Truth be told, it's a mystery what 2021 will look like for Michael Kopech.
The White Sox fully expect their top rated pitching prospect to finally return to a major league mound after missing the last two seasons. But after his Tommy John recovery wiped out his 2019 and he opted not to play during the shortened 2020 season due to personal reasons, even if Kopech does land on the team's Opening Day roster, his first start will come more than 30 months after his previous one.
That's not dampening the excitement from his new pitching coach, however.
"I’m looking for him to be a big contributor, to be honest," Ethan Katz told Our Chuck Garfien on the White Sox Talk Podcast.
Indeed, Kopech's stuff remains as tantalizing as ever. Though his lone game experience since suffering an injury in his fourth big league appearance in September 2018 is one inning of Cactus League action, he dazzled on the mound that day in Arizona, routinely hitting triple digits on the radar gun.
Kopech could very well slot into the fifth spot in the White Sox starting rotation, behind Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Lance Lynn and fellow unproven youngster Dylan Cease. But prior to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic throwing a wrench into the 2020 season, the White Sox seemed set to start Kopech in the minor leagues to build him up after he missed a full season. Now that he's missed two, perhaps there are similar considerations in place.
But the White Sox don't appear to be questioning whether Kopech will be ready to go for 2021.
"He’s projecting perfectly to be ready for the season, whenever that may be. And I’m looking for him to be a big contributor, to be honest. He’s doing great," said Katz, whose main objective will be getting young arms like Kopech and Cease ready for a planned championship run. "Our conversations have gone really, really well. He’s asking the right questions, he’s wanting to know what he can do in bullpen (sessions) to kind of amplify him. I told him, let’s ease into this, but when that time comes, I’ve got a ton of stuff for him to use to kind of stimulate him to get ready for the season.
"I think the bigger challenge is making sure we don’t do too much with him because he hasn’t pitched in a couple years, he doesn’t get the workload that most guys have. That’s the biggest hurdle right now. He’s always had the stuff. He’s fully recovered from Tommy John, it’s been enough time. So I think it’s just finding that sweet spot to make sure we don’t do too much to push him so he doesn’t burn out and try to build him up properly."
General manager Rick Hahn said his front office might not yet be finished acquiring pitching after the trade for Lynn last week. Any further acquisitions could provide a safety net for Kopech, should he be limited either at the start of the season or at any point during it.
But Katz's confidence is in line with what Hahn and other White Sox voices have said about Kopech: that he's finally ready for a return and to make a big impact on a group of South Siders that has its eyes on reaching the World Series.