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There he was. Michael Kopech back in a White Sox uniform, throwing pitches at Camelback Ranch.
Off to work in Glendale. 💼 pic.twitter.com/xbnbyqc6sV
— Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) February 17, 2021
Of course, amid the certainty of seeing images of Kopech returned to the mound on the first day of spring training, there was far more uncertainty about how the White Sox are planning to use the fireballer during the 2021 season.
Most of the offseason, we assumed that Kopech would be limited in some fashion. After all, the 24-year-old right-hander hasn't pitched in two years. After requiring Tommy John surgery after his fourth major league start in September 2018, he missed all of 2019 while recovering and opted not to play during the shortened 2020 season due to personal reasons. That kind of layoff doesn't usually end with being thrown into the deep end of the pool, especially for a guy with so little big league action under his belt.
Even prior to his decision not to play last year, before the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into the baseball season, it seemed the White Sox might have started him in the minor leagues in order to slow-roll his return and better manage a guy they feel could be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher for years to come.
Their long-term assessment of Kopech hasn't changed. But while general manager Rick Hahn didn't reveal the team's plans for Kopech this season during his Wednesday press conference, he did say the White Sox are going to have to get creative.
"We're going to sit down with Michael and go through, with him, the plan for the next several weeks and several months. I'm not going to get into too much detail about that, publicly, until we have the chance to talk things through with Michael directly," Hahn said. "We've got to be cognizant of a couple of things. One, obviously having not faced hitters in the last two years, he does not have an innings base underneath him right now, a significant innings base to build off of. And the second thing we need to be aware of is we want him — as a team with fairly lofty expectations — we want him strong and contributing through October.
"So we have to be a little bit creative about how we're going to use him in order to get him helping us in Chicago and continuing his development and finishing the year strong and able to contribute, ideally, to a World Series championship."
So what does that mean, exactly?
Again, Hahn wanted to wait to be more forthcoming until the White Sox were able to chat with Kopech, so details were limited. But it certainly sounds like Kopech could be ticketed for use out of the White Sox bullpen. Hahn didn't hit that possibility specifically, but he did bring up Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Julio Urías, who pitched as both a starter and a reliever en route to last year's world championship.
"The goals with (Kopech) are continuing him on that path to being a premium starter and at the same time, keeping him strong and fresh and contributing over the course of the entire season," Hahn said. "Look at the Dodgers this past year. They were without Urías for a portion of the season. He's had his health issues along the way, but he's still viewed by them or was viewed by them as a premium starter. However, I think he pitched the last three innings of their clinching World Series game this year.
"I don't view the entire situation that dissimilar from that. You have a long-term goal in mind and you have short-term things you're trying to accomplish, and you want to balance those two."
Unfortunately, we'll have to wait for an exact strategy when it comes to the White Sox and Kopech. But one complicating factor could be a point in favor of Kopech joining the relief corps. The ongoing pandemic could once again force drastic alterations to the minor league schedule, with the Triple-A season perhaps not beginning until May. Certainly the White Sox wouldn't want Kopech to have a normal big league spring training only to sit around and wait to get into minor league games, perhaps dashing the idea of starting him in the minors, which looked realistic at this time last year.
Kopech bringing his elite heat to the bullpen would only make an already menacing South Side relief group that much more dangerous, and maybe that's what the White Sox are envisioning. Garrett Crochet isn't in a dissimilar spot, the White Sox seeing him as a long-term member of the rotation but wanting to utilize his flame-throwing talent in a championship chase in 2021.
The problem is, Kopech's absence from the rotation — whether brief or lasting the entire season — puts an awful lot of strain on the back end of the starting staff, which it could be argued was already the team's greatest weakness, given the uncertainty surrounding Kopech and Dylan Cease. Now that uncertainty extends to inconsistent arms like Reynaldo López and Carlos Rodón, who could now be called upon in a more expanded role than previously believed.
But that might be where "creative" comes in. The White Sox might not pick between the rotation or the bullpen, perhaps choosing to use Kopech in both places as a way to accomplish their long- and short-term goals. Again, we'll see.
But as refreshing as it is for White Sox fans to see Kopech back on a mound, what his 2021 will look like remains as uncertain as ever.
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