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How the Sox will use Michael Kopech in rotation in 2022

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
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The Chicago White Sox pledged a "creative" way to deploy Michael Kopech during the 2021 campaign.

Come 2022, that creativity isn't going anywhere.

Kopech missed back-to-back seasons in 2019 and 2020, the first while recovering from Tommy John surgery and the second due to personal reasons. The White Sox never took him out of their long-term planning, but he obviously boasted limited experience and a limited workload at the major league level when he arrived at spring camp back in February. The plan? Use Kopech out of the bullpen as a way to manage his innings after two consecutive missed seasons.

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For the most part, it worked, in that Kopech spent much of the year as one of the White Sox' most effective relief arms and in that he finished the season healthy, despite missing time in the middle of the campaign with a hamstring injury.

Though the fireballing right-hander had his struggles in the final couple months of the season — he had a 6.43 ERA after the trade deadline and gave up three runs in each of his two postseason appearances — the White Sox liked what they saw enough to move forward with long-held plans to move Kopech to the starting rotation, and as things stand, that's where he'll be come the start of 2022's chase for a championship.

 

But it's not as easy as Kopech passing his 2021 test and moving on to 2022 with the same expectations as the other guys on the starting staff. Kopech threw fewer than 70 innings in 2021, and he won't be expected to make the jump to anywhere near 200 innings as a starter in 2022.

So it's back to that word again, "creative," as the White Sox plot how they'll use 20 percent of their rotation in a season they hope ends with a World Series trophy being added to the collection at 35th and Shields.

"With Michael in his first year in the rotation, we're going to have to be creative," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said last month during the GM meetings in Southern California, "whether it's skipping a start, or throwing an inning out of the 'pen on his start day, conserve those bullets and keep him strong. We're going to rely on him and how he looks and reports as the summer goes on.

"We're going to have experienced starters in Lucas (Giolito) and Lance (Lynn), Dallas (Keuchel) and (Dylan) Cease, guys who have already had full years under their belts. So we're not going to be looking at (Kopech) as coming in and giving us 200 (innings) next year.

"We're going to try to get him as consistently strong as possible throughout the entire season, because he was a little stronger in the first half than the second. He did have that hamstring issue, which sort of put a little monkey wrench into the progression. We're hopeful we'll find the right balance between his workload and the rest and the pacing of next season that come October, we look around the room and say, 'This guy deserves to be in the mix of starting a postseason game.'"

Indeed, while Lynn's assessment that Kopech has everything he needs to be a high-caliber big league starter is a good one, the 25-year-old remains a sizable question mark as the White Sox vie for a title in 2022. After all, Kopech is joining what was the American League's finest rotation during the 2021 regular season, one that also faces a lot of scrutiny after turning in four consecutive clunkers in the postseason. He hasn't pitched much, and as mentioned, his second half left plenty to be desired in 2021.

It makes for an interesting situation, the White Sox still attempting to develop Kopech into the impact starting pitcher they project him to be, all while trying to win as many games as possible and trying to win a championship.

Development at the major league level figured to be a thing of the past once the South Siders moved out of rebuilding mode and into contention mode. But Kopech will fall into the category of someone who the team is trying to build up for future championship chases while simultaneously relying on to play championship-caliber baseball in the immediate.

 

And that will factor into that "creative" thinking Hahn and the White Sox are always talking about.

"It may come down to being creative and making sure we have the right depth to pull that off," Hahn said. "We're going to have our work cut out for ourselves (when it comes to winning in 2022), but it is important to be able to develop young players at the big league level in order to have something that's sustainable. So finding a way to grow Michael into the regular starter's workload so we have that for the '23 season and beyond is going to be important.

"We think we'll be able to do it in a way that, hopefully, maximizes his effectiveness in '22 and leads to more wins for us in '22. But at the same time, we have to remain cognizant that he's an important part of the future, too."

The "how the White Sox get Kopech the in-season rest he needs" story will play out over the course of the summer.

Right now, in the winter, it points to an important element of Hahn's remaining offseason work. With the questions stemming from Kopech's relatively light workload (compared to other starters) and late-season performance, it sure seems the White Sox would benefit from an influx of starting-pitching depth. Hahn will be the first to tell you that every team could benefit from such a thing in every single season, but looking at the White Sox, the need seems clear.

Though the rotation is at a full five men, the options behind the quintet are Reynaldo López and the prospect tandem of Jimmy Lambert and Jonathan Stiever. López succeeded as a long man/spot starter in 2021. But is that enough — or quality enough — depth to help the White Sox in a season with championship aspirations?

While plenty of fans are thinking bigger, hoping for a shake-up in the rotation in the wake of the playoff performances, there might be a tighter needle to thread for Hahn, who might be looking for nothing more than someone who, if they can't secure a rotation job, would be OK floating between the bullpen and the rotation, or even the minor leagues. Good luck finding a name that matches that description and excites a fan base. It might not be possible.

But it all comes back to Kopech and the mystery of what he'll provide in 2022. The White Sox will get creative with a player who's still developing into the guy they think he can be. But at the same time, they need him to be good enough to take the ball on a regular basis as part of a championship-caliber rotation.

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