After being without Michael Kopech for the entirety of the 2019 season, the White Sox will be without him again for the entirety of the 2020 campaign.
And suddenly, they're faced with having one of the big pieces of their rebuilding puzzle go at least 31 months between major league appearances.
The team announced Friday evening that Kopech, the 24-year-old flamethrower, decided not to participate in the shortened 2020 season, a decision made in regard to the personal matters Kopech was said to be dealing with last week, when he did not report to "Summer Camp" at Guaranteed Rate Field.
Other players around the league have made the decision to "opt out" of the 2020 season, one scheduled to be played in the middle of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but there's an important distinction to be made between opting out and deciding not to participate. Players who have the option to opt out are those in high-risk health categories, and they will receive payment even while not playing. Players who aren't high risk but still have concerns about exposing themselves or their family to the virus, can elect not to play, but they will not be paid, nor will they accrue major league service time.
Kopech, it should be noted, might have made his decision for reasons not related to the ongoing pandemic. The White Sox cited only "personal reasons" when it came to Kopech's decision. Certainly fears of contracting the virus would be personal reasons, but there are infinite other personal reasons that have nothing to do with COVID-19. And so without further word from Kopech or the team, we can't be sure whether Kopech's decision is similar to those who have given health concerns as their reason for sitting out in 2020.
Regardless of the reasoning, the White Sox will be without Kopech once again, the promising pitcher now following up the 2019 campaign he missed in full while recovering from Tommy John surgery with another lost season. While his absence will not create a void in the White Sox pitching staff gaping enough to derail their postseason push before it even begins, Kopech showed how tantalizing a weapon he could have been back in the spring, when in his lone inning of Cactus League action, he lit up the radar gun with triple-digit readings.
Had the season progressed as normal, Kopech was expected to begin in the minor leagues, where he could strengthen his arm after going so long between competitive appearances, a plan that would have also allowed the White Sox to monitor, if not limit, his overall usage in his first season back from the surgery. Joining the big league roster some time later, he would have been viewed as a midseason addition that could have bolstered the pitching staff as the team made a run at a playoff spot.
But the months-long layoff due to the pandemic seemed to change that calculus a little, and Kopech — along with other pitchers rehabbing from Tommy John, such as Carlos Rodón, Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert — was suddenly capable of being a full-season option for Rick Renteria. Who knows what role he might have played, as how Renteria will handle his pitching staff once the regular season begins remains a mystery. Kopech's triple-digit fire would have been an intriguing late-inning option, but he might have been equally effective as a starter or used in "piggybacking," where he might have come in for multiple innings after a few innings tossed by another member of the rotation.
Now, he'll be nothing but a spectator in 2020.
Because of the aforementioned returns of Rodón and the like, the White Sox do have the luxury of increased depth in their pitching staff. A six-man rotation of Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Dylan Cease, Reynaldo López, Gio González and Rodón might end up the most logical approach when the season begins. While Kopech could have finally emerged as the pitcher who was promised when he arrived in the major leagues in August 2018, the White Sox continue to have an ample amount of pitching options heading into this season.
The bigger question is what becomes of Kopech beyond the 2020 campaign, when things hopefully return to normal for the White Sox, who have long included Kopech as a sizable part of their long-term contention strategy. It was a big enough mystery what Kopech would be like after missing all of 2019, even if he did dazzle during that one Cactus League inning. The mystery grows exponentially when trying to figure out what he'll be like with two full seasons missed.
Player development, in general, has had a massive wrench thrown into it with the pandemic, the entire minor league season canceled and only a handful of players even able to participate in team-monitored activities due to the size of major league player pools and taxi squads. Kopech's development, however, has the potential to fall even further behind, as he did not have the benefit of pitching in any minor league games during the 2019 season, either. Even if he feels comfortable returning for spring training and the entirety of the season next year, what sort of game shape will he be in? And how does that impact the White Sox decisions when it comes to constructing a pitching staff as part of a contending roster?
Those decisions were going to be difficult anyway with the 2020 season squeezed down to just 60 games. Who knows how Cease or López will perform in 2020, and what sort of grip they'll have on spots in the rotation heading into 2021? Who knows if the White Sox will see enough from González to pick up his option for 2021? Giolito and Keuchel would figure to have spots locked down, and Rodón will be heading into his final season before free agency. The White Sox might end up with a good problem, too many pitching options, and that'd be a headache they'd be willing to suffer through.
But there's another possibility, as well, that the strength of the White Sox rotation in 2021 depends on Kopech's presence. And it will be impossible to guarantee his effectiveness heading into that season after two full seasons with no major league action. As time moves forward, the White Sox hope to be deeper into a contention phase, and winning becomes paramount. There's less and less ability to allow someone to figure things out at the major league level, as there was ample time to do just that during the recent rebuilding seasons — something Kopech could have benefitted from had he not spent all of 2019 in recovery mode.
The White Sox could find themselves in the unenviable position of relying on someone who has four major league appearances under his belt and hasn't pitched in two and a half years. What happens if that doesn't work out? That uncertainty could send Rick Hahn's front office on an unanticipated search for starting pitching during the offseason, or force it to hold onto some younger arms, no longer as able to afford dealing them to address other areas of the roster. Does it change the White Sox opinion on when just-drafted hurlers Garrett Crochet and Jared Kelley might reach the major leagues?
Kopech obviously still has the talent and the ability to play a starring role for the White Sox for years to come, and the starting rotations of the future still, at this point, figure to be better off with him than without him. Heck, they could feature him at the very top.
Baseball is always going to be full of unknowns, but by deciding not to participate in 2020 and missing a second straight full season of action, Kopech is making himself as unknown a quantity as ever. And that could have drastic effects for the White Sox as they move deeper into what's expected to be a lengthy contention window.