Michael Kopech likely won’t pitch in another big league game until the 2020 season.
It was the bad news that hit the White Sox like a truck Friday, immediately bringing into question how a year plus out of action as he recovers from Tommy John surgery will affect the development of the organization’s top-ranked pitching prospect and the team’s rebuilding effort as a whole.
But while it’s easy to focus on the long term with this future-facing franchise, there’s a more immediate topic to consider: Who’s going to fill Kopech’s spot in the White Sox starting rotation next season?
The 2019 starting staff figured to have just one opening, with Kopech, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Carlos Rodon returning to form 80 percent of that staff and James Shields heading to free agency. But Kopech’s injury creates two holes.
Rick Hahn and his front office have injected an incredible amount of pitching depth into the farm system, but how much more of that depth is ready to hit the major leagues? It took Kopech months to climb from the start of a Triple-A season to the big league stage. Is there an assurance that any of those prospects will be ready by the time next spring rolls around?
It’s for that reason that there could suddenly be an unexpected item on Hahn’s offseason to-do list: adding a starting pitcher from outside the organization. Hahn mentioned that very possibility Friday, sparking the idea that a heretofore unnecessary offseason move might now be required to get the White Sox through the 2019 campaign.
“Throughout this process, we were making this about more than just one guy. We knew that there were going to be setbacks, whether it was due to injury or other performance, and that we were going to have to be prepared and have enough depth in order to insulate ourselves, either internally or via trade and free agency, to be able to withstand some of this stuff,” Hahn said. “Yes, this is going to be a challenge, but in the coming weeks and months we will respond to it and put ourselves in the best position for the long term.”
Of course, the way the White Sox have positioned themselves, they have flexibility and a variety of options.
Maybe the solve is an internal one, a chance given to someone like Jordan Guerrero or Jordan Stephens. (Before you ask, it seems unlikely Dylan Cease, recently honored as MLB Pipeline’s minor league pitcher of the year, would skip Triple-A and head straight into a big league rotation.)
But going outside seems a more likely option. The question then becomes: Is that acquisition a short-term fix, a stopgap or a bridge to Kopech’s return in 2020? Or do the White Sox try to add a pitcher who could be part of the rotation on the next contending team, given that Kopech will still be in the thick of his major league development for an entire season following his return?
Big-time names like Patrick Corbin, Clayton Kershaw, Dallas Keuchel and David Price will all be on the free-agent market. More manageable might be a list of guys like Nathan Eovaldi, Gio Gonzalez, Matt Harvey, Drew Pomeranz and Tyson Ross. Perhaps bringing back Shields for one more season after his impressive 2018 campaign is an option.
And of course there’s the possibility of engineering a trade. Hahn has been asked multiple times dating back to last year’s Winter Meetings — when national reports had the White Sox connected to Manny Machado — if he would consider trading from his stockpile of prospects. That strategy seemed at the time and still seems now a rush to abandon the carefully laid rebuilding plans. But the impact of Kopech’s injury might well be big enough to force a move that didn’t make sense a couple days ago, a move that could still benefit the team in the long term.
The White Sox still believe that Kopech will return to play a significant role, and they’re right to believe so given his talent, his electrifying stuff and his admirable work ethic that leaves little doubt he’ll fight his way back from this injury.
But after years of every aspect of the White Sox rebuilding effort appearing to run on the same track, injuries to Kopech and a host of other prospects this season have caused some divergent tracks, and the recoveries of those prospects and their missed developmental time in 2018 and 2019 could cause trains to arrive at the station at different times.
If the rest of the team is ready to compete and still waiting on Kopech, it might need another starting pitcher to plug a hole. And that pitcher might need to be acquired this offseason.