On the first day of "Summer Camp" workouts at Guaranteed Rate Field, there was one important absentee.
Michael Kopech has not yet reported to the second round of spring training ahead of the abbreviated, 60-game 2020 season, and the team has no timetable on when he'll rejoin the club.
General manager Rick Hahn said Friday that Kopech, who missed the entirety of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, is dealing with a personal matter. Recognizing that speculation could immediately turn to COVID-19, Hahn assured that the 24-year-old flamethrower is healthy.
"It's obviously never ideal when any individual is dealing with off-field matters," Hahn said. "It's easy, I suppose, at times, to lose sight of the fact that you're dealing with human beings here. People have lives, people have families. People have all the same assortment of items to attend to that each and every other individual has. And this is obviously a very unique time we're all living through.
"It's not ideal, but fundamentally, we're looking to put all our players in the best position they can be to perform and maximize their abilities on the field, and if there's anything standing in the way of that, we're going to provide them with whatever support and resources they need to help address those matters. ... We fully support Michael and are going to provide him with whatever time and resources he needs and look forward to seeing him in the future."
Kopech missing more time is certainly unfortunate, especially when considering the long layoff he had following the surgery at the end of the 2018 season. He spent all of 2019 in recovery mode and participated in spring training earlier this year, throwing one inning of Cactus League action — and a pretty spectacular one at that — before baseball was abruptly shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under normal circumstances, Kopech was expected to begin the season in the minor leagues, building arm strength with so much time between competitive games. When the season was squeezed down to 60 games in two months, it appeared Kopech, three more months removed from the surgery, could have been utilized as a full-season option for the White Sox. Other pitchers, such as Carlos Rodon and Dane Dunning, could also be part of expanded pitching depth for the White Sox that they wouldn't have had if the season started in March, as scheduled.
But with no idea how long Kopech will be away from the team, those plans could again be forced to change.
It's already a huge question what shape starting pitchers will be in after a halted spring, a three-month layoff and only three weeks' worth of ramping up before the regular season begins. Pitchers might be only capable of throwing three or four innings per start as opposed to their usual six or seven as they take time to get back into in-season mode. Who knows how Kopech, individually, has kept himself in shape during the layoff, or how large a benefit "Summer Camp" will provide for pitchers.
While the White Sox continue to have options with guys like Rodon, Dunning and Jimmy Lambert to go along with their starting rotation of Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Dylan Cease, Reynaldo Lopez and Gio Gonzalez, Kopech was expected to play a role of some significance either as a member of the rotation, a "piggybacking" starter out of the bullpen or even, potentially, as a late-inning option.
Any of that can still happen, but Kopech's beginning-of-camp absence adds another unknown into a season already full of them.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued an emergency travel order Thursday that requires travelers visiting Chicago from states experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases to quarantine for two weeks.
EFFECTIVE MONDAY: To preserve the gains Chicago has made, we're issuing an Emergency Travel Order directing travelers entering or returning to Chicago from states experiencing a surge in new COVID-19 cases to quarantine for a period of 14 days. More info→ https://t.co/5D7ng691f8 pic.twitter.com/CA26uT7RF6— Mayor Lori Lightfoot (@chicagosmayor) July 2, 2020
By the end of the month, a certain group of travelers — Major League Baseball teams — are scheduled to visit Chicago to play games against the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field. Likewise, the White Sox will be traveling to play road games in other states, as well, from which they will eventually return.
But the White Sox say they aren't expecting the new order to impact their upcoming 2020 season.
"Based on our current understanding, we do not expect this to impact our operations as presently planned," a White Sox spokesperson told NBC Sports Chicago on Thursday.
Currently, no states that are home to Central Division teams from either the AL or NL are impacted by Mayor Lightfoot's order. But as has become extremely apparent, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic can change things quickly, and there's no knowing which states might be impacted come Opening Day or at any point during the two-month baseball season.
At the moment, the mayor's order, which goes into effect Monday, applies to visitors from Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah. Landing on that list involves a specific metric. Per the city's website, "a state will be designated if it has a case rate greater than 15 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 resident population, per day, over a 7-day rolling average."
Major League Baseball is imposing a geographic schedule to minimize travel for teams during the shortened, 60-game season. Teams will only play their division rivals and teams from the same geographic division in the other league. The White Sox will play their four AL Central rivals and the five teams from the NL Central.
As of the mayor's order being issued Thursday, the states of Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were not part of the travel order. But every one of those states except Missouri, as well as Illinois, is currently experiencing a week-to-week increase in the number of new cases. The number of new cases is also rising in Iowa, where the White Sox are still on schedule to play in the Field of Dreams game on Aug. 13.
The city has the ability to grant exemptions, though, and Major League Baseball's extensive health and safety measures could come into play. According to the city's website, "the Commissioner of Health may additionally grant an exemption based upon an organization’s or business’ testing and other control policies or in extraordinary circumstances, which warrant an exception from mandatory quarantine."
So the city has the power to let the MLB season, as it pertains to teams traveling in and out of Chicago, to operate as planned. It can allow the Cleveland Indians come to town, or allow the White Sox to return from a trip to Detroit, even if other travelers from Ohio or Michigan, for example, are mandated to quarantine for two weeks.
As mentioned, the evolving status of the pandemic and the response to it, not just in Chicago but across the country, can change everything in a hurry. Major League Baseball faces its own internal hurdles when it comes to safely getting the season off the ground and completing it.
But as the White Sox understand it, there might not be reason to believe Mayor Lightfoot would be throwing a separate wrench into the difficult task of playing the 2020 baseball season.