Michael Kopech

Michael Kopech injury puts unexpected item on White Sox offseason to-do list

Michael Kopech injury puts unexpected item on White Sox offseason to-do list

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.

Michael Kopech reacts to Tommy John news: 'From just about my absolute peak to the absolute rock bottom'

Michael Kopech reacts to Tommy John news: 'From just about my absolute peak to the absolute rock bottom'

Getting the call to the big leagues was about as great of news as Michael Kopech could have received.

Getting the info that he’d have to wait until 2020 to make his next major league start was at the other end of the spectrum.

Welcome to Kopech’s Friday afternoon.

“It’s been a whirlwind of emotions for me in the past couple of weeks, obviously. From just about my absolute peak to the absolute rock bottom for me,” he said. “I think to say it’s unexpected would be an understatement.”

The shocking news that Kopech, the team’s top-ranked pitching prospect and a guy many view as a future ace, will likely undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the entirety of the 2019 season hit the White Sox, their rebuilding effort and their fan base like a truck Friday.

And it hit Kopech pretty hard, too, as you might expect.

“It sucks. That’s it. It sucks.”

While negativity was an obvious reaction to have to such impactful news — combine Kopech’s injury with all the other injuries suffered by White Sox prospects this season, and it’s reasonable to wonder if the rebuild’s timeline will be affected — the silver lining, as general manager Rick Hahn put it, lies with Kopech himself.

Kopech is just 22 years old, and while he’ll lose a year of developmental time in 2019, he’s also young enough for this injury and the accompanying time off to be less detrimental than it could have been had it happened further along in his career. And the Tommy John track record is a pretty good one. There are plenty of pitchers who have had the surgery and bounced back.

Plus, Kopech isn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill pitcher. He’s a workout freak and has worked his way back from other obstacles before, as recently as the middle of this season. There might be big-picture concerns about what exactly his future and the White Sox future look like in the wake of this injury. But one thing that doesn’t seem to be in question is whether he’ll be able to work his way back.

“As you all know from getting to know Michael from the time he’s been with the organization or from seeing some of his videos on Instagram and Twitter and understanding what makes part of this kid great is his work ethic, and if there’s one person you need not have any concerns about in his diligence in a rehabilitation program, it’s Michael Kopech,” Hahn said to reporters Friday.

“This is obviously a blow and something that we are still digesting, we only received this news within the last two hours or so. But we do know that at this point that we believe Michael will be fully without restriction at the start of the 2020 season and in a position to build off what we feel is a very bright future for a long time in a White Sox uniform.”

It was already what was coming out of Kopech’s mouth not long after getting the news. And after seeing how he turned around a walk-heavy season and a high ERA with some elite performances before getting called up to the majors, it’s not hard to believe he’ll come back from this, too.

Still, though, it’s really tough news.

“After a rough beginning to the season for me, turning it around was really big. It was exciting for me. I accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish. I cut down my walks. I went deeper in games. I pitched more efficiently. I got myself to the big leagues. And then this,” Kopech said. “It’s unfortunate. It sucks.

“I don’t think my work ethic has ever been in question. If it has, then I’m here to prove that it shouldn’t be and I’ll come back stronger than before.”

Does the Michael Kopech injury dramatically alter the timeline of the White Sox rebuild?

Does the Michael Kopech injury dramatically alter the timeline of the White Sox rebuild?

The White Sox just lost their top-ranked pitching prospect.

They’ll get him back, but likely not until the 2020 season, that news dropping Friday afternoon like a bomb on the team’s high-profile rebuilding effort. Kopech will likely undergo Tommy John surgery and miss not just the last few weeks of this season but the entirety of the 2019 season, as well.

The immediate question is, obviously, what it means for Kopech, who stands out in the organization’s wealth of talented prospects as a future star, someone who has talked about himself becoming a Cy Young winner — and has received that same projection from those around the game. His recent promotion energized not just those in the stands at Guaranteed Rate Field but those in the home clubhouse, too. He’s a flamethrower who struck out a combined 327 batters in two seasons as a White Sox minor leaguer.

Though the White Sox rotation of the future figures to be a crowded one, many fans and observers pegged Kopech as the potential ace of that staff. Where those projections stand after Friday’s news, however, is a complete mystery.

These days, Tommy John surgery hardly prevents pitchers from returning to dominance. In announcing the news, general manager Rick Hahn spoke multiple times about his belief that Kopech will still be a big-time big league starting pitcher.

“This is by no means the last we’ve seen of Michael Kopech,” Hahn said. “This is the last we’ve seen of him for ’18 and very likely for ’19, but he’s still going to play a significant role on what we project to be some very, very good White Sox teams in the future.

“We’ve been through these before. Lucas Giolito is … one who has been through it before. Dylan Cease was just named minor league pitcher of the year by MLB.com, he has been through it before. These guys get back to the level that they’re capable of pitching at.

“We saw, prior to this, it was a wonderful year for Michael. He showed you what he’s capable of doing at the big league level. He’s capable of dominating at this level. He’s an extremely diligent worker who’s going to have some tough work ahead of him in the near future, but again, by 2020 he’s going to be back and building off of what he’s accomplished this season.”

But the missed season is no small thing.

Kopech was just four starts into his big league career, and we’ve seen this season how the first full go-round at the major league level can be full of challenges. Look at the up-and-down campaigns from Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez. If 2020 arrives and the White Sox rebuild has advanced to the point where they’re ready to start competing and contending, will Kopech be ready to compete at the level the team will need him to when he’s still getting his first tastes of the big leagues?

Kopech’s injury is a big deal, but it’s far from the only affliction to befall one of the White Sox highly touted prospects. Luis Robert, Dane Dunning, Alec Hansen, Jake Burger, Micker Adolfo and Zack Burdi all missed significant time this season or have yet to return from their respective injuries, stealing development time away from them, as well. Throw Kopech into the mix, and the entire timeline of the rebuilding effort could be altered from where it was at the beginning of the calendar year.

Hahn is, and justifiably so, confident that his front office has imported enough talent into the organization that it can weather even this long list of significant injuries. But he also brought up the idea of needing to bring in more help this offseason to make up for some of the bad luck.

“I don’t want to make any bold proclamations one way or the other right now. We’re still digesting all of this,” Hahn said when asked about how Kopech’s injury could affect the long-term picture. “I do know that 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.

“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.”

So that 2020 date that so many fans and observers had circled as the point when this thing was going to move from rebuilding to contending. It, to borrow a phrase of Hahn’s, by no means is out of the question at this point. But does it come into question? With Kopech a year behind and coming off a long layoff, with all of those other guys further behind schedule than they would have been without the injury-induced absences, does the timeline shift?

We won’t know until that date roll around. But it seems a perfectly reasonable question to ask in the wake of the biggest news of the White Sox season.

Here’s what we know: When Kopech makes his first start of the 2020 season, it will be just the fifth of his major league career, or about 20-something fewer than it was supposed to be. That seems pretty impactful.

“This obviously hurts. It’s obviously a disappointment,” Hahn said. “But it’s one that we tried to prepare ourselves for along the way. You’ve heard us speak repeatedly throughout this process about the importance of depth, the importance of quality options and the importance of us never feeling like we had enough. We do have other quality arms coming up through the system behind Michael that will contribute in the coming years, and we also feel that Michael has a bright future in a White Sox uniform for a very long time.

“Unfortunately for all of us, we’re going to have to wait a little bit longer before we start seeing him on a regular basis on that mound.”