Michael Kopech

Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease both rank in top five of MLB Pipeline's list of top right-handed pitching prospects

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USA TODAY

Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease both rank in top five of MLB Pipeline's list of top right-handed pitching prospects

It's that time of year again, when MLB Pipeline goes position-by-position leading up to the unveiling of their preseason top-100 prospects list at the end of the month.

Well, once again the White Sox are going to be well represented on the list, landing two guys in the top five of the first position: right-handed pitchers. Michael Kopech is the game's No. 3 right-handed pitching prospect and Dylan Cease is No. 5, according to the rankers at MLB Pipeline.

There's little surprise there, with Kopech dominating in the final weeks of his minor league career before his first taste of big league action ended four starts in because of the need for Tommy John surgery. Cease's inclusion at No. 5 is even less surprising after his remarkable 2018 campaign that earned him MLB Pipeline's minor league pitcher of the year honors.

The rankers added some details, too, saying no right-handed pitching prospect has a better fastball or slider than Kopech's and that Cease's curveball is the best among the right-handers.

Kopech rode a roller coaster of emotions last year, starting in dominating fashion at Triple-A Charlotte. But a rocky stretch in the middle of the season saw him post a 5.69 ERA with 47 walks over a 12-start span. From there on, though, it was another round of domination, with a 1.84 ERA and a ridiculous 59-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his final seven outings before getting that promotion to the big leagues. Kopech flashed some of that electric stuff in his first few major league outings, but shockingly three of those four starts were impacted by rain. He logged just 14.1 innings in four starts and was knocked around in his final one, giving up seven runs on nine hits including four homers. Then came the news he needed Tommy John surgery.

Cease's 2018 went far smoother. He posted a 2.89 ERA with 82 strikeouts in 13 starts at Class A Winston-Salem before earning a promotion to Double-A Birmingham, where he fared even better, to the tune of a 1.72 ERA and 78 strikeouts in 10 starts there. He also made a trip to the Futures Game during All-Star week in Washington, where he pitched in the ninth inning.

Kopech, of course, will spend the entirety of the 2019 season recovering from the surgery and is slated to make his next start in 2020. Cease could potentially follow a similar track to the one Kopech was on last year and make his first major league appearance before the 2019 season is over.

The site will unveil more positional rankings as time goes on. Look for more White Sox — Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, Nick Madrigal and Zack Collins are good bets — to be included on those.

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Top White Sox stories of 2018: Michael Kopech reaches the South Side

Top White Sox stories of 2018: Michael Kopech reaches the South Side

As the new year approaches, we're counting down the top White Sox stories from 2018.

In a season that was always going to be about waiting, getting some payoff, some tangible proof of progress was huge.

Michael Kopech had been one of the biggest names of the White Sox rebuild since the second it started, one of the two big pieces to come back to the South Side in the trade that sent Chris Sale to Boston and kickstarted this whole thing. After he dominated at the Double-A level in 2017 and earned a late-season promotion to Triple-A Charlotte, many fans figured it wouldn't be long until they were watching him star in the majors.

That didn't turn out to be the case, with Kopech going through some notable struggles after a strong start to the 2018 campaign. For a while there, Kopech was dealing with what he later admitted was a case of the yips, and it showed in his numbers: He had a 5.69 ERA and a 76:47 strikeout-to-walk ratio over a 12-start span from May 6 to July 5.

But once Kopech figured things out, he figure them out in a big way, following up that aforementioned stretch with these numbers: a 1.84 ERA and a jaw-dropping 59:4 strikeout-to-walk ratio over seven starts, leading to a promotion to the major leagues.

And the fans were pumped when #KopechDay finally came, giving Kopech a standing ovation every time he got a batter into a two-strike count.

“That was pretty exciting stuff,” Kopech said after his debut. “I didn’t really know how many people were going to be here tonight in general. I knew that maybe half the crowd was going to be my family. It was exciting to see how invested the fans were tonight. A standing ovation every time I had two strikes, I didn’t expect that, but that was, it made me feel like I was in a big-time game, and I guess it was a big-time game for me. It was awesome.”

Kopech's arrival at the big league level symbolized more than it ended up producing in the immediate aftermath, though, as once he got to the majors, it was one frustration after another for the top-rated pitching prospect in the White Sox organization. Though three of his four starts came in front of the home fans, all three were short, with rain impacting all of them and none lasting more than 3.1 innings. Then came the bad news that Kopech would need Tommy John surgery after just four major league outings. He's likely to miss the entirety of the 2019 season.

“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,” Kopech said the day his surgery was announced. “I think to say it’s unexpected would be an understatement.

“It sucks. That’s it. It sucks.”

That came like a gut punch to the fan base, too, but it's important to remember what his initial arrival showed: that the rebuilding effort is moving along in a positive manner.

If 2018 was all about the waiting game, one of the biggest waits came to an end in late August with Kopech reaching the majors. The light at the end of the rebuilding tunnel that Rick Hahn has talked about in recent weeks, part of that is thanks to Kopech, who reached all the developmental milestones the White Sox were hoping he would reach in the minor leagues.

And while another waiting game is underway as he recovers from the surgery, the most electric moment on the South Side in 2018 was the end of the wait for Kopech's major league debut.

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What Monday's pitching decisions mean for the White Sox in 2019

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USA TODAY

What Monday's pitching decisions mean for the White Sox in 2019

The World Series ended. The offseason began. And the White Sox started their winter work.

The team announced three pitching moves Monday, none of them terribly dramatic or unexpected: They declined a $16 million option on starting pitcher James Shields, picked up a $4.65 million option on reliever Nate Jones and moved top-ranked pitching prospect Michael Kopech off the 60-day disabled list.

Now, let's get that last one out of the way first: Kopech was moved off the 60-day DL to make sure he's on the 40-man roster. It's a formality, and no, he's not miraculously recovered from his Tommy John surgery. He's still expected to miss the entirety of the 2019 campaign while recovering.

As for Shields, the White Sox were never expected to fork over $16 million to keep a pitcher who in three seasons on the South Side posted a 5.31 ERA. That being said, that decision makes Shields a free agent, and it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility that the White Sox would want him back for their 2019 rotation. They have a few different routes they could go to fill what is now a pair of openings on that starting staff, one caused by Kopech's injury and the other by Shields' departure. They could try to land a decently sized free-agent fish to not only better a rotation that led baseball in walks in 2018 but also to serve as a safety net should Kopech and Dylan Cease experience the to-be-expected growing pains of young pitchers. Or they could simply bridge the gap between now and 2020, the likely season of Kopech's return and Cease's readiness, with a couple one-year fill-ins.

Shields would fit that second role, and he's coming off an impressive 2018 that saw him finish as one of 13 big leaguers to log 200 innings. His reliability and status as a mentor to young pitchers like Lucas Giolito make his return sound awful sensible, though who knows how realistic it is.

Meanwhile, at least one spot is filled in the 2019 bullpen with the return of Jones. The injury-plagued lefty will be 33 on Opening Day and has thrown just 41.2 innings in the past two seasons, but his salary is a low one for a team with so few big financial commitments. And the White Sox still use him as one of their better relief arms when he's healthy, with Rick Renteria often deploying him in hold and save situations last season. Jones only saved five games, but it likely would have been a much bigger number had he not been on the shelf most of the time following the team's trade of Joakim Soria. And the numbers, too, show that Jones is an effective reliever when healthy. He's got a 3.11 career ERA, including a 2.60 ERA and a 10.6 K/9 over the past four seasons. The problem? "When healthy" has described a small amount of time, as Jones has thrown an average of just 33 innings those last four years.

But with the majority of the White Sox bullpen young and unproven, having a veteran like Jones down there will be a valuable thing, especially if there are no further veteran additions of note to the relief corps this winter. Jones might not have seen as much game action as he and the White Sox would've liked in recent seasons, but he's got way more experience the young relief corps of Aaron Bummer, Ryan Burr, Caleb Frare, Jace Fry, Ian Hamilton, Juan Minaya, Jose Ruiz and Thyago Vieira. As the roster stands right now, it wouldn't be at all surprising if Jones was the White Sox closer.

Rick Hahn has already said the White Sox will be making some additions to the pitching staff this winter, so these are hardly the only decisions to be made. They're simply the first.