Michael Kopech

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

1030_nate_jones.jpg
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.

Top White Sox MiLB moments of 2018: Michael Kopech's last minor league start

Top White Sox MiLB moments of 2018: Michael Kopech's last minor league start

With the White Sox season over, we're looking back on the top 10 moments of the club's minor league season. We'll unveil one per day for 10 days, showcasing each moment in chronological order.

The moment: Michael Kopech strikes out nine and doesn't walk any batters in six innings of one-run ball, Aug. 16.

Michael Kopech had an up-and-down season in Triple-A, but he sure ended on a high note to earn his call-up. His final seven starts for the Charlotte Knights were absolutely dominant and the last start in this stretch was no exception.

Kopech struck out nine in six innings against Louisville. He had no walks and only gave up one run. Kopech's last three starts for the Knights all featured nine strikeouts and no walks.

When Kopech got called up, multiple members of the White Sox front office referenced his string of seven starts as a big reason why they called him up and thought he was ready. In that stretch Kopech had a 1.84 ERA with 59 strikeouts and four walks over 44 innings.

The consistency was there, too. Kopech didn't allow more than two runs in any outing.

Kopech's season: Excitement about Kopech reached its zenith during this stretch and then when he got called up, but it wasn't always smooth sailing in 2018.

He began the season well enough, with a 2.67 ERA through five starts. However, control issues remained and eventually led to his ERA ballooning to 5.20 after a June 14 start in which he walked eight batters in three-plus innings.

Once Kopech found his groove, he looked like one of the premier pitching prospects in all of baseball.

In the majors, Kopech created a buzz around the White Sox that hadn't been seen in some time. However, three of his four starts with the White Sox featured rain delays (all at home) and he got rocked in his last outing against Detroit.

In his final outing of 2018, Kopech's fastball velocity was down and he gave up four home runs. It turned out Kopech suffered a torn UCL and required Tommy John surgery.

One of the key pieces of the White Sox rebuild flashed his potential to fans briefly. Now, he won't return until 2020.

Good news and not-as-good news for White Sox minor leaguers as MLB Pipeline unveils year-end prospect rankings

0714-dylan-cease.jpg
USA TODAY

Good news and not-as-good news for White Sox minor leaguers as MLB Pipeline unveils year-end prospect rankings

With the end of the major league season, MLB Pipeline updated its list of the top 100 prospects in the game.

And while the White Sox loaded farm system is well represented, there's both good news and not-as-good news concerning a few of those highly rated prospects slated to be such a big part of the team's bright future.

The good news starts with Dylan Cease, unsurprisingly. It's well known that MLB Pipeline is wild about him after they named him their minor league pitcher of the year not too long ago. Cease's sensational season pitching at both Class A and Double-A shot him up from baseball's No. 44 prospect back in July to the No. 25 prospect right now. He also jumped over Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal on the White Sox list, making him the organization's No. 3 prospect, trailing only Eloy Jimenez and Michael Kopech.

Jimenez is part of the good news, too, and he's still the No. 3 prospect in baseball. Kopech, who won't pitch again until the 2020 season after having Tommy John surgery, is ranked at No. 19.

Three prospects in the top 25 in the game? That's obviously good news. But the aforementioned Robert and Madrigal were listed among the "biggest fallers" on MLB Pipeline's list, which could be seen as not-as-good news.

Robert, who missed a big chunk of time while dealing with an injured thumb, switched spots with Cease, dropping from No. 25 to No. 44 on the top 100 list. MLB Pipeline noted his lack of big offensive numbers, exemplified by a .694 OPS. Robert's lack of power numbers stands out, something general manager Rick Hahn explained away as a typically late-to-return aspect for guys with similar injuries. Robert put on a powerful show in spring batting practice before injuring his thumb during spring training — and actually homered after he injured his thumb in the same Cactus League game — but finished with zero homers and just 14 extra-base hits in his 208 plate appearances this season.

Madrigal, who played at three levels after joining the organization as their first-round draft pick, got dinged by MLB Pipeline for his lack of power. He banged out 47 hits in his 173 minor league plate appearances, all but seven of which were singles. But the White Sox are pumped about the fact that he doesn't strike out — he did it only five times — and his defensive ability at multiple positions on the infield. Regardless, he fell from No. 32 to No. 49 on MLB Pipeline's list.

Still, those drops aside, the White Sox still boast seven of the top 100 prospects in baseball: Jimenez (No. 3), Kopech (No. 19), Cease (No. 25), Robert (No. 44), Madrigal (No. 49), Dane Dunning (No. 59) and Blake Rutherford (No. 77). That's very good news.