White Sox

With so much talent in minor league system, not outrageous to think White Sox could someday have their own Zito-Hudson-Mulder combo

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AP/USA TODAY

With so much talent in minor league system, not outrageous to think White Sox could someday have their own Zito-Hudson-Mulder combo

The White Sox are in Oakland this week, a place that's seen its fair share of rebuilding efforts.

Thanks to Moneyball and some excellent drafting, the A's, at one time, were the template for creating a homegrown contender. Before Theo Epstein and Jeff Luhnow, there was Billy Beane. And the A's found particular success when it came to pitching. Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder formed one of the elite 1-2-3 starting-rotation punches of recent memory. And if the White Sox rebuild pans out the way they hope it will, there could be a second coming of the homegrown Zito-Hudson-Mulder triumvirate on the South Side.

That trio dominated for years in Oakland, taking the A's to four straight postseasons from 2000 to 2003. Zito was still around for another trip in 2006. While the A's famously failed to do much in those postseason appearances, eliminated from the first four in the first round and then swept out of the ALCS in 2006, there's no doubting that they had one of the best rotations in baseball during that stretch. Hudson was a two-time All Star and finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting three times during his six seasons with the A's. Zito was a three-time All Star in eight seasons in Oakland and won the Cy Young Award in 2002. Mulder was a two-time All Star in his five seasons there and was the Cy Young runner-up in 2001.

Do the White Sox have three pitchers who could reach that kind of success?

The White Sox haven't drafted all their high-end pitching talent, like the A's did with Hudson (sixth round, 1997), Mulder (first round, 1998) and Zito (first round, 1999). But they do have four pitchers ranked in the top 100 prospects in baseball: Michael Kopech (10), Alec Hansen (54), Dylan Cease (61) and Dane Dunning (92). That's without mentioning current members of the big league rotation Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Carson Fulmer or the currently injured Carlos Rodon. The White Sox spent high first-round draft picks on Fulmer and Rodon, while Hansen was a second-round pick. They acquired all the others in those rebuild-launching trades with the Boston Red Sox, Washington Nationals and Cubs.

That's a heck of a lot of talent. So much talent that it produces quite the potential future conundrum for Rick Hahn, Rick Renteria and Don Cooper, who will have to figure out a way to fit all of that talent into one major league starting staff. That would be one of those problems, of course, that qualifies as a good one to have.

Now, as exciting as these young players might be — and as impressive as what they're doing in the minor leagues is — it's unrealistic to think that all of them will reach the status of big league ace. As Hahn will tell you, baseball has a cruel way of reminding that not all prospects pan out. But the White Sox are starting from a very strong position, with such a high volume of top-end talent. It betters the odds of developing a front-end-of-the-rotation pitcher, and a few of these guys are already looking capable of reaching that level.

Kopech is the obvious candidate to be that kind of pitcher. He's got blow-em-away stuff with his triple-digit fastball and is currently one of the top pitching prospects in the game. He showed signs of mortality during spring training, leaving the Cactus League with an ERA above 11.00, but he's looked good in his first two regular-season starts at Triple-A Charlotte, with an 0.90 ERA in 10 innings. When he'll be up to the major league level remains a mystery, though it figures to be at some point this season.

Hansen has equally dominant stuff and actually struck out more hitters in 2017, punching out 191 batters at three different levels of the minor leagues. He's yet to start his regular season while getting back to full health. But he's got as high of hopes as any one of these guys, and it wouldn't be at all surprising to see the 6-foot-7 righty team with two others to make an elite 1-2-3.

Who would the third guy be? Well it could be any of them, really. Cease and Dunning are off to great starts in their minor league seasons. Giolito and Lopez impressed at the end of last season, with Lopez carrying that over into the beginning of the 2018 season. Rodon still carries high hopes even as he works through recovery from shoulder surgery. And with so many options and unknowns remaining in the development of all these players, it's really possible it could be any three-arm combination — including ones without Kopech or Hansen.

In the end, the question might not be whether the White Sox can match the Zito-Hudson-Mulder three-headed monster. It might be whether or not they can outdo it.

White Sox Talk Podcast: White Sox call up Michael Kopech

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USA TODAY

White Sox Talk Podcast: White Sox call up Michael Kopech

With the big news that Michael Kopech is coming to the majors, Chuck Garfien and Vinnie Duber talk about the decision by the Sox to bring up their top pitching prospect and the excitement that Kopech will bring to the team and the 2018 season.

Kevan Smith discusses what kind of stuff Kopech has and what it was like catching him in the minor leagues. Plus, they talk about Paul Konerko’s unforgettable day in the booth with Hawk Harrelson.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

Talk service time all you want, White Sox have decided Michael Kopech is ready for the big leagues now

Talk service time all you want, White Sox have decided Michael Kopech is ready for the big leagues now

There were plenty of people who thought Michael Kopech was the White Sox best pitcher when the team left Glendale, Arizona, to start the 2018 season.

Whether or not the team shared that opinion, Kopech spent the next four and a half months as a minor leaguer.

The prevailing preseason thought was that it wouldn’t take the flame-throwing Kopech, who struck out 172 minor league hitters in 2017, long to breeze through Triple-A and arrive on the South Side. But it did.

A dominant beginning to the season was followed by a bumpy stretch in which his ERA and walk total consistently grew. But the last seven starts were terrific, and so Kopech’s call to the majors has finally come. He’ll make his big league debut Tuesday night against the Minnesota Twins.

It’s news that will please many White Sox fans because it’s something they’ve been waiting all season to see happen. Ever since Sox Fest back in the winter, the No. 1 question has been: When will Kopech and Eloy Jimenez reach the bigs? Jimenez, the team’s top-ranked prospect, is still a minor leaguer for now, but Kopech is about to hit the South Side with a heck of a lot of fanfare. It’s a pretty tangible example of this rebuilding effort moving in the right direction.

The recent conversation among fans and media members, though, has centered around service time and whether the White Sox handling of Kopech and Jimenez would mirror how the Cubs handled Kris Bryant back in 2015, keeping a star prospect from the majors until a couple weeks into the following season to start the clock a year later and essentially add a year of team control to the end of his contract. A lot of Twitter-using White Sox fans have whole-heartedly bought in to such a strategy.

But general manager Rick Hahn has insisted all along that the only determination of when these guys would come up was that they hit all the developmental milestones the team wanted them to hit in the minor leagues. For what it’s worth, Hahn answered a question about service time earlier this summer, saying that it had nothing to do with keeping Kopech at Triple-A. That question was specifically in reference to when Kopech could become arbitration eligible, not a free agent even further down the road. But the response is an interesting one as a similar conversation keeps happening surrounding this team and these specific decisions.

“It was all baseball. It’s never been the arbitration three years from now. It’s been about baseball,” he said back in mid June. “Again, not getting too far down into Michael’s checklist of what we want to see him accomplish, but he hasn’t checked them all off yet. He’s had some real good starts. He’s getting closer, and it’s not going to surprise me seeing him here at some point in the not too distant future, but he’s not there yet.”

Several tremendous outings later, and Kopech is there now. The numbers have been unreal in his last seven starts: a 1.84 ERA, 59 strikeouts and only four walks in 44 innings.

Hahn also talked about how the team’s handling of pitching prospects Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito a season ago could be a kind of template for how it would handle Kopech this season. Both those guys were called up in August, just like Kopech will be in a couple days.

Just like Hahn’s season-long declaration that the fortunes of the major league team and of the players on the major league team had no bearing on when top prospects would be promoted, at the very least in Kopech’s case, the same seems to have been true about the issue of service time. Some might lament the fact that the White Sox didn’t wait on Kopech, and it’s not a point without merit, as a large number of injuries to top prospects this season robbed them of developmental time and perhaps shifted the timeline of the entire rebuild. Maybe. In the event that is a concern shared by the White Sox, the extra year might have made a difference down the road.

But as White Sox fans have seen first hand this season, there is development that needs to happen at the major league level, too. Giolito and Lopez gained valuable experience pitching at the end of last season. Those two, plus Yoan Moncada and other young players, have gone through growing pains throughout this year’s campaign. Kopech will face the challenges of the big leagues, as well, and the sooner he does, the sooner he can learn how to overcome them.

Hahn has said all along that the organization’s focus remains on the long term, and though there might be arguments out there that not waiting could potentially shorten the team’s window of contention many years down the line, Kopech’s promotion does an awful lot to open it in the first place.