the next time you see him pitch is the way he’s refined his approach to throwing the ball.
“I'm expecting to be a lot more patient with myself,” he said Wednesday. “I'm not going to go out there in the first inning and try to blow fastballs by people. I'm going to locate the ball, I'm going to pitch. I'm going to do what I've worked all this time to do well.
“I think velocity will be there when it needs to be there, but it's not going to be my main focus in my pitching. That being said, if it is there when I'm not wanting it to be there, then that's a plus too.
“I think (the extended recovery process has) made me more patient overall. It's made me really focus on the things that I didn't focus on before, so it's kind of filled those holes in my pitching repertoire or whatever you want to call it. I've really just focused on defining the things that I really didn't focus on before. I've fine-tuned all the little things.
“There's quite a bit that goes into the game of baseball, as I'm sure you can imagine. It's more than just pitches. And when it comes to how I carried myself on the mound, I probably wore my emotions on my sleeve a little bit too much. Now I'm trying to stay a little bit more even keeled.”
All that will be important to follow over the course of the 2020 season and as Kopech’s career moves along. Wednesday, though, his mere presence in a spring training bullpen, preparing for a season he’ll actually get to pitch in, as opposed to 2019’s year-long absence, demanded the most attention.
“I think it's been a long time coming for me,” he said. “I spent the entire year last year down here on my lonesome trying to get ready. To be able to get back and actually feel like I'm part of a team, that's big for me.
“I feel great. It's kind of a work in progress to get comfortable again. I haven't been with the team in a while, so it's just that comfortability. But as far as throwing on the mound, I feel as good as I ever have.”
The White Sox will hope that good feeling carries into September, and hopefully October, hence the cautious approach with Kopech from the outset. He might not be on the Opening Day roster, but he is expected to make an impact in 2020.
When that starts, we don’t know. It won’t be because of a need at the major league level, though.
“Michael’s plan is Michael’s plan,” Hahn said. “We are not going to jeopardize or take chances with any young guy, especially a young guy coming off of an injury, based on somebody else’s performance or health. Michael will show all of us where he’s at and when he’s ready.”
And now we play the waiting game.
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