Are the White Sox better off with Michael Kopech? Obviously.
Are they sunk without him? Not in 2020, they're not.
Kopech won't play this year missing a second straight full season after he spent 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery. But it's a credit to Rick Hahn's rebuilding effort that even without one of the organization's highest profile youngsters, the news wasn't met with sky-is-falling panic.
Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest White Sox news and analysis.
The White Sox have spent much of "Summer Camp," both before and after Kopech's decision was announced Friday night, talking about pitching depth. And indeed, the team did reap a kind of benefit from the months-long layoff during which baseball watched the COVID-19 pandemic and slogged through fruitless negotiations. Several of the team's young pitchers on the mend from Tommy John are now full-season options for a shortened 60-game season instead of the midseason additions they were scheduled to be in a 162-game campaign.
Kopech was slated to be among them, probably due to start a normal season in the minor leagues, even if he was healthy enough to light up the radar gun during his lone inning of Cactus League action prior to spring training's abrupt end. The White Sox have to this point cited only "personal reasons" as the explanation for Kopech's decision not to participate this year. Whether those reasons are tied to health concerns over COVID-19, which has caused several other players around the league to sit out, or health concerns over his surgically repaired elbow, the case according to a couple different reports, or something different altogether remains to be publicly addressed.
Considering that it was a mystery what kind of pitcher Kopech was going to be after a more than yearlong recovery period, a halted spring, a months-long layoff and now a brief three-week ramp-up period ahead of a 60-game dash to the postseason added a ton more mystery about how his arm would have responded.
And adding more mystery still was an uncertain role for the 24-year-old flamethrower. Might he have ended up in an expanded starting rotation, where the White Sox see him pitching for years to come? Might he have been used as a multi-inning relief option in this shortened season? Might he and his triple-digit fire have been deployed in the later innings? All seemed possible.
What's not quite as mysterious is the shape of the White Sox pitching staff without Kopech. Yes, he would have made it even stronger. But there's a lot that remains, including a bolstered rotation and a reliable bullpen, that still seems capable of teaming with a remade lineup to truly threaten the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians for divisional supremacy in the AL Central. It's a deep group of arms that gives Rick Renteria a bunch of options.
Renteria's decision-making process, however, might now get a little easier without the Kopech factor, and a six-man rotation could be the most logical setup when Opening Day rolls around in a little less than two weeks. As mentioned, the layoff allowed several other non-Kopech arms to recover from their own procedures. Most notable among them is Carlos Rodón, who could easily be tacked onto the end of the starting five the White Sox were expected to break camp with back in March: Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Dylan Cease, Reynaldo López and Gio González. Behind them, now healthy pitching prospects Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert could extend the starter pool to eight.
"It’s tough losing Kopech, great arm, be nice to see him throw," Rodón said Saturday, "but we have some experience on our side with Gio González, and (Giolito) coming off an All-Star season. We have some young arms, we can do some mixing and matching. We have some depth, and we can be very good."
RELATED: What Michael Kopech skipping season means for White Sox in 2020 and beyond
Giolito is fresh off his remarkable All-Star campaign from a season ago and enters this one as the no-doubt ace of the South Side staff, even if he's dreaming of a perfect world where every hurler in the rotation has the "ace" moniker. The arrival of the accomplished veteran Keuchel makes for a reliable top of the rotation.
It's Cease and López where the biggest question marks exist, and what they do this season could determine how high the White Sox are able to leap while looking to exit rebuilding mode and enter contending mode. Cease's nasty-looking numbers from 2019 can be chalked up to him dipping his toes into major league waters for the first time. López, though, seemed to trade places with Giolito, sliding from the team's best starter in 2018 to a woeful 2019. For all the promising discussion of the work he's done on the mental side of his game, the results didn't look all that dissimilar during Saturday's intrasquad game, when he allowed a pair of home runs. Though it's important to remember that the same stop-and-start schedule that might have led Kopech to stay away from the season altogether applies to every pitcher still participating in it, and expecting the best, especially from the jump, might be asking too much.
On top of the challenges facing all pitchers, González also has a springtime injury in the rear-view mirror. His first intrasquad effort Sunday featured the first three hitters reaching base — the second and third via the walk — and the first two of them scoring on Yermin Mercedes' two-run single. Andrew Vaughn tagged him for a home run later in his three innings. But even if the White Sox don't get the kind of results that sent González to the All-Star Game in back-to-back seasons the better part of a decade ago, they'll benefit from his veteran presence and winning experience, both on and off the field.
Rodón looked good in his first intrasquad performance Saturday, even if he was the victim of Luis Robert's ridiculous falling-down home run. Dunning looked very good when he pitched Sunday.
Now, as Allen Iverson said, we talkin' 'bout practice, and a small sample size of it, at that. But merely looking at the starting pitching on this team, there's a volume of options that can often separate the winners from the losers. Just look to last year's White Sox group, which struggled to plug the hole Rodón vacated throughout the remainder of the season. While there's no guaranteeing performance, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to suggest White Sox fans can forget about seeing the likes of Ervin Santana and Odrisamer Despaigne again. Even the plug-in options are attractive now, which of course is the idea when building a contender.
"We've got some young guys that are filling the spots," González said Sunday. "Mike is huge for this organization, he's huge for the clubhouse. Obviously it's his decision, and we respect him 100 percent. I wish I would have had an opportunity to play with him a little bit more, but I get it.
"It's respect for him and his family, but we've got to focus on people who are here, and I think that after watching Dunning pitch, some of the guys coming in showing their stuff, it's pretty exciting to see there are guys who are going to try to step up and do their part and make it a deal to be recognized in this organization and try to earn their spot here."
RELATED: Luis Robert's legend grows, suggesting White Sox should ready for superstardom
In the bullpen, meanwhile, the White Sox won't have Kopech to use in any potentially gadgety ways. But the group down there looks promising, too, especially now with the proven commodity that is Steve Cishek lengthening a back end that already included Alex Colomé and Aaron Bummer. Evan Marshall and Jimmy Cordero — and should the much discussed bounce back materialize, Kelvin Herrera — are still there, too, though Hahn will be among the first to warn of the unbankability of relief pitching from one season to the next. But in a season when the White Sox lost 89 games, the bullpen was a strength. Returning that same cast of characters and adding Cishek, who did such a good job for the Cubs in recent seasons, provides plenty of confidence that it can be a strength again.
And so it's quite understandable why White Sox fans didn't stamp the 2020 season with a July 10 expiration date upon news of Kopech's decision. That rundown of the vast amount of pitching on this roster does way more than just keep hope afloat, it is an engine for said hope. Of course, there's a remade lineup for White Sox fans to salivate over, too, and on a list of reasons for excitement this season, the injection of Yasmani Grandal and Edwin Encarnación into the middle of the order surely ranks higher than Marshall and Cordero facing less pressure.
When taking a longer view, the answer becomes different. Kopech is more important to White Sox teams in 2021 and beyond than he is to this year's squad. And so if there is worry to be had, it's over what two full missed seasons means for Kopech's readiness then. There was plenty of question about what he'd look like after missing 2019, and that question mark gets bolded, italicized and underlined — the type-formatting Holy Trinity — when it comes to what he'll look like after missing 2020, too.
But when it comes to this season, specifically, the Jenga tower that is a Major League Baseball team is nowhere near collapse because the Kopech block has been removed. And Hahn did such a job constructing this thing that no one even seemed worried such a thing might happen.
There are plenty of blocks left in the stack. Now it's on them to show how much weight they can bear.
SUBSCRIBE TO THE WHITE SOX TALK PODCAST FOR FREE.