Plenty of eyes will be on Michael Kopech this spring.
And if things go anything close to the way they went in the one inning he pitched last spring, it'll be hard for anyone to take their eyes off him.
Kopech hasn't pitched in a big league game in more than two years, requiring Tommy John surgery after just his fourth major league start. He missed all of the 2019 season while in recovery mode, then opted not to play last season due to personal reasons. Kopech's lone bit of action was in a Cactus League game last spring, when he dazzled with numerous pitches that hit triple-digits on the radar gun.
Given that almost complete lack of action, there's plenty of mystery surrounding what Kopech can provide for a White Sox team that enters 2021 with championship expectations. Logic says he'll spend the majority of the year as part of the starting rotation, but how he gets there and how long he stays remains unknown.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into plans for the 2020 season, it looked like the White Sox might have started Kopech in the minor leagues to get him worked back up following so much time off. Now that time off has doubled. Starting in the minor leagues remains an option as the White Sox wrestle with how to bring him back after such a long layoff. Even if Kopech does make the Opening Day rotation, his next start will come 31 months after his last.
The ace of that rotation, though, still expects big things from the uber-talented Kopech.
"I talked to him on the phone in the winter, great conversation, just catching up, not too much baseball stuff. And I just saw him for the first time today at the facility. He looks great, body looks good, all that stuff's checking off," Lucas Giolito said Tuesday. "I know that he's been working very, very hard. Despite the decision to not play last year, he definitely missed baseball, he's excited to be back.
"The expectations (for him) are pretty high. He has some of the best stuff in the league. Unfortunately, last year we only got to see one inning of it, but it was a pretty electric inning.
"I think he has to move at the right pace, can't rush into it, can't try too hard. Nothing good ever comes from that. I think (new pitching coach Ethan Katz) will definitely be pretty hands on with him as far as his progression and where he needs to be."
Kopech is a true X-factor for these White Sox, who have their sights set no lower than winning the World Series. If Kopech can deliver the kind of jaw-dropping performances his talent has long said he's capable of, then the White Sox rotation could shape up to be one of baseball's most intimidating — the kind that can power a World Series run.
But that all remains a big "if" for the time being. Spring training will be the first exposure to Kopech folks have had in a full calendar year. Even two innings of work in a Cactus League game this spring will be his highest level work in two and a half years.
So what's it going to be from Kopech? The lights-out fireballer who helps lead a team to October glory? Or someone fighting to shake off the rust of missing two straight seasons?
The answer could be the difference between the White Sox meeting their sky-high expectations and not.
"I have full confidence in his ability," Giolito said, "and I'm looking forward to having him on the team soon."