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.
“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.