Powerful stuff: Kopech lit up the radar gun in his one-inning comeback from Tommy John surgery on Tuesday. (Tiffany Wintz/South Side Hit Pen)
On Dec. 6, 2016, the Chicago White Sox made one of the biggest trades in the franchise’s history, a move that they hoped would eventually make this team a perennial contender not just in the American League Central, but for World Series championships.
Chris Sale was the face of the franchise, a five-time All-Star, and a perennial Cy Young candidate in Chicago. He ranks third all-time in White Sox history with a WHIP of 1.065, fourth in hits per nine (7.48), first in strikeouts per nine (10.09), and sixth in strikeouts with 1,244 in just 1,110 innings.
But on that day in December, the White Sox traded the former first-round pick to the Boston Red Sox for Michael Kopech, Yoán Moncada, Luis Basabe, and Victor Diaz.
It was a trade that absolutely had to pay off for the White Sox. When you trade someone like Sale, you have to make sure you’re getting back elite-level talent.
At the time, the White Sox certainly felt like they were getting at least two players who would shape the future of this franchise in Kopech and Moncada. Before the 2017 season, Moncada was ranked as the second-best prospect in all of baseball by many publications, while Kopech ranked as high as No. 10 before the 2018 season.
These two were tabbed as the ones to take this team back to the promised land.
After a couple of subpar years, Moncada finally looks like that guy. And the White Sox have made that official by giving him a nice contract extension.
As we all know, Kopech was on the verge of making his mark in 2018 before injury struck and Tommy John surgery followed.
Since that time, we’ve been waiting for the talented right-handed pitcher — who is still just 23 years old — to get back on the mound and remind us why the White Sox gave up the face of their franchise for him.
That finally happened on Tuesday, as Kopech made his spring training debut. You could tell it was a big moment for the big righty as he was amped up, throwing several fastballs at 100 mph and higher, including a fastball painted on the outside corner at 101 to end the first inning with his only strikeout.
I won’t read too much into one inning from Kopech, but his fastball and breaking ball looked really sharp.
Kopech’s handling in 2020
Tuesday was obviously a big first step in his return, but the White Sox are going to rightfully be cautious with their prized arm in 2020.
We already know Kopech will be on an innings limit this season; the only question is what that limit will be. He’s never thrown more than 141 innings in a season, so I would guess that’s the number we’re looking at in 2020.
There are several ways the White Sox can handle this Kopech’s workload:
1) Put him in the rotation and let him start every fifth day until he hits his limit
This is the least likely scenario, and one I hope they don’t employ. The White Sox are hoping to play meaningful games deep into the season, and I’d rather save Kopech’s bullets.
2) Use him as an opener to start the season
I’m not exactly sure who you pair him with, but with the opener craze, perhaps Kopech starts games but goes only two or three innings. Maybe someone like Reynaldo López follows him up.
I don’t love this idea, but it makes sense, as you keep Kopech as a starter and slowly work him into things — kind of like an extended spring training.
3) Use him in the bullpen
Kopech could move to the bullpen in 2020 and be deployed as a multi-inning guy to help limit his innings.
I don’t love the idea of moving Kopech to the bullpen, but it might be the best way to utilize him effectively and limit his innings. But it may hamper his development as a starter and throws him out of rhythm not knowing when he’ll pitch.
At the same time, having someone coming out of the bullpen who can regularly hit 100 mph in short stints with a nasty breaking ball is quite deadly.
4) Lastly, you could start him in the minors and let him build his strength up there
This is my least favorite option, but it also makes sense to let him get his feet wet again in the minors before throwing him into the fire. This also fits a model of service-time gaming that most MLB teams employ these days.
The downside? If Kopech looks great in spring training, fans will be pretty upset if he’s wasting those bullets at Triple-A.
As someone who is also an Atlanta fan, the Braves faced a similar situation in 2012 with Kris Medlen.
Medlen had basically missed the entire 2011 season after having Tommy John surgery, so the Braves used him in the bullpen to start the season. Medlen made 38 appearances as a reliever that season with a 2.48 ERA in 54 ⅓ innings with 36 strikeouts (he wasn’t nearly the power pitcher Kopech is).
And then in the second half, the Braves moved Medlen into the starting rotation and he went on one of the greatest stretches in the history of baseball, posting a 0.97 ERA in 83 ⅔ innings (12 starts) with 84 strikeouts.
Overall that season, Medlen had a 1.57 ERA in 138 innings with 120 strikeouts appearing in a total of 50 games.
I’m not saying Kopech will have that same type of success, but I remember how huge it was for the Braves that year, as they went on to win 94 games. Kopech could be that same type of weapon for the White Sox this season — depending on how he handles a bullpen role.
Something to keep in mind in this example is that Medlen had 175 ⅓ big league innings under his belt already, while Kopech only has 14 ⅓ . But with the White Sox already having five solid options in the starting rotation to start the season, there is no reason to rush Kopech in there.
The best plan is to let Kopech work out of the bullpen in the first half, and then move him into the rotation in the second half (or when the need arises) to help limit his innings and get the most out of him.
As far as what to expect from Kopech in 2020, I would expect to see someone who looks completely dominant one outing and can’t find the zone the next. We all know command is the last thing to return post-Tommy John surgery. Kopech is going to have outings his year when he just can’t locate his pitches.
But for the most part, especially as a reliever, he has enough dominant stuff to get by and be an effective pitcher for the White Sox. And if everything goes well, Kopech has the ability to transform this season for Chicago and help lead them to the postseason, like Medlen did for the Braves.
Just like we all envisioned when that trade was made in 2016.