Michael Kopech

3 questions the White Sox have left to answer before Opening Day

3 questions the White Sox have left to answer before Opening Day

Every team has problems that arise in spring training. For the White Sox, most of their problems seem to be good ones.

For example: How is the guy who threw his first four pitches over 100 miles per hour Tuesday going to fit into the starting rotation? Not a bad problem to have.

Opening Day is (hopefully) 15 days away, and the White Sox still have a few things to sort out. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what is still at stake (beyond the usual bullpen jostling) in the final two weeks of Cactus League play:

How (and when) will Kopech fit into the starting rotation?

Considering Kopech only threw 11 pitches Tuesday in his first start since Tommy John surgery, it’s a virtual lock that he’ll start the season in the minors, ramping up for a calculated return to Chicago. That’s OK. There’s no reason to rush Kopech back to Chicago, especially since he looked so good Tuesday. 

The 101 mph fastball was impressive. The snap on his breaking ball was straight up scary.

The White Sox clearly have a plan for Kopech, and that plan includes making sure he is available for important games in September and October.

General manager Rick Hahn did a good job of making sure the White Sox could be competitive early in the season without having to rush Kopech back. Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Gio Gonzalez, Reynaldo Lopez and Dylan Cease form a solid April rotation, even without Kopech. It certainly beats trying to go through an entire season without a fifth starter, which was essentially the case in 2019.

That said, reinforcements will be needed. Giolito and Gonzalez have already dealt with minor issues this spring, while Lopez and Cease still need to prove they are dependable.

Not many teams have a talent like Kopech slotted sixth right now. What he does in these final two weeks of spring training will give us a better idea of when he’ll be unleashed in Chicago.

Will Yermin Mercedes earn a surprise spot on the Opening Day roster?

Mercedes is talking the talk and walking the walk. You got to love the confidence the catcher shows when he tweets: “See you soon, Chicago.” Especially because he’s backing it up at the plate.

Mercedes entered Wednesday with eight hits and four home runs in 21 Cactus League at-bats, which should be putting him in the conversation for the new 26th roster spot.

Personally, I’ve always liked the idea of carrying three catchers, especially if they can all hit. It will be interesting to see if more teams carry three catchers with the 26th roster spot available. In the American League, that third catcher can be used as the designated hitter and not just as a pinch hitter. Of course, for the White Sox, there’s only so many DH at-bats to split up between Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Abreu, Yasmani Grandal, James McCann and, potentially, Mercedes. Once again, that speaks to the additional depth the White Sox have built in their roster.

And Mercedes isn’t the only catcher making a push for that last roster spot. Former first-round pick Zack Collins came into the spring hoping to be the 26th man, and he’s having a decent spring with six hits and two home runs in 18 at-bats.

But considering the White Sox are hoping to be playing in many tight, competitive games, they’ll want that 26th man to be able to provide clutch at-bats off the bench, which isn’t easy. That’s where Mercedes’ ninth-inning solo home run to tie the Reds on Monday certainly stood out. If he can do that in the regular season, he’d be a valuable piece of the puzzle.

Who will be the Opening Day second baseman?

Dreams of Nick Madrigal joining the White Sox in Chicago on March 26 are fading, not only because he only has six hits in 27 Cactus League at-bats, but also because he took a groundball to the face earlier this week. Fortunately, the ball missed his eye and he didn’t suffer a concussion.

It would be shocking if Madrigal didn’t take over the starting second base job at some point in 2020, but it seems likely that either Leury Garcia or Danny Mendick will man the position in April. The guess here is that it’s Garcia’s spot on Opening Day, both due to seniority and the fact that Rick Renteria has always liked him. Both players provide versatility and are good options off the bench once Madrigal takes over the position for good.

With promising players like Madrigal and Kopech, patience will continue to be needed. The White Sox have preached that throughout the rebuild. Just remember, availability in September and October matters more than March and April.

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White Sox Talk Podcast: Michael Kopech is BACK

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USA TODAY

White Sox Talk Podcast: Michael Kopech is BACK

After a long absence due to injury, White Sox pitcher Michael Kopech is back. Kopech pitched made his spring training debut Tuesday, throwing 11 pitches over 100 mph. Chuck Garfien recaps the outing, with sound from Kopech and gets reaction from his fellow White Sox teammates.

(1:52) - Watching Kopech pitch and throw 100 mph

(4:00) - Kopech describes what it was like to be back

(11:15) - Zack Collins on Kopech's outing

(13:51) - Aaron Bummer describes what kind of arm Kopech has

(17:10) - Chuck's wrap up on Kopech

Listen here or below.

White Sox Talk Podcast

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White Sox’ Michael Kopech is back and wants to be more than a flamethrower

White Sox’ Michael Kopech is back and wants to be more than a flamethrower

GLENDALE, Ariz--- When Michael Kopech took the mound for his first game in 18 months, the velocity of his first four pitches that flashed up on the scoreboard said it all.

100.

101.

100.

101.

“I might have been a little geeked,” Kopech said after he threw a perfect 1-2-3 inning Tuesday against the Texas Rangers, his first appearance since having Tommy John surgery in September 2018. “The first two pitches I felt a little out of control, and then by the third pitch, I took a breath and I settled back in. I still had quite a bit of adrenaline going. I felt really good. I was able to command my fastball after the first two. Aside from that, just glad to get it under my belt.”

There were two groundouts to second baseman Leury Garcia, followed by a called strike three that froze Rangers first baseman Greg Bird. The White Sox pitcher then casually strolled back to the dugout to a standing ovation from White Sox fans. 

Mission accomplished.

“The first step obviously. It feels nice to be able compete again," Kopech said. "18 months out, I felt like I haven’t really had a chance to compete the way that I liked to and the way that I can, and having that ability today, even if it was for a short stint was relieving.”

Of the 11 pitches Kopech threw, six were 100 or 101 mph. Some stadiums are known to have hot guns that inflate actual speeds. I’m told the radar gun at Camelback Ranch was on point for Kopech.

But going forward, don’t expect to see many triple digit outings like this from the White Sox flamethrower. That’s not his intent anymore.

“I don’t think I’m going to be typically throwing as hard as I did today,” Kopech said. “I don’t want to take anything away from what I did today. I’m proud of it, excited, but moving forward I’m not going to try to be a power pitcher. I’m going to try to be a pitcher.”

Even before Kopech made this abbreviated, yet successful first start, his teammates already knew what was coming. Besides his electric fastball, Kopech has been working on a back-breaking slider and curveball in practice and, if he can successfully bring into games, look out.

“What I saw from Kopech the other day in the backfields was something I haven’t seen before,” Zack Collins said, describing a batting practice session he caught for Kopech.

From anybody?

“From anybody.”

Reliever Aaron Bummer was watching as well.

“This is pure power coming at you and you know that it’s uncomfortable,” Bummer said about Kopech. “You’re standing behind the cage and you’re thinking that ball is going to get on you. That ball is coming in hot at you. It’s a lot of fun to watch.”

Against the Rangers, Kopech threw seven fastballs (the “slowest” was 98), plus his slider and curveball, which he said, “I could throw where I wanted and with conviction.” He didn’t bring out the changeup, which he hopes to introduce in his next start, likely five days from now.

This was Kopech’s first game throwing to catcher Yasmani Grandal. Although it was brief, he enjoyed throwing to the Sox new All-Star backstop.

“He gave me the reigns today and said if I wanted to shake anything or throw anything it was up to me," he said of Grandal. " Just go out there and be comfortable. I didn’t want to shake, so that’s a good sign. Aside from that, he’s like butter back there, so it’s pretty easy to throw to a guy like that.”

Kopech is on the road back to the majors.  The question remaining is when will he get there?

“(The White Sox) have a plan in mind,” Kopech said. “If I don’t fit into it right away then I hope to fit into it at some point, but right now I’m just going to do what I do and hopefully that gets me there at the right time.”

The best part of Tuesday’s game? Kopech feels right. He feels like the pitcher he used to be -- only better. And instead of watching, he was doing what was taken away from him a year and a half ago.

He was pitching.

“I feel like I’m a part of the team again, for the most part I never felt like I was not a part of it, but when you’re not competing a lot of times you feel more like a fan. Getting the high fives and the greeting at the step of the dugout when I came out of the game, it’s a good feeling.”

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