Michael Kopech

Michael Kopech dodges line drive to the face at White Sox spring training

Michael Kopech dodges line drive to the face at White Sox spring training

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Everything is going according to plan for Michael Kopech.

Except for the part where he almost got drilled in the face with a line drive.

Kopech faced a scary comebacker off the bat of Matt Skole during live batting practice on Friday at Camelback Ranch. One that forced him to get out of the way and one that, according to Kopech, might have even grazed his ear.

It's not the sight anyone wants to see for a pitcher who is just now returning from a lengthy recovery after Tommy John surgery and hasn't thrown in a game above instructional league since September 2018.

But, hey, you want to get back in the swing of things? This is what you get.

"I haven’t seen that kind of real-time feedback in a long time and that’s about as real-time as it gets," Kopech said with a chuckle after practice. "That’s what you want to experience, to see if you can get somebody or if he can get you. And he got me."

Fortunately for the White Sox, Skole didn't "get" Kopech any worse.

Kopech is an important part of the team's long-term plans and while the exact specifics of the plan for Kopech this season haven't been formally announced, it sounds like there's a good grasp on them, per manager Rick Renteria, though the skipper wouldn't reveal exactly where Kopech will begin the 2020 regular season.

"I think that we are very optimistic about where he’s at," Renteria said. "I think that the plan that the organization has in terms of how we want to start him off is probably pretty consistent in terms of where he’ll be. And then we will allow him to continue to pitch and get some innings under his belt. And I’m sure, first year after coming from the surgery, that there are parameters I’m sure we want to stay within.

"It will be still a very optimistically guarded approach to where he’s at."

So, no, we still don't know whether Kopech will begin the campaign pitching in the big leagues or at Triple-A Charlotte in an effort to manage his workload in his first year back on the mound.

Though the competitor in him probably wants to be on that 26-man roster for the March 26 opener at Guaranteed Rate Field, Kopech is willing to do whatever is necessary for him to be a part of a playoff push, pitching in meaningful games down the stretch.

RELATED: Michael Kopech is back to work at White Sox training camp but his 2020 starting point is unknown

"At the end of the day, it’s me trying to fit into a plan to make the team better collectively. And if that’s not starting with the team right away, then I’m OK with that, too," Kopech said. "I just need to do what’s the best interest of me and the team.

"Ultimately, my goal is to be able to go deep into games for 30 starts a season. Now obviously, I haven’t had the experience of doing that to the extent that I want to, especially at the big league level. But I think that’s the point of what my entire rehab process was. To build me up to where I’m going to be able to take that kind of workload."

The White Sox have been adamant about their vision that Kopech will soon be an integral part of their rotation. For those wondering if this slow-play has anything to do with health concerns from his surgery, it doesn't. He's healthy and pitching without restriction. But even before the procedure, the most innings he had thrown in a season were the 134.1 he logged in 2017, so it's understandable that the White Sox wouldn't want to overtax his arm.

The plan for spring training is also slow-moving, with Kopech still unsure when he's going to get into Cactus League action, which begins on Saturday.

"Right now, we have a plan of when I’m going to throw live BPs and when I’m going to throw bullpens. The question mark is still about when I’m getting into a game. But I think I have a plan to go at the beginning of March, around there anyway. I’m just trying to work my way up to that.

"It’s been pretty much day to day. We’re trying to really focus on spring right now and make sure my workload gets managed properly. And then by the time we get to the season, hopefully I’m ready to break with a team, whether it’s Charlotte or Chicago."

Every detail of the plan might not be public knowledge. But the plan is in place and seems to be running smoothly.

Though it probably wouldn't hurt to cut down on the number of liners aimed at Kopech's face...

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the White Sox easily on your device.

Michael Kopech is back to work at White Sox training camp but his 2020 starting point is unknown

Michael Kopech is back to work at White Sox training camp but his 2020 starting point is unknown

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Before you ask: no, we don’t know where Michael Kopech will start the 2020 season.

Logical guesses assume the answer is Triple-A Charlotte, with the White Sox starting five seemingly locked in at Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Reynaldo Lopez, Dylan Cease and Gio Gonzalez.

But ask Rick Hahn if Kopech is going to start the season in the minor leagues and you will not get a straight response.

“It's Day 1,” Hahn said on Wednesday. “Let's hold off on cutting guys just yet.”

Okay. So, we’ll have to wait before we get a definitive plan for Kopech, who will make his much anticipated return from Tommy John surgery and is still considered one of the best prospects in baseball. But there is a plan. Or at least the makings of one.

It seems like the White Sox will slow-play Kopech’s return, but not because he isn’t needed at the major league level. It’s not due to health concerns either, with everyone in Glendale describing the young fireballer as 100 percent and without restriction.

Instead, it’s about workload. Kopech has made four MLB appearances, totaling just 14.1 innings. He’s never thrown more than 134.1 innings as a pro (he logged that high-water mark in the minors in 2017, mostly at Double-A Birmingham).

Considering he hasn’t pitched in anything more than instructional league since September 2018, easing Kopech back into the lineup makes a lot more sense than letting him loose in late March. Chicago doesn’t want him running out of gas late in the season when they hope to be competing for a playoff spot.

Related: Sox thinking big: 'It's win a World Series'

“Over the course of this year, we're really going to spend most of the time responding to how he looks, how he feels, how he reports, in terms of setting what's next for him,” Hahn said. “Part of it will be because of the absence of facing hitters last year. It will be a little bit slower of a climb for him than it would be with any other pitcher coming off a full season.”

Kopech had nothing to report to the media on Wednesday, either. But expect him to be limited in some fashion, which could mean a season-starting stint in the minors.

What everyone seems to be on the same page about is the impact he’ll have once he does return to the South Side. It’s been over a year since Kopech pitched in a competitive game and he’s still ranked as a top 20 prospect in baseball.

Kopech still sounds capable of cranking things up to triple digits. Among the differences, you’ll notice that he’s refined his approach to throwing the ball.

“I'm expecting to be a lot more patient with myself,” he said on Wednesday. “I'm not going to go out there in the first inning and try to blow fastballs by people. I'm going to locate the ball, I'm going to pitch. I'm going to do what I've worked all this time to do well.

“I think velocity will be there when it needs to be there, but it's not going to be my main focus in my pitching. That being said, if it is there when I'm not wanting it to be there, then that's a plus too.

“I think (the extended recovery process has) made me more patient overall. It's made me really focus on the things that I didn't focus on before, so it's kind of filled those holes in my pitching repertoire or whatever you want to call it. I've really just focused on defining the things that I really didn't focus on before. I've fine-tuned all the little things.

“There's quite a bit that goes into the game of baseball, as I'm sure you can imagine. It's more than just pitches. And when it comes to how I carried myself on the mound, I probably wore my emotions on my sleeve a little bit too much. Now I'm trying to stay a little bit more even keeled.”

All of that will be important to follow over the course of the 2020 season and throughout Kopech’s career. But on Wednesday, his mere presence in a spring training bullpen, preparing for a season he’ll actually get to pitch in, demanded the most attention.

“I think it's been a long time coming for me,” he said. “I spent the entire year last year down here on my lonesome trying to get ready. To be able to get back and actually feel like I'm part of a team, that's big for me.

“I feel great. It's kind of a work in progress to get comfortable again. I haven't been with the team in a while, so it's just that comfortability. But as far as throwing on the mound, I feel as good as I ever have.”

Hopefully, that good feeling carries into September… and then into October.

He might not be on the Opening Day roster, but he is expected to make an impact in 2020. When that starts, we don’t know.

“Michael’s plan is Michael’s plan,” Hahn said. “We are not going to jeopardize or take chances with any young guy, especially a young guy coming off of an injury, based on somebody else’s performance or health. Michael will show all of us where he’s at and when he’s ready.”

And now we play the waiting game.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the White Sox easily on your device.

White Sox spring training roster breakdown: Who's making the team?

White Sox spring training roster breakdown: Who's making the team?

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Welcome to spring!

Well, even if the Chicago winter isn’t going anywhere any time soon, spring officially starts when baseball does, and that’s exactly what’s happening this week out here in the desert.

After a busy and transformational offseason for the White Sox, realistic playoff expectations have come to the South Side, and with them a heightened focus on what the roster will look like not just for Opening Day but on a daily basis during the upcoming 2020 campaign.

Pitchers and catchers report Wednesday, though plenty of pitchers, catchers and position players have already arrived at Camelback Ranch. While the breakout seasons for so many youngsters in 2019 and the influx of so much veteran talent this winter have made the roster pretty easy to project, there are always some unknowns.

With that in mind, here’s a look at the vast majority of players who will be here in White Sox camp and what they’ll all be doing this spring. Are they locks to make the roster? Are they probably going to make the team? Or are they fighting for a spot?

Locks

There are a lot of them.

One of the benefits of making the jump from rebuilding mode to contending mode is that there’s a lot less uncertainty when it comes to the Opening Day roster. The breakout youngsters and the veteran newcomers are obviously not going anywhere. There are fewer “why don’t we give this guy a shot?” guys because, well, giving guys shots is the kind of thing you do when development ranks above winning as the primary objective.

Winning is the primary objective on the South Side now, and so the roster isn’t difficult to project. The locks, without further ado.

Jose Abreu. The face of the franchise isn’t going anywhere for at least the next three seasons thanks to the new contract he received this winter. He’s expected to man first base and the middle of the order, where he’ll have more protection than he’s ever dreamed of during his six sub-.500 years on the South Side.

Tim Anderson. The reigning big league batting champ enters spring 2020 amid questions of: “Yeah, but can he do it again?” and “But can he get the errors down?” Meanwhile, he’s talking about playing at an MVP-caliber level. Until he shows he doesn’t belong at the top of the White Sox order, that’s where you can expect him to stay, with Rick Renteria even hinting that Anderson could be the team’s leadoff hitter on Opening Day.

Aaron Bummer. He was sensational as the team’s primary setup man last season, and that’ll be his role to lose this year, too. Bummer will be just one of a multi-member corps at the back end of the White Sox bullpen now that Steve Cishek is in town.

Dylan Cease. Everyone still raves about Cease’s stuff, and now it’s on him to show the growing pains of his rookie season are behind him. The results weren’t pretty in 2019, but there’s a case to be made that he was faring better than Lucas Giolito did in his first full season in the majors a year earlier. Certainly Giolito thinks so. Now it’s on Cease to make a Giolito-esque leap in Year 2.

Steve Cishek. He was extremely effective in two seasons on the North Side, even as Joe Maddon called on him a ton. Cishek now arrives to bolster the back end of the South Side ‘pen, and his veteran presence should be valuable down there.

Alex Colome. His first- and second-half splits were not great last season: a 2.02 ERA before the All-Star break and a 3.91 ERA after it. That and a dip in his strikeout numbers (an 8.1 K/9 plummeted from the 9.5 K/9 he put up in 2018) had some folks wondering whether he was worth keeping around. But the White Sox will gladly take the guy who saved 30 games last season and has 126 of them over the last four years.

Edwin Encarnacion. The primary source of the White Sox imported thump this winter, Encarnacion has been a consistent power hitter for a decade, with at least 32 homers in each of the last eight seasons. He’ll slot nicely into the middle of the White Sox lineup and help boost a team that was one of just six to hit fewer than 200 homers in 2019 (for comparison’s sake, the Minnesota Twins hit 307).

Leury Garcia. Plenty grew weary of Garcia’s frequent appearances at the top of the lineup last season, and even Renteria acknowledged last month that Garcia is “not an on-base guy, not a high average guy.” But don’t get the skipper wrong, he loves all the different things Garcia brings to the table and all the different positions Garcia can play. That versatility will come in handy as the White Sox chief reserve off the bench, that is once Nick Madrigal arrives from the minors. Until then, expect to see a lot of Garcia at second base.

Lucas Giolito. The guy who transformed into the ace of the starting staff in 2019 is expected to do that again in 2020. Even though the acquisition of Dallas Keuchel added some much needed heft to the top of the rotation, he’s not the Cy Young winner he once was. So it’s Giolito’s job to be that All-Star caliber pitcher at the top. He was last year. Just ask the Twins and the Houston Astros.

Gio Gonzalez. Even though Michael Kopech is healthy, don’t expect him to dramatically alter the Opening Day rotation, which is seemingly locked in, with Gonzalez as the No. 5. Brought in to provide some veteran stability in a spot that featured a parade of ineffective options a year ago, this is not Gonzalez’s first go-round with the White Sox: They drafted him in 2004, traded him in 2005, re-acquired him in 2006 and traded him again in 2008. This time, he’ll finally get to pitch for the big league team.

Yasmani Grandal. Probably the most impactful acquisition of Rick Hahn’s busy offseason, Grandal brings a successful track record both at the plate and behind it. He’s already immersed himself in the White Sox pitching staff, and that work ethic — much like James McCann’s in 2019 — should have a tremendous effect on the team’s arms, both young and old. He also walks a lot, something the White Sox did not do much of before his arrival, and maybe he can get that kind of thing to catch on.

Kelvin Herrera. His first season in a White Sox uniform did not go well. But the hope is that he’s now fully over the foot injury he suffered in 2018, the effects of which, from a timing standpoint, lingered throughout 2019, and that his second year on the South Side goes much more like his time in Kansas City.

Eloy Jimenez. White Sox brass says Jimenez just scratched the surface of what he can do during his rookie season. He hit 31 homers. While there was plenty of reason for excitement, the expectation is that he’ll put the growing pains behind him and bust out in an even louder fashion in 2020. As for the defense in left field that led to a couple trips to the injured list and a series of misadventures? He’s planning on fixing that, too. Dream big, folks. Certainly Jimenez is. Just don’t ask him to DH.

Dallas Keuchel. Dependability. That’s what the White Sox are hoping to get from Keuchel, their biggest pitching acquisition of the winter. They should get that, be it with solid performances on the mound, Gold Glove caliber defense or influence in the clubhouse.

Reynaldo Lopez. Consistency has been the buzzword for Lopez over the last two seasons, particularly in 2019, when he was not at all consistent, posting some of the worst statistics of any pitcher in baseball. That sets up an all-important 2020, and with Kopech waiting in the wings — and other Tommy John recoverers behind him — Lopez could be fighting for his rotation spot. The White Sox still believe he has top-of-the-rotation potential, but he’ll have to figure out whatever focus issues caused Renteria to march out to the mound in Detroit to “make sure he was aware that he was actually pitching today.”

Evan Marshall. While Marshall and Jimmy Cordero seem to be much in the same boat — small acquisitions who proved to be diamonds in the rough last season — I’ll give Marshall “lock” status because he excelled for a longer period of time last season, showing he could be counted on in high-leverage situations. He’ll be part of that group to start the 2020 campaign, too, but Hahn will be the first to remind everyone of the volatility of relief pitching.

Nomar Mazara. The White Sox think they can bring out the “untapped potential” in the 24-year-old outfielder who was once a much raved about prospect. Considering the talent around him, he might be fine continuing the 20-homer, 79-RBI pace he established in his first four big league seasons. The potential platoon for Mazara, who’s struggled against lefties in his career, has become less of a talking point as time has gone on, perhaps indicating the White Sox will at least initially give him a crack at everyday at-bats.

James McCann. The 2019 All-Star was bumped down the depth chart when the White Sox signed Grandal to a team-record deal. For the team, it’s a resounding positive to have not one but two All-Star catchers, and McCann would seem an ideal No. 2 on a winning team. Who knows if he can keep hitting like he did in 2019 — his numbers after the All-Star break were not good — but he can continue to be an extremely hard worker who prepares his pitchers, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Yoan Moncada. From 217 strikeouts in 2018 to the status of the team’s best all-around hitter in 2019, Moncada was one of several important transformations that set the stage for the offseason to follow. In 2020, the still-developing youngster will be expected to go even further and show he’s the guy this lineup can revolve around for the foreseeable future.

Luis Robert. His ascension to the major leagues is enough to celebrate. But what can we expect? Considering the unknown, even after he tore up the minors last season, nothing would be terribly surprising. We saw varying degrees of growing pains from the top prospects who arrived before him: Jimenez, Moncada, Giolito, Cease. But perhaps none boasted the sheer talent and five-tool impact of Robert, who plenty peg as the best of the bunch. Heck, Jimenez has already billed Robert as "the next Mike Trout." The show starts March 26.

Probably making the team

Whew. That was a lot of locks. Twenty of them, if you’re keeping score at home. Let’s move onto the kind of locks, the guys who logic tells us will probably be part of the Opening Day roster — but guys who could still use a good spring to cement that status.

This is winning time, remember, and the White Sox aren’t going to just hand out roster spots to these guys if there are better alternatives. So while they make the most sense, they still have to prove there are no better alternatives.

Jimmy Cordero. A midseason waiver claim, Cordero proved himself one of the more effective members of the White Sox bullpen by season’s end. Cishek’s arrival, joining with Bummer and Colome at the back end, probably makes for some lower-leverage situations for Cordero, but it’s on him to prove Renteria can keep going to the rolled-up-sleeve well.

Adam Engel. Garcia will probably be the team’s fourth outfielder for the majority of the season. But Engel has value as a defensive replacement, particularly in an outfield featuring the still-figuring-it-out glove of Jimenez. The question becomes where he would slot in late in games, as Robert is billed as a pretty stellar defender himself in center field.

Jace Fry. The White Sox still like Fry’s potential, but he’s going to have to cut down on the walks. He issued a whopping 43 of them in 55 innings last season. He’ll likely get a shot out of the gate, but he might be one of the first arms jettisoned from the ‘pen if he can’t find the zone.

Danny Mendick. Like Nicky Delmonico and Daniel Palka before him, Mendick made the most of his opportunity in 2019, coming up in September and producing well in a small amount of at-bats. With Garcia likely bouncing around all over the field, it’s hard to say he’ll be the everyday second baseman until Madrigal arrives. So Mendick will probably get some starts there, too, while also backing up elsewhere on the infield.

Fighting for a spot

So, if you’ve been counting along, that means there are two roster spots left on the newly expanded 26-man roster.

It makes sense that those two spots would go to a bullpen arm and a position player, either another reserve infielder or a third catcher. The White Sox have all spring to figure that out. But there’s a long list of guys who could fill those roles. Let’s run through them.

Zack Collins. It’s up to Collins to prove the White Sox should spend that 26th spot on a third catcher. With a pair of All-Stars in front of him on the depth chart, it’s going to be tough for Collins to get starts behind the plate. But the team has long loved his bat, and he could get at-bats much easier than he could get starts in the field. There are much worse things to dedicate a roster spot to than a left-handed power bat off the bench.

Cheslor Cuthbert. A veteran of the AL Central, Cuthbert spent parts of the last five seasons with the Kansas City Royals, to limited offensive effect. His best-case scenario? He rips the cover off the ball in spring and Mendick stumbles, making the White Sox think about that infield job. Most likely? He provides some Ryan Goins-esque infield depth at Charlotte.

Nicky Delmonico. Delmonico’s White Sox tenure seemed to end due to injury last season, but he’s back as a non-roster invitee. A career .200 batting average against lefties isn’t likely to force a platoon in right with Mazara, but that’s the job Delmonico would be pushing for, if not out of the gate, then later in the season, if necessary.

Ross Detwiler. He was part of that parade of ineffective fifth starters in 2019, but he’s got plenty of value coming into 2020, if only because the White Sox starting-pitching depth is still an issue until Carlos Rodon, Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert return from their Tommy John surgeries. There’s no one to fill the job of long man in the ‘pen, though because of those depth issues, perhaps Detwiler’s better served continuing to start at Charlotte and come up in case of an injury in the rotation.

Caleb Frare. He made the Opening Day bullpen a season ago, to unpleasant results. The numbers weren’t much better at Charlotte, either. But Frare continues to be a part of that group of young relievers who hope to play some sort of long-term role in the White Sox ‘pen.

Carson Fulmer. It’s now or never for the 2015 first-round pick. His starting days seem squarely behind him, though he’s the kind of guy who could fill that long-man role — if he can start getting guys out. His 2019 performance (a 6.26 ERA with 20 walks in 27.1 innings) didn’t inspire much more confidence than his 2018 performance (an 8.07 ERA with 24 walks in 32.1 innings). But he’s out of options, and that could be enough to fill out the ‘pen and give Fulmer one last shot.

Tayron Guerrero. The White Sox claimed him off waivers, then DFA’d him this winter, but he made it through waivers and got a non-roster invite to camp. He can chuck, a flamethrower who threw the second most 100-mph pitches of any pitcher in baseball in 2019. That hasn’t translated to many outs, however, as he had a bonkers 7.0 BB/9.

Ian Hamilton. Hamilton was briefly the most promising of the White Sox young relievers, but an unfortunate stretch of bad luck limited him in 2019. He got in a car accident in spring training last year and then took a line drive to the face while he was sitting in the dugout in Charlotte, necessitating multiple surgeries. If he can get back to where he was before all that, he’ll have a shot at the big league ‘pen.

Tyler Johnson. He’s had two very nice seasons in the minor leagues, with a 1.40 ERA in 2018 and a 2.59 ERA last year. But he’s still yet to pitch above Double-A, which might make him a longshot to make the Opening Day roster. A name to remember for later in the season, however.

Michael Kopech. The White Sox still haven’t finalized their plans for Kopech in 2020 after he missed the entirety of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery. It’s not because he isn’t healthy. He is healthy. But the team wants to make sure they don’t overwork a guy who all this time has remained one of the highest rated pitching prospects in the game. It seems unlikely he’d be a part of a six-man rotation to open the season. But he’ll find his way into the starting staff eventually. Whether he makes the big league team at all out of camp is the big question now.

Nick Madrigal. He believes he’s ready for the major leagues. The White Sox sound less convinced, with Hahn saying last month that Madrigal “hasn't necessarily answered all the questions we have for him in the minor leagues.” The general manager added, though, that Madrigal could change their minds, so it’s on the 2018 first-round pick to do just that with a white-hot spring. He’s not going to strike out, and he’s going to play great defense. The rest is on Madrigal to show he can do at the big league level starting right away.

Adalberto Mejia. The best thing going for Mejia when it comes to making the White Sox roster out of camp is that he has experience starting and relieving and could fill that long-man role in the bullpen. What is working against him is his recent production: a 6.61 ERA pitching for four teams in 2019 (including the Los Angeles Angels twice).

Daniel Palka. He’s probably still got the pop. But after last year’s ridiculously long drought that kept him away from the majors for most of the campaign, well, it’s hard to say exactly what to expect from Palka this spring. Still a man without a position, his best bet for a roster spot would be bringing what Collins brings: a left-handed power bat off the bench.

Andrew Romine. He’s 34 years old with nine years’ worth of big league experience and an exhaustive list of positions he can play. Offensively, he’s got a career .291 on-base percentage and a career .301 slugging percentage.

Jose Ruiz. Ruiz has had his shots to stick in the White Sox ‘pen before. With one spot up for grabs this spring, maybe he can deliver on the hard-throwing potential.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the White Sox easily on your device.