Are the White Sox better off with Michael Kopech? Obviously.
Are they sunk without him? Not in 2020, they're not.
Kopech won't play this year missing a second straight full season after he spent 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery. But it's a credit to Rick Hahn's rebuilding effort that even without one of the organization's highest profile youngsters, the news wasn't met with sky-is-falling panic.
The White Sox have spent much of "Summer Camp," both before and after Kopech's decision was announced Friday night, talking about pitching depth. And indeed, the team did reap a kind of benefit from the months-long layoff during which baseball watched the COVID-19 pandemic and slogged through fruitless negotiations. Several of the team's young pitchers on the mend from Tommy John are now full-season options for a shortened 60-game season instead of the midseason additions they were scheduled to be in a 162-game campaign.
Kopech was slated to be among them, probably due to start a normal season in the minor leagues, even if he was healthy enough to light up the radar gun during his lone inning of Cactus League action prior to spring training's abrupt end. The White Sox have to this point cited only "personal reasons" as the explanation for Kopech's decision not to participate this year. Whether those reasons are tied to health concerns over COVID-19, which has caused several other players around the league to sit out, or health concerns over his surgically repaired elbow, the case according to a couple different reports, or something different altogether remains to be publicly addressed.
Considering that it was a mystery what kind of pitcher Kopech was going to be after a more than yearlong recovery period, a halted spring, a months-long layoff and now a brief three-week ramp-up period ahead of a 60-game dash to the postseason added a ton more mystery about how his arm would have responded.
And adding more mystery still was an uncertain role for the 24-year-old flamethrower. Might he have ended up in an expanded starting rotation, where the White Sox see him pitching for years to come? Might he have been used as a multi-inning relief option in this shortened season? Might he and his triple-digit fire have been deployed in the later innings? All seemed possible.
What's not quite as mysterious is the shape of the White Sox pitching staff without Kopech. Yes, he would have made it even stronger. But there's a lot that remains, including a bolstered rotation and a reliable bullpen, that still seems capable of teaming with a remade lineup to truly threaten the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians for divisional supremacy in the AL Central. It's a deep group of arms that gives Rick Renteria a bunch of options.
Renteria's decision-making process, however, might now get a little easier without the Kopech factor, and a six-man rotation could be the most logical setup when Opening Day rolls around in a little less than two weeks. As mentioned, the layoff allowed several other non-Kopech arms to recover from their own procedures. Most notable among them is Carlos Rodón, who could easily be tacked onto the end of the starting five the White Sox were expected to break camp with back in March: Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Dylan Cease, Reynaldo López and Gio González. Behind them, now healthy pitching prospects Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert could extend the starter pool to eight.
"It’s tough losing Kopech, great arm, be nice to see him throw," Rodón said Saturday, "but we have some experience on our side with Gio González, and (Giolito) coming off an All-Star season. We have some young arms, we can do some mixing and matching. We have some depth, and we can be very good."
Giolito is fresh off his remarkable All-Star campaign from a season ago and enters this one as the no-doubt ace of the South Side staff, even if he's dreaming of a perfect world where every hurler in the rotation has the "ace" moniker. The arrival of the accomplished veteran Keuchel makes for a reliable top of the rotation.
It's Cease and López where the biggest question marks exist, and what they do this season could determine how high the White Sox are able to leap while looking to exit rebuilding mode and enter contending mode. Cease's nasty-looking numbers from 2019 can be chalked up to him dipping his toes into major league waters for the first time. López, though, seemed to trade places with Giolito, sliding from the team's best starter in 2018 to a woeful 2019. For all the promising discussion of the work he's done on the mental side of his game, the results didn't look all that dissimilar during Saturday's intrasquad game, when he allowed a pair of home runs. Though it's important to remember that the same stop-and-start schedule that might have led Kopech to stay away from the season altogether applies to every pitcher still participating in it, and expecting the best, especially from the jump, might be asking too much.
On top of the challenges facing all pitchers, González also has a springtime injury in the rear-view mirror. His first intrasquad effort Sunday featured the first three hitters reaching base — the second and third via the walk — and the first two of them scoring on Yermin Mercedes' two-run single. Andrew Vaughn tagged him for a home run later in his three innings. But even if the White Sox don't get the kind of results that sent González to the All-Star Game in back-to-back seasons the better part of a decade ago, they'll benefit from his veteran presence and winning experience, both on and off the field.
Rodón looked good in his first intrasquad performance Saturday, even if he was the victim of Luis Robert's ridiculous falling-down home run. Dunning looked very good when he pitched Sunday.
Now, as Allen Iverson said, we talkin' 'bout practice, and a small sample size of it, at that. But merely looking at the starting pitching on this team, there's a volume of options that can often separate the winners from the losers. Just look to last year's White Sox group, which struggled to plug the hole Rodón vacated throughout the remainder of the season. While there's no guaranteeing performance, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to suggest White Sox fans can forget about seeing the likes of Ervin Santana and Odrisamer Despaigne again. Even the plug-in options are attractive now, which of course is the idea when building a contender.
"We've got some young guys that are filling the spots," González said Sunday. "Mike is huge for this organization, he's huge for the clubhouse. Obviously it's his decision, and we respect him 100 percent. I wish I would have had an opportunity to play with him a little bit more, but I get it.
"It's respect for him and his family, but we've got to focus on people who are here, and I think that after watching Dunning pitch, some of the guys coming in showing their stuff, it's pretty exciting to see there are guys who are going to try to step up and do their part and make it a deal to be recognized in this organization and try to earn their spot here."
In the bullpen, meanwhile, the White Sox won't have Kopech to use in any potentially gadgety ways. But the group down there looks promising, too, especially now with the proven commodity that is Steve Cishek lengthening a back end that already included Alex Colomé and Aaron Bummer. Evan Marshall and Jimmy Cordero — and should the much discussed bounce back materialize, Kelvin Herrera — are still there, too, though Hahn will be among the first to warn of the unbankability of relief pitching from one season to the next. But in a season when the White Sox lost 89 games, the bullpen was a strength. Returning that same cast of characters and adding Cishek, who did such a good job for the Cubs in recent seasons, provides plenty of confidence that it can be a strength again.
And so it's quite understandable why White Sox fans didn't stamp the 2020 season with a July 10 expiration date upon news of Kopech's decision. That rundown of the vast amount of pitching on this roster does way more than just keep hope afloat, it is an engine for said hope. Of course, there's a remade lineup for White Sox fans to salivate over, too, and on a list of reasons for excitement this season, the injection of Yasmani Grandal and Edwin Encarnación into the middle of the order surely ranks higher than Marshall and Cordero facing less pressure.
When taking a longer view, the answer becomes different. Kopech is more important to White Sox teams in 2021 and beyond than he is to this year's squad. And so if there is worry to be had, it's over what two full missed seasons means for Kopech's readiness then. There was plenty of question about what he'd look like after missing 2019, and that question mark gets bolded, italicized and underlined — the type-formatting Holy Trinity — when it comes to what he'll look like after missing 2020, too.
But when it comes to this season, specifically, the Jenga tower that is a Major League Baseball team is nowhere near collapse because the Kopech block has been removed. And Hahn did such a job constructing this thing that no one even seemed worried such a thing might happen.
There are plenty of blocks left in the stack. Now it's on them to show how much weight they can bear.
The legend of La Pantera grew even larger Saturday. And he made it seem rather mundane.
"I was sitting on a soft pitch on the outside, and then this pitch was in and I had to react and swing the bat, and I think that was why I fell when I hit the ball."
Luis Robert's description of the event dramatically undersold what happened. The dude homered while he was falling down.
The Luis Robert falling-down home run for the intrasquad ages pic.twitter.com/WCcNxwXz0Z— Vinnie Duber (@VinnieDuber) July 11, 2020
Of course, Robert makes everything look easy. Why wouldn't he make it all sound easy, too?
The truth is that the much hyped Robert can do just about everything on the baseball field, and that apparently now includes sending a ball over the fence while simultaneously toppling to the ground in a somewhat cartoonish fashion. If you didn't think the hype train could move at a higher speed after he thrilled minor league audiences last season with a true five-tool display, then you weren't prepared for the highlight from Saturday's intrasquad game on the South Side that caught like wildfire across the baseball-loving sections of the internet.
Robert's arrival in the major leagues, however delayed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, is part of the reason the White Sox look capable of making their long awaited leap out of rebuilding mode and into contention mode this season. He's being described as the best of the team's collection of talented youngsters and talked up as one of baseball's next superstars.
The best part of all of that for the White Sox?
"I'm glad he's on my team," said pitcher Carlos Rodón, who had the unfortunate distinction of being the guy who gave up that bananas home run.
Indeed he is on this team, and thanks to the big-money deal that paved his way to the Opening Day lineup, Robert is going to be on this team for a long time. A pair of options at the end of that contract allow for Robert to remain in a White Sox uniform through the 2027 season. Rick Hahn's always talking about keeping this team in contention mode for as long as possible. Inking Robert's name into the projected lineup for the next eight seasons surely helps.
"I'm smiling from ear to ear," White Sox bench coach Joe McEwing said Saturday. "We are as an organization because we are going to have an opportunity to see this for a long period of time.
"He's an individual who you pay to go watch play. ... You can come to the ballpark and understand he has a chance to do something special every day in every aspect of his game, whether it's running, playing defense, throwing, hitting.
"What he did today, ... I saw him sitting on the ground and I was like, 'Run, run, run!' and then I realized the ball was 15 rows deep. He's a pretty special talent, and we are fortunate and lucky to have him on our side."
The question, though, doesn't seem to be how good Robert will be one day but how good he'll be from Day 1.
Robert was expected to have a full six months in his first taste of the big leagues, expected to have time to make the kinds of adjustments Eloy Jiménez did as a rookie last season, when he started slowly only to catch fire for a white-hot month of September. Robert won't have that luxury, with the season squeezed down from its typical six-month marathon to a two-month, 60-game sprint.
But Robert doesn't seem to view that as much of a problem. Like the uber-talented White Sox youngsters who have arrived on the South Side before him, he's a confident kid. And while he's not going as far as Jiménez did in January, when the left fielder called his new center fielder "the next Mike Trout," Robert's expecting to be able to hit the ground running while seeing big league pitching for the first time.
"I am feeling very confident," he said Saturday through team interpreter Billy Russo. "I feel real good right now, mentally and physically, and I think that is important. I think that's why I have been able to get the results that I've been having during this time.
"Being here facing major league pitchers, even though they are my teammates, has helped me a lot because that's an advantage for me to know what I'm going to face once the season starts.
"I don't know if I think about doing extraordinary things. I just think in terms of doing the best that I can in every aspect of the game, in every play that I'm involved in. And I think that's the reason why I've been able to do very good things. That's the reason why, I just try to do my best every time."
Robert's presence is just one of a whole bunch of reasons the White Sox appear primed for a big jump in 2020. He's part of a remade lineup featuring veteran additions Yasmani Grandal, Edwin Encarnación and Nomar Mazara. He's one of two highly touted prospects who could take over starting roles this season, along with Nick Madrigal. He's the newest addition to a White Sox core that already had its breakout season a year ago, when Jiménez, Yoán Moncada, Lucas Giolito and Tim Anderson did such big things.
And this is just the beginning. So many of those guys are under team control for years into the future. And so even if Robert and the White Sox don't rise to the level of World Series contenders in 2020, they're planning to do it soon — and stay there for a long while.
How good can Robert be during that stretch? The consensus seems to be that the sky is the limit. And if his wardrobe choice for his Saturday session with reporters, a LeBron James jersey, was any indication, the South Side could be in for larger-than-life superstardom.
"I think that every athlete has that in mind," he said, asked if he had designs on being as good as James, one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. "When you see what other athletes have done, whatever the sport they’re playing, it’s something that you use to motivate yourself."