PHOENIX – It’s not exactly “here we go again,” not exactly the same old song and dance.
But indeed, Michael Kopech has arrived at another White Sox spring training working his way back from an injury.
Of course, he missed the entirety of the 2019 season after having Tommy John surgery and opted to skip the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign for personal reasons. He had a COVID infection prior to arriving at spring training a year ago and started camp behind schedule. This year, he’s still working his way back from offseason knee surgery, not behind schedule but admittedly less than 100 percent.
Kopech can’t shake injuries as the dominating headline of his career, which means he’s still – more than six years after joining the White Sox organization in the rebuild-launching trade of Chris Sale – talking about potential.
“It’s crazy to think about,” Kopech said of his sneaky-long tenure with the South Siders. “It kind of flies by. I still feel like I’m 22. My body might disagree with me, but I still feel like a young kid in this game. Hopefully I have a few more years that are still youthful and strong. I’m going to do everything I can to be as impactful in this game as I can.”
When able to stay on the mound last season, Kopech looked like the pitcher that was promised. He had a particularly dazzling night at Yankee Stadium, where he took a perfect-game bid into the sixth inning. But those moments of brilliance were accompanied by moments of unreliable health, and there was more than one day where he was pulled from a start after just a handful of pitches.
Kopech and the White Sox are again hoping for full health and expect big things if they can get it. But spring has started with the right-hander talking about an offseason where he wasn’t able to focus on much more than just getting healthy. New manager Pedro Grifol has specified that Kopech will be ready for the team’s second series of the regular season.
“I’m expecting for him to just be Michael, be healthy and be able to get on that leg a lot easier than where it’s been,” pitching coach Ethan Katz said Saturday. “He’s come in in great shape, he’s been working extremely hard. We’re just building him up a little bit slower than we first initially thought when he went into surgery, based on the timeline, and he’s going to be ready to leave spring in a really good spot.”
“With surgery, it takes a while to get to feeling yourself again,” Kopech said. “Ultimately, it was not a major surgery, it was a surgery that was a little bit of a time consumption. For the most part, I feel comfortable on (the knee). I just have to get back to being explosive and being myself again.”
That’s the idea, and the White Sox know that when Kopech is himself, he’s a hell of a weapon, one that can help a rotation featuring other big arms like Dylan Cease, Lance Lynn and Lucas Giolito be one of the top starting staffs around.
If healthy, though, what sort of workload can we expect from Kopech? Workload has been the main topic the last two springs for Kopech, before he was used as a reliever and spot starter in 2021 and in his first full season as a major league starter in 2022.
There are no such conversations dominating White Sox camp this spring, but Kopech has still yet to be really taxed, partially because of those ever-present health questions. He logged fewer than 70 innings in 2021 and fewer than 120 innings in 2022. His highwater marks as a professional came before the Tommy John surgery, when he racked up more than 130 innings pitching at Double-A and Triple-A in 2017 and when he totalled more than 140 pitching at Triple-A and briefly in the major leagues in 2018.
In 2023? He’s hoping to surpass those numbers by quite a bit.
“I’d like to throw more innings than I did last year, make 30-plus starts,” Kopech said. “I think I had 25 last year and not a lot of innings in my first full season as a starter. So the more I can do to help the team every five days, that’s one (goal).
“Just to get close to 180 to 200 innings would make a lot of difference to me, personally, and would be a help to the team, more than it was last year.”
Starting pitchers view 200 innings as a magic number, of sorts, but the White Sox know how rare that can be, due to the fairly regular health challenges pitchers face each season. Lynn has hit that number three times in his career and led baseball in innings pitched during the 2020 season, but he’s yet to reach 200 innings with the White Sox. Giolito has been north of 170 innings three times, and Cease came 16 innings away during his Cy Young runner-up campaign a year ago.
The last White Sox pitcher to hit the 200-inning mark? James Shields in 2018.
Given everything that Kopech has gone through over the past several seasons, he probably wouldn’t be a lot of folks’ pick for the next White Sox pitcher to reach that number.
But through all the injuries and recoveries, Kopech is still here, still looked at as a pitcher with all the potential in the world.
“What I’m capable of is that and hopefully more to come,” Kopech said, reminded of that brewing perfecto in The Bronx. “That’s just one of those games where I felt comfortable and had a little flow to me. I hope to take moments like that into the season and into my future.”
“Fighter,” Cease said when asked for the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Kopech. “He just has that energy. That’s what I like about him. He doesn’t back down. I mean this in the best way possible, that’s what you want out there. You want somebody who’s going to fight, and Michael’s a fighter.”