Michael Kopech sat in Guaranteed Rate Field’s home dugout, his sweatshirt hood pulled over his head, long after the final out of the White Sox’ last game of the year.
He stayed there even after the rest of the relievers made their way in from the bullpen, after a pensive Liam Hendricks gave one last wave to the few members of the crowd who lingered in the stands, having just witnessed the White Sox' American League Division Series exit.
Kopech had just finished his first full major-league season. His 2018 debut had been followed by two years away – Tommy John surgery wiped out Kopech’s 2019 season, and he opted out of playing in 2020.
Now, after a season in the bullpen showcasing his potential, Kopech is in position to vie for a spot in the White Sox' 2022 starting rotation.
“The kid has a world of talent,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. “We think he is going to be potentially a dominant starter for a long time. But we are dealing with a limited innings base, and we need to build it up wisely.”
The White Sox, according to Hahn, are open to reimagining the use of their rotation. But it’s too early to say what exactly that will look like, without knowing the full makeup of the pitching staff. Carlos Rodón is the only White Sox starter entering free agency this winter, and Hahn said “it would be great to figure out a way to bring him back in some capacity.” There could also be offseason additions.
There’s an avenue, however, for Kopech to shift roles no matter whether Rodón returns or goes.
"We've already had conversations about how to keep these guys strong for seven months,” Hahn said, “especially the ones like Kopech, who is coming off limited use last year and a limited innings base. We'll just have to wait and see."
That could mean a six-man rotation, or building in time off, or any number of things.
“I’m going to probably sitting in this chair some point next summer,” Hahn said, “explaining why we are doing something with Michael in terms of giving him a break in order to keep him strong over the course of that season.”
Garrett Crochet is another young pitcher who the White Sox see as a starter long-term, but his timeline to get there is likely later than Kopech’s. Hahn said he’d have to have more conversations within the organization to answer the question of Crochet’s path to the rotation.
With Kopech, the White Sox will be intently monitoring his health and workload over the winter and into next season. They’ll be tracking his mechanics, pitch data, Kopech’s own feedback.
“It’s nothing we haven’t dealt with before in terms of building a guy out of the pen into the rotation,” Hahn said, “but it’s certainly a project that we need to go into with eyes open and a good plan and one that has some flexibility built into it.”
The White Sox already had that process in mind in 2021, when Kopech made four starts and at the end of the season built up his innings to provide length out of the bullpen in the playoffs. But the jump from long reliever to starter is still intensive.
“I think that would be a great step for him,” White Sox starting pitcher Lucas Giolito said of Kopech. “I think that would be very beneficial to us as a team, having another right-hander that throws really hard and has really nasty stuff overall. And at the same time, he has the drive for it. I think he’s ready to take that step.”
Part of that step is adjusting pitch mix. Primarily throwing in relief this past season, Kopech relied mostly on his fastball and slider. A third pitch is helpful for a starter, who faces the lineup more than once through. Giolito doesn’t see that a problem for Kopech.
“He brought the changeup out a few times, and the best ones he threw were just ridiculous,” Giolito said. “… The third pitch is definitely there for him. It’s just a matter of throwing it more and being very comfortable with it.”