There were plenty of people who thought Michael Kopech was the White Sox best pitcher when the team left Glendale, Arizona, to start the 2018 season.
Whether or not the team shared that opinion, Kopech spent the next four and a half months as a minor leaguer.
The prevailing preseason thought was that it wouldn’t take the flame-throwing Kopech, who struck out 172 minor league hitters in 2017, long to breeze through Triple-A and arrive on the South Side. But it did.
A dominant beginning to the season was followed by a bumpy stretch in which his ERA and walk total consistently grew. But the last seven starts were terrific, and so Kopech’s call to the majors has finally come. He’ll make his big league debut Tuesday night against the Minnesota Twins.
It’s news that will please many White Sox fans because it’s something they’ve been waiting all season to see happen. Ever since Sox Fest back in the winter, the No. 1 question has been: When will Kopech and Eloy Jimenez reach the bigs? Jimenez, the team’s top-ranked prospect, is still a minor leaguer for now, but Kopech is about to hit the South Side with a heck of a lot of fanfare. It’s a pretty tangible example of this rebuilding effort moving in the right direction.
The recent conversation among fans and media members, though, has centered around service time and whether the White Sox handling of Kopech and Jimenez would mirror how the Cubs handled Kris Bryant back in 2015, keeping a star prospect from the majors until a couple weeks into the following season to start the clock a year later and essentially add a year of team control to the end of his contract. A lot of Twitter-using White Sox fans have whole-heartedly bought in to such a strategy.
But general manager Rick Hahn has insisted all along that the only determination of when these guys would come up was that they hit all the developmental milestones the team wanted them to hit in the minor leagues. For what it’s worth, Hahn answered a question about service time earlier this summer, saying that it had nothing to do with keeping Kopech at Triple-A. That question was specifically in reference to when Kopech could become arbitration eligible, not a free agent even further down the road. But the response is an interesting one as a similar conversation keeps happening surrounding this team and these specific decisions.
“It was all baseball. It’s never been the arbitration three years from now. It’s been about baseball,” he said back in mid June. “Again, not getting too far down into Michael’s checklist of what we want to see him accomplish, but he hasn’t checked them all off yet. He’s had some real good starts. He’s getting closer, and it’s not going to surprise me seeing him here at some point in the not too distant future, but he’s not there yet.”
Several tremendous outings later, and Kopech is there now. The numbers have been unreal in his last seven starts: a 1.84 ERA, 59 strikeouts and only four walks in 44 innings.
Hahn also talked about how the team’s handling of pitching prospects Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito a season ago could be a kind of template for how it would handle Kopech this season. Both those guys were called up in August, just like Kopech will be in a couple days.
Just like Hahn’s season-long declaration that the fortunes of the major league team and of the players on the major league team had no bearing on when top prospects would be promoted, at the very least in Kopech’s case, the same seems to have been true about the issue of service time. Some might lament the fact that the White Sox didn’t wait on Kopech, and it’s not a point without merit, as a large number of injuries to top prospects this season robbed them of developmental time and perhaps shifted the timeline of the entire rebuild. Maybe. In the event that is a concern shared by the White Sox, the extra year might have made a difference down the road.
But as White Sox fans have seen first hand this season, there is development that needs to happen at the major league level, too. Giolito and Lopez gained valuable experience pitching at the end of last season. Those two, plus Yoan Moncada and other young players, have gone through growing pains throughout this year’s campaign. Kopech will face the challenges of the big leagues, as well, and the sooner he does, the sooner he can learn how to overcome them.
Hahn has said all along that the organization’s focus remains on the long term, and though there might be arguments out there that not waiting could potentially shorten the team’s window of contention many years down the line, Kopech’s promotion does an awful lot to open it in the first place.
The day White Sox fans have been waiting for is finally here.
In another benchmark moment on the timeline of this rebuilding process, top-ranked pitching prospect Michael Kopech will make his major league debut Tuesday night in a game against the Minnesota Twins at Guaranteed Rate Field.
Kopech, acquired in the rebuild-jumpstarting trade that sent Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox, has been the subject of much attention at Triple-A Charlotte this season. After he dominated at the Double-A level in his first season in the White Sox organization, striking out 155 batters in his 22 starts, he’s had an up-and-down 2018 campaign. But boy has he been electric of late.
He was dominant in his first five starts of the season, with a 2.86 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 27 innings of work. But over a two-month stretch from early May to early July, he had a 5.69 ERA with 47 walks over 12 starts. But Kopech got things back on track in a big way. He’s allowed just nine earned runs and struck out 59 batters compared to just four walks in his last 44 innings over seven starts. He posted a 3.70 ERA on the season at Charlotte.
Kopech’s long been advertised as a flamethrower with blow-em-away stuff, and that has obviously grabbed the imaginations of White Sox fans dreaming of him anchoring the rotation of the future. Kopech’s the highest-profile of the team’s wealth of starting-pitching prospects that includes Dylan Cease, Dane Dunning and Alec Hansen, among others.
But Kopech’s arrival — as well as that of outfielder Eloy Jimenez, who could also be up before season’s end — will bring the most excitement. The 22-year-old is ranked as the No. 13 prospect in the game by MLB Pipeline.
It’s a strong indication that Hahn’s rebuilding effort is moving along as planned, even if the big league squad is struggling in the win-loss department. Kopech’s promotion is changing the storyline surrounding this team from waiting for the youth movement to watching it in action.