Michael Kopech is not likely to make 30-plus starts in 2020.
Still one of the highest ranked pitching prospects in the game, Kopech is slated to return from his Tommy John recovery when spring training rolls around in February. He’ll be without restriction when the White Sox report to Camelback Ranch.
But his 2020 season will not be a full one, per say, as the White Sox will be cautious with a guy they expect to be a key part of their rotation for a long time.
Speaking during the GM meetings last week in Arizona, general manager Rick Hahn said Kopech will be on an innings limit of some kind during the 2020 season. Though he was hesitant to put a specific number on that limit.
“I don't think there's going to be a magical number,” he said. “And it's been our experience that when you set the specific number, it in some ways boxes you in a little bit.”
Whether the White Sox know how many innings they want Kopech to pitch and are just refusing to make that knowledge public, or they’re truly waiting to see how Kopech fares in the spring before settling on a number, there are multiple elements going into that decision.
First is the injury, with Kopech not pitching in a game outside of instructional league since Sept. 5, 2018. Kopech’s spent the last year-plus working his way back, and by the time Opening Day 2020 rolls around, it will be almost 19 months since that last major league appearance. The White Sox don’t want to let the flame-throwing Kopech let it all loose and run out of gas because his body isn’t back to the regular pitching routine.
The other is the experience. Kopech has thrown 14.1 innings of big league ball. That’s it. The 146.1 innings he threw between the majors and Triple-A in 2018 are the most he’s thrown in a single season in his pro career, throwing 134.1 innings the year prior at Double-A and Triple-A.
“We'll react to being fully cognizant of the fact that he's coming off of a career high, previously, of about 140-ish or so innings,” Hahn said. “And obviously coming off the surgery now, we have to be cognizant of the fact that this isn't a guy that's going to be out there, necessarily, for seven months taking the ball every fifth day, and we'll have to plan for that accordingly.”
The reason all this is important is because the White Sox might be in a position to compete for a playoff spot in 2020, depending on how the offseason goes, and that could mean wanting to deploy a talented pitcher like Kopech in meaningful games down the stretch and perhaps even in October, should that opportunity arise.
So you might not see Kopech as part of the Opening Day rotation and just piling up the necessary innings before getting shut down for the year. The White Sox might get a little more creative.
“That's what's going to be the trick, whether that's skipping him from time to time or managing his work load early in the season,” Hahn said. “All those things are possibilities, it's just going to be a matter of — let's first get to spring training, let's see him throwing the ball healthy again without restriction, feeling good about where he's at, and we'll come up with a plan.”
Now the idea that Kopech might not be a part of the White Sox starting rotation right away might come as a head-scratcher to some. Hahn has been hinting at that possibility for a while now, dating back to the middle of the summer. Kopech was given a spot in the rotation when he made his big league debut at the end of the 2018 season, but apparently it’s yet to be finalized that he would automatically return to that spot upon his return from injury.
Hahn has laid out that Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dylan Cease will be part of the White Sox rotation next season and confirmed last week that the team is looking to add a pair of starting pitchers this winter. That makes five, and that might make it easy for the team to start slowly with Kopech, be that in the minor leagues or in the bullpen or wherever.
Don’t get too nervous, as Kopech still figures to do plenty of big league work in 2020. But it sounds like the final decision on everything involving Kopech will have to wait until he gets going in spring training.
“It's too early to say that (he’ll be part of the Opening Day rotation in 2020),” Hahn said. “Let's see what other possible additions we make, and let's see exactly how he is come spring training.
“You've got to keep in mind, this kid, come late February, the first time he'll face big league hitters, that'll be the first time he's done it in 18, 19, 20 months. So let's just see where he's at.
“Our view of him for the long term is that he's going to be an important part of a very good rotation. How quickly he gets there, we're going to take our time getting there.”
As the No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 draft, Andrew Vaughn’s first full season in the minors this coming season will be one of the biggest storylines in the big picture of the White Sox rebuild in 2020.
Before that season begins for Vaughn, he got some international experience playing for USA Baseball at the Premier12 tournament. The Premier12 served as the first Olympic qualifying tournament.
Vaughn played in all eight games for the American team which was comprised of minor leaguers not currently on MLB 40-man rosters. He split time between first base and DH and was often in the middle of the order.
In eight games Vaughn hit .321/.367/.357. He had just one extra base hit, a double, in 30 plate appearances.
The lack of power might be somewhat concerning, but he certainly showed contact and on-base skills against quality, experienced competition.
As for USA Baseball, the team entered Saturday’s bronze medal game against Mexico knowing the winner would qualify for the Olympics. The Americans led 2-1 entering the ninth inning, but gave up a home run to send the game to extras. Mexico won with a bases-loaded walk-off single in the 10th.
The US still has two more chances to qualify for the Olympics. There is an Americas qualifying tournament in March and then a last chance tournament soon after that one. Those take place during spring training so it’s unclear if Vaughn would leave White Sox camp for that.
Tyler Johnson, a White Sox relief prospect, was on the initial roster for the tournament, but left the team due to a minor injury.