Michael Kopech got five outs Sunday.
Pedro Grifol didn’t even let Kopech finish the second inning before determining he’d seen enough. Enough, on that day, meant five walks and a couple runs on the board.
It was far from the ugliest stat line Kopech has posted this season, and it wasn’t his shortest outing, either. He didn’t even make it out of the first inning in his first start of the second half, when he walked four and gave up four runs against the Braves. But this was a continuation of what’s been a miserable post All-Star break stretch for Kopech, who is doing this sort of thing on an almost every-start basis at this point.
A point, by the way, at which the White Sox can’t afford to have him struggle anymore.
The team is dreadfully short on starting-pitching options for 2024, where all the focus is with the team an astonishing 33 games south of .500 at the end of this shockingly disappointing campaign. Trade-deadline deals sent Lucas Giolito, who could have been given a qualifying offer had he stayed with the White Sox, and Lance Lynn, who had a club option for next season, out of town.
Mike Clevinger had a brief reign as the team’s best starting pitcher — he actually still might hold that title — but the White Sox placing him on outright waivers last week might have signaled they’re not keen on picking up their half of a mutual option, which would bring Clevinger back on a $12 million salary. In his first start after 29 other teams decided they didn’t want to pay a guaranteed $5.5 million for one month of his services, he was shelled to the tune of eight runs in four innings as the White Sox were clobbered by the Tigers in a 10-0 blowout.
That leaves Kopech and Dylan Cease seemingly etched in stone for next year’s rotation, while the duo of Touki Toussaint and Jesse Scholtens have done little with second-half opportunities to inspire confidence that they could succeed if given 30-plus starts for a team that hopes to contend for a division title.
But Kopech and Cease have had bad years, two different stories that end in the same place, with the White Sox’ starting-pitching problems intensifying as new general manager Chris Getz attempts to assemble a competitive team for next season.
Kopech — who leads baseball in walks issued and ranks eighth in home runs allowed — has been downright atrocious in the second half. In 10 starts since the All-Star break, he’s pitched just 39.2 innings, allowing 39 hits and 33 earned runs, walking 40 batters and striking out 32. He’s given up 11 home runs. Opposing hitters are reaching base at a .415 clip. His ERA is 7.49.
It’s quite obviously not good.
“It’s been disappointing for me for a long stretch of this season. I can’t begin to describe the disappointment I have in myself,” Kopech said Sunday. “I’ve been working really hard to fix things, and to not see results is frustrating. To go out there and have a performance like this is beyond frustrating.
“Hopefully I can figure something out in these last few starts that I have and end on a high note. Right now, things are tough.”
A lot of attention has gone toward the emotional and mental side of Kopech’s game, as the frustration he’s talked about has been visible when things aren’t going right on the field. Grifol recently talked about the pitcher and the team needing to get together to solve the mental side of Kopech’s pitching.
Earlier in the season, Grifol referred to 2023 as a “developmental year” for Kopech, a statement worthy of the eyebrow-raising it generated considering this is Kopech’s second full season as a major league starter and his seventh year as part of the White Sox’ organization. Obviously Kopech has had a different path than most, missing the 2019 and 2020 seasons, but the White Sox entered the year needing him to deliver for a team trying to win a division title and he had his own aspirations of racking up a ton of innings. No one is suggesting development ever truly stops for a pitcher, but the White Sox needed him to be closer to a finished product that could shoulder a load, not someone still figuring out how to do the job.
And that need will only be greater in 2024.
Right now, Kopech is penciled in as the team’s No. 2 starter. And there are massive questions about whether he’s capable of filling the role of a reliable big league starter of any kind, let alone a top-of-the-rotation arm.
“He definitely has the stuff to pitch here. We’ve seen it,” Grifol said. “When he’s right, he’s tough to beat. He’s got to get right. We need him, for this season, to finish strong, and we also need him for next year.
“Guys with that kind of stuff you don’t find anywhere. You’ve just got to keep working.”
Meanwhile, Cease’s struggles haven’t been as bombastic as Kopech’s, perhaps, but they have stuck out like a sore thumb considering his status as the runner-up in last year’s AL Cy Young vote. Quite simply, Cease was one of the sport’s best pitchers last season, and it looked like the guy who had been receiving one rave review after another for his dynamite stuff finally ascended to the status of a legitimate ace. Whatever questions the White Sox had throughout their roster, they knew they had a dominant force at the top of their rotation.
Until they didn’t.
Cease, who finished where he did in the Cy Young vote despite leading baseball in walks in 2022, has not solved that issue. He seems certain to surpass the 78-walk total he finished with last year, at 73 after Tuesday’s start in Kansas City and trailing only three pitchers in that category, including his rotation-mate Kopech. But that’s been far from his only problem, and the guy who made a habit of going deep in games last season has done so far less this year as he’s been hit far more often.
After finishing the 2022 season with a 2.20 ERA, Cease’s 2023 ERA stands at 4.98 after the Royals tagged him for three homers Tuesday, when he didn’t make it out of the sixth inning. Since the start of August — a period spanning his last seven starts — Cease’s ERA is 7.86.
“A season like this for me has really just been a lot of grinding and sort of feeling like I’ve kind of put Band-Aids on things,” Cease said last month. “This year has been more of a grind kind of a year. Last year was pretty effortless. I feel like I was in that flow state most of my starts. This year, it’s kind of been more working through things and figuring things out.
“You learn a lot of what works and what doesn’t work and what cues work and what thoughts work and all kinds of different stuff. At the end of the day, the most ideal state to be in is one where there is not a lot of thinking and it’s sort of just muscle memory. A year like this for me, I’m gaining all that information.”
It’s nowhere near enough to force the White Sox to give up on Cease or anything so dramatic. But it’s enough to add further work to Getz’s to-do list this winter. It’s up to Getz to answer the question: Do the White Sox have an ace of their staff, or do they need to go out and find one?
And that’s just one of the questions facing Getz as he looks to assemble a rotation for next year. What is Cease? What is Kopech? And how does he fill the other three spots? Does he need to convince Jerry Reinsdorf to spend big on marquee arms to stack in front of Cease at the top of the rotation? Or does he need to get creative to pack reliability in behind Cease and hope he’s more the 2022 version of himself than the 2023 version?
Regardless of where he lands, any bet will be a risky one with contention on the mind, with Reinsdorf saying he hired Getz with an eye on getting the White Sox back to the top of a weak AL Central as quickly as possible.
Internally, the team has some intriguing pitching talent in the minor leagues, though it’s uncertain whether any of it will be ready for major league action next season, with most of that talent at the Double-A level. Cristian Mena and Nick Nastrini, the latter acquired in the trade that sent Lynn to the Dodgers, were recently promoted to Triple-A. Deadline additions Jake Eder and Ky Bush are at Double-A, as is Jonathan Cannon, while the organization’s top pitching prospect, Noah Schultz, is even further away, pitching at Low A. Davis Martin, who impressed in a sixth-starter role in 2022, had Tommy John surgery this year, making his specific return date unknown.
Reinsdorf made some comments on the team’s payroll and free-agent spending last week, defending the franchise-high payrolls of the last two seasons and flat-out saying the White Sox will not be going after Shohei Ohtani or “sign(ing) pitchers to 10-year deals.” But apart from reserving the right to operate the club checkbook, he placed plenty of decision-making power in Getz’s hands.
So, particularly until we hear of Getz’s offseason intentions, the key word for the White Sox when it comes to what their starting rotation will look like next year? Uncertainty. Uncertainty in what Cease and Kopech will provide. Uncertainty in whether any reinforcements from the minor league system will be able to contribute. Uncertainty in how the other three spots will be filled.
The only thing that’s certain is that the White Sox need starting pitching, a need only amplified as the two one-time rebuilding cornerstones continue to struggle.
It’s Getz’s job to find that starting pitching. Otherwise, the reason he was hired, to bring the team back to competitiveness quickly, will be difficult to deliver on.