White Sox

White Sox think Michael Kopech's maturity will help him overcome early fastball command issues

White Sox think Michael Kopech's maturity will help him overcome early fastball command issues

KODAK, Tenn. -- His fastball command has been off in the early season and it’s prevented Michael Kopech from getting out to the start at Double-A he would have preferred.

Despite 10 walks in 12 innings, observers say the White Sox pitching prospect isn’t too far off where he needs to be. But Kopech hasn’t had the same command of a pitch he can throw 102 mph as he did when he put on a dominant performance this spring. Still, both the right-hander and franchise think Kopech is due for a correction.

“It’s hit or miss right now and that’s disappointing for me because I felt like I was at a really good place with it at spring training,” Kopech said. “I got here and the first batter I faced at Double-A, I walked him. Had a few walks since then. It’s just something that I need to stop thinking on something so much and I need to just pitch the game the way I know how like I did in spring training and kind of go after guys instead of trying to tiptoe around counts.”

The White Sox believe Kopech -- the 16th-rated prospect in baseball according to MLB.com -- can handle this early flare up. The maturity he has displayed since they’ve had their hands on him has the club confident in Kopech, who was acquired last December in the Chris Sale trade. A combination of performance and the belief that Kopech is reliable led to his promotion to Double-A Birmingham earlier this month.

Several months back there was talk that Kopech could begin the season at Advanced-A Winston-Salem. Yet Kopech’s Carolina League performance in the second half of 2016 along with dominance in the Arizona Fall League had them thinking a promotion may be necessary. Then Kopech backed it up this spring with 11 strikeouts and two walks in six big league innings.

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Rather than start start Kopech at Winston-Salem, the White Sox decided they wanted to test their right-hander at Birmingham.

“We always sort of had our options open,” assistant general manager Buddy Bell said. “We recognized he pitched well in the Fall League and very well the last few times in spring training and we recognized his maturity and the way he works. His aspirations are off the chart and we felt like a challenge would be in order with him. We see this as a guy who can handle challenges. But I think his maturity more than anything else sold us.”

Kopech spent Friday night’s series finale against the Tennessee Smokies (Cubs) charting pitches a few rows behind home plate. A night earlier, he struck out five, walked three batters and allowed four runs (two earned) and four hits in four innings in a losing effort. Kopech threw strikes on 46 of 79 pitches. Both Kopech and minor-league pitching coordinator Richard Dotson said improved fastball command is tops on the fix-it-list.

“It needs to get better,” Dotson said. “It’s as simple as that. He’s not too far off. I think it’s about how much he applies himself. There is a process to it. It just doesn’t happen overnight. When you get a feeling of you’re doing things right you want to hold onto it as long as you can because we’re not robots. I think that’s kind of part of what he’s going through and he’s making progress, but he’s got to continue to make progress.”

Kopech said he’s found Double-A hitters to be more patient than when he played at Salem last season. He’s flattered by the confidence the White Sox have displayed by placing him at Birmingham. And he’s also in a positive frame of mind about his recent struggles because he’s only three starts into a long season.

“First and foremost I just want to help the team win no matter where I’m at,” Kopech said. “We’re off to a rough start. I’m off to a rough start myself in my opinion. But it’s still early, we’ve got work to do and I think it’ll come.”

Adjust your White Sox free-agent wish list? Gerrit Cole's teammates predict he'll land in California


Adjust your White Sox free-agent wish list? Gerrit Cole's teammates predict he'll land in California

Gerrit Cole is rightfully at the top of many White Sox fans' free-agent wish list. But might those hopes already need adjusting?

Cole looks to be on track to land the richest pitching contract in baseball history when he hits free agency after the Houston Astros' playoff run is over. The White Sox are shopping for starting pitching, and what team wouldn't love to top their rotation with the guy who might be awarded the AL Cy Young?

But whether or not you're part of the Twitter-using faction of White Sox fans that believe the team would never spend such money to land a pitcher the caliber of Cole, it might not matter.

USA Today's Bob Nightengale spoke to a couple of Cole's fellow Astros, and they told him they think Cole will end up playing in California. The South Side, at least in the Astros' clubhouse, it seems, is not a betting favorite.

"It will be west of Nevada," outfielder Josh Reddick said. "We know he wants to be a West Coast guy. He’s a California guy, so he probably wants to be close to home. I know he mentioned Oakland a couple of times because of how he’s pitched there in the past. ... But that probably won’t happen. They’d have to clear the whole roster to afford him."

"I got the Angels," pitcher Wade Miley said, "and paying him at least $250 million."

Well then.

Certainly the Los Angeles Angels are not a new suggestion in the "where will Cole sign" discussion. Cole went to high school a 10-minute drive from Angel Stadium and pitched his college ball at UCLA. The Oakland Athletics? That's a new one.

Anyway, a lot of White Sox fans are probably out there thinking "here we go again" as we begin poring over every bit of minutiae in this winter's free-agent market, just like we did last offseason, when Manny Machado and Bryce Harper were both out there for the signing — and both White Sox targets. That months-long reading of the tea leaves, of course, was all kicked off when MLB Network's Jon Morosi reported the White Sox interest during the GM Meetings in November.

So far, there's nothing out there connecting the White Sox to Cole besides pure speculation, that and the fact that Rick Hahn has said his front office will be in the market for starting pitching. Cole, being a starting pitcher, fits the minimum requirement as a potential target.

In fact, in listing a boatload of teams that might make a run at Cole this winter, Nightengale left the White Sox out. He mentioned four of the five California-based teams: the Angels, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the San Francisco Giants and every White Sox fan's favorite, the San Diego Padres, who landed Machado back in February. He also mentioned the Astros, the New York Yankees (who Cole will pitch against in game 3 of the ALCS on Tuesday), the St. Louis Cardinals, the Washington Nationals and the Texas Rangers.

No White Sox.

There are plenty of other variables in this sweepstakes than just geography, and chief among them figures to be money. The White Sox have plenty of financial flexibility gained as a goal of the ongoing rebuilding process, but Hahn said that's not the most attractive element when it comes to free agents signing up to play on the South Side.

"The biggest advantage we have is the talent base we've accumulated so far and the excitement to come and be part of that," Hahn said during his end-of-season press conference last month. "We do have some economic flexibility. That was part of the plan from the start. But I think if you're looking at advantages, a lot of teams have money. A lot of teams don't offer the ability to play with some of the players that are joining us here already and joining in the coming years and the opportunity to win a championship in a city like Chicago."

Whether that appeals to Cole or whether the White Sox will set their sights elsewhere remains to be seen. Certainly his fellow Astros' predictions aren't the be all, end all. Remember last winter when it was a foregone conclusion Machado would be a Yankee because he was a fan of that team growing up? Didn't work out that way. (It's here that I'll mention a pretty cool nugget in Nightengale's piece about Cole sitting in the front row cheering on the Yankees during the 2001 World Series. Is he destined to wear pinstripes because of it? No.)

For the White Sox, they certainly should chase Cole, who would count as the biggest free-agent splash in team history and do a heck of a lot to vault the team out of rebuilding mode and into contention mode. But Hahn is hoping that whichever players he lands this winter can do that, along with the team's talented young core, and there are plenty of starting-pitching options out there not named Gerrit Cole: Madison Bumgarner, Dallas Keuchel, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Zack Wheeler and maybe even Stephen Strasburg. It's an impressive list of possibilities, one that remains impressive for the White Sox even if they fail to meet any imaginary Golden State requirement from Cole.

Even as Cole readies to face off against the Yankees in the ALCS, attempting to go 19-0 since he lost to the White Sox on May 22, his role as the star of the hot stove season is already beginning.

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MLB'ers think Lucas Giolito was one of the comeback-iest players in baseball this year

MLB'ers think Lucas Giolito was one of the comeback-iest players in baseball this year

It isn't "the" AL Comeback Player of the Year Award, but it is "an" AL Comeback Player of the Year Award.

The MLB Players Association announced Monday that White Sox hurler Lucas Giolito is a finalist for its "Players Choice" AL Comeback Player of the Year Award, voted on by the game's players. He was joined by outfielders Hunter Pence of the Texas Rangers and Jorge Soler of the Kansas City Royals. On the NL side, the three finalists were Atlanta Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson, Cincinnati Reds pitcher Sonny Gray and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu.

The whole "voted on by your peers" element is pretty cool, as certainly they know how different the 2019 version of Giolito was from the one they saw a year earlier. James McCann, who played against Giolito as a Detroit Tiger in 2018 and then caught him as the White Sox backstop in 2019, constantly talked about how transformed Giolito was from one year to the next.

A totally different pitcher.

That's precisely what Giolito seemed like to us non-player types, too, after he went from the worst statistics of any qualified pitcher in 2018 to an All Star and the ace of the South Side staff in 2019.

Giolito gave up more earned runs than any pitcher in the game in 2018, also leading the AL in walks during a season he finished with a 6.13 ERA. Then he went to work in the offseason, making mechanical changes and overhauling his mental approach to the game. It resulted in the kind of breakout season the prognosticators foresaw when they ranked him the No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball once upon a time.

In 2019, Giolito posted a 3.41 ERA, went to the All-Star Game, struck out a whopping 228 batters — that particular feat accomplished by only two other pitchers in White Sox history — and will likely place somewhere in the AL Cy Young vote.

His season was highlighted by a pair of complete-game shutouts against two of the best teams in baseball, the Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins. Both shutouts came against 100-win teams on their own turf.

Presumably some Astros and Twins threw a few votes Giolito's way.

Giolito's status when it comes to "the" AL Comeback Player of the Year Award will be revealed next month, after the World Series is over. But for now, this is a pretty cool feather in the cap for him, another example of how far he's come.

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