There are plenty of questions that will accompany Michael Kopech's rise to the Chicago White Sox' starting rotation.
After two lost seasons, he pitched out of the South Side bullpen in 2021, sometimes with spectacular results (a 1.53 ERA in 18 first-half outings) and sometimes with less-than-spectacular ones (a 5.56 ERA after the All-Star break). All told, he logged 69.1 innings, with his last two performances of 2021 a pair of postseason efforts against the Houston Astros that saw him yield a combined six runs.
But whether it's the first-half vs. second-half numbers or the relatively minimal workload — the young righty won't be expected to hurl 200-plus innings in his first season as a big league starter — one thing seems to be fairly certain in the White Sox' minds: his potential.
"I think he's got everything that he needs to be one of the most elite starting pitchers in baseball," White Sox starting pitcher Lance Lynn said Thursday, a day after the reveal of his third-place finish in this year's American League Cy Young vote. "He's got the desire to be great. He's obviously got the physical ability to do it all."
Kopech has tantalized South Side fans since long before Lynn found a home here this past season. One of the biggest pieces to come back in the trades that kickstarted Rick Hahn's rebuilding project five years ago, Kopech was long forecasted to be a part of the rotation of the future, when big arms would be powering the White Sox toward World Series goals.
The team has reached that point, and though Tommy John surgery and personal reasons wiped away his 2019 and 2020 seasons, respectively, Kopech is belatedly joining the starting staff as it looks to repeat in an effort to do just that.
During the 2021 regular season, the White Sox claimed the AL's top rotation, and that was reinforced when the Cy Young voting results were released Wednesday. Lynn placed third, with Carlos Rodón fifth and Lucas Giolito 11th. Dylan Cease, who led the group in strikeouts, didn't receive any votes but did plenty to establish himself as a reliable weapon this past season.
Despite Hahn saying multiple times the White Sox would be happy to find a way to bring back Rodón, who's a free agent after the team opted not to extend a qualifying offer, it seems Kopech will rise to replace Rodón in the rotation. Those are some big shoes to fill, from a production standpoint, following Rodón's excellent 2021 campaign.
But after watching first-year pitching coach Ethan Katz work wonders with Rodón and Cease last season, and help Giolito turn his career around a couple years prior, Lynn is confident that Kopech will have the support system — not to mention the fireballing stuff — to find success in 2022, when the White Sox will once more be chasing a championship.
"He's got a pitching coach that has the ability to not only simplify things, but also make sure that he's got everything that he needs to have as much success as possible," Lynn said. "I know Michael is going to lean on us guys that have been in the rotation on how to handle things and how to do things. Not only does he want to be good, but he's willing to listen and learn and do everything he can to do the best possible."
As mentioned, there will be questions along the way, and the White Sox intend to learn the answers to those questions as the 2022 season moves along.
If that sounds like something out of the rebuilding years to you, you're not alone. But the White Sox have, from the start of this project, made it clear that they are striving for perennial contention rather than a sole season of excellence, and continuing to develop young players like Kopech is part of that process.
So even if there are ups and downs with Kopech during a championship chase like the one the team will undertake in 2022, it's all part of making sure he's living up to his enormous potential in the years that follow, when the White Sox are hoping to be involved in chase after chase.
"It is important to be able to develop young players at the big league level in order to have something that's sustainable," Hahn said earlier this month at the GM meetings. "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."
We've been talking about Kopech's future for forever, it seems, because he's been a central character in this rebuilding effort since the beginning. Now that the White Sox are finally able to insert him into their starting rotation, we'll finally start to see what all that talk was about.
For the White Sox, they're seeing it as the dawn of something special.
"You don't know how good it's going to be," Lynn said, "but you know there's a good chance, with his stuff, he's going to be a pretty good starting pitcher."