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Dylan Cease, Michael Kopech and bullpen dark horses: Ethan Katz answers White Sox pitching questions

Vinnie Duber Avatar
February 23, 2024
Ethan Katz

PHOENIX — The White Sox’ pitching staff is full of questions.

How long will Dylan Cease be with the team? Will Michael Kopech finally blossom into the top-of-the-rotation arm that’s been hyped for years? Who will win what is, perhaps, the final spot on the starting staff? And what in the world is the bullpen going to look like?

As the team’s pitching coach, Ethan Katz has unique insight into all those questions and plenty more. So it makes perfect sense that he was peppered with a lot of them during his first media session of the spring.

What did the pitching coach have to say? Press onward, dear reader.

How are the White Sox progressing in turning Garrett Crochet into a starter?

One of the more intriguing projects of White Sox camp is Garrett Crochet’s quest to become a starting pitcher. The big left-hander was drafted as such back in 2020, but after a quick rise to the major league bullpen and back-to-back seasons derailed by injuries, he’s looking to return to a rotation, despite a very small number of innings under his belt.

The White Sox are taking things slowly, but Crochet has impressed the team during live batting-practice sessions.

“So far it has been good,” Katz said in the early stages of this project. “We have a lot of hurdles that we still have to climb. But going out there and attacking the strike zone is No. 1 and kind of building him up properly without overdoing it because of his workload in the past.

“Getting Strike 1 is the top priority for him right now. And being able to get into good counts and end at-bats. What we saw last year, some of the innings got a little bit prolonged because of at-bats getting dragged out.  We want him to be able to challenge the strike zone as much as possible.

“He’s probably going to start against the Dodgers (in the White Sox’ fifth spring game). He’s got one inning, that’s what we’re targeting right now. We have to take it slowly. It has to be very methodical. See how he’s feeling, how he’s recovering.”

Exactly how slow is this process moving with Crochet? The White Sox aren’t even thinking about where he’ll end up, be it the major league rotation, starting in the minors or the big league bullpen.

“We haven’t got that far yet,” Katz said. “Right now, we’re just focusing on this and letting him have the opportunity to see what he can do. It’s a very competitive camp. There’s a lot of guys that are in the starting rotation getting built out that way, and there’s a lot of guys in the bullpen. It’s a very open camp with the guys that are here. So we kind of see what he does and kind of take it from there.”

Is Michael Kopech set up for a bounce-back season?

Certainly an emphasis for the White Sox’ pitching department is getting Kopech back on track after he led the AL in walks during a horrendous 2023 campaign. But finding the strike zone with more consistency isn’t the only thing on the to-do list. Kopech allowed a bunch of homers last year, too, and he admitted to struggling to master the emotional and mental aspects of the game.

Katz and new pitching czar Brian Bannister are working with Kopech to get things turned around and get him to live up to the hype that projected him as a dominant starter when he was acquired in the Chris Sale trade way back in 2016.

According to Katz, things are off to a good start.

“He had a great offseason. He looks (to be) in phenomenal shape,” Katz said. “This is probably the best I’ve seen him coming into spring training since ‘21, and even that (year) was disrupted with some COVID stuff leading up to it. But he’s been phenomenal. Ball’s coming out hot, and he’s pounding the strike zone. So right now, he’s in a great spot.

“Physically, he got (into) great shape. He’s always been in good shape, but he’s gotten back to where his shape was in ‘21.

“Watching him throw his live BP the other day and his bullpen today, everything that you want to see from him, he’s doing right now. He’s got to continue that once the games start and see that he’s staying on top of everything and (that) physically he’s feeling good.”

Why are White Sox confident Erick Fedde’s Korean success will translate to MLB?

Outside of Cease, there’s not much in the way of sure things on the White Sox’ pitching staff, and that includes the team’s biggest free-agent signing from the offseason. Erick Fedde had a less than stellar major league career with the Nationals before making a slew of adjustments and heading to South Korea, where he pitched well enough to win the equivalents of the MVP and Cy Young Awards in that country’s top league.

Despite the types of indicators that signaled to the White Sox that Fedde is capable of replicating his overseas success back in the States, it remains a mystery whether it will happen or not.

So what’s giving the White Sox confidence that Fedde will look more like the pitcher he was in Korea than the one he was in Washington?

“He had a 70-percent ground-ball rate there,” Katz offered. “Might that go up a little bit? Sure. But that’s a significant number.

“He’s able to get guys on the ground. That should lead to a lot of success with the defense we have behind him.”

The White Sox made a concerted effort during the offseason to improve their defense, particularly up the middle on the infield, where two defensive-minded guys, Paul DeJong and Nicky Lopez, figure to provide an upgrade that will make South Side hurlers — especially a ground-ball specialist like Fedde — more comfortable.

“It’s huge,” Katz said. “To be honest, a lot of the conversations I had with some free agents, they asked about (the White Sox’ defense). I know that was a top priority for (the front office), and right now, we are pretty sound defensively.

“Obviously, we’ve got to take it into games and see what it looks like, but it’s pretty exciting to think what it could be.”

How can Dylan Cease have a 2024 season more like 2022 than 2023?

Cease is the undoubted ace of the White Sox’ staff, and while it might be a surprise that he’s still with the team following an offseason of trade rumors, it’s no shock that he was a sought-after target, considering how good he’s been while pitching on the South Side.

But as good — and most importantly, reliable — as Cease has been, his 2023 season was noticeably less productive than his 2022 campaign, at the end of which he finished second in the AL Cy Young vote. He watched his ERA jump significantly and walked one more batter than he did the year prior, when he led baseball in that category.

Who knows how long Cease is for the White Sox, but while he’s still here, they’d obviously like to get him closer to the 2022 version than the one that stumbled, at times, in 2023.

So what are they doing to improve their best pitcher?

“There’s some things I don’t want to say, but for the most part, where he was last year coming into the spring, we asked him to make some adjustments with his ramp-up this year. And he was throwing 97 in his live BP the other day,” Katz said. “He looks really sharp, the fastball command was really good, slider was standard. So it’s just kind of get him back going, getting his arm moving a little bit more, because last year the velo was down a little bit. But right now, he looks (to be) in a really good place. He carved through some hitters. It’s good to see.”

Part of the appeal of Cease as a trade target is how dependable he’s been, making 30-plus starts in each of the last three seasons. But even after taking the ball that many times in 2023, Cease has said he’s feeling as good as he’s felt coming into spring training, citing a lack of soreness he considered typical in years past.

All of that has been on the White Sox’ minds, as well.

“The one thing with Dylan you have to think about is his workload the last three years. He’s made every start and he takes the ball and he goes out there and gives you 100 pitches every single time,” Katz said. “Those things you have to be very mindful (of) when you’re talking about a ramp-up. The first year, he was working on a bunch of stuff. The second year, he’s trying to earn his spot, so to say. And last year was kind of, we knew the direction he was headed. Just kind of gave him a little runway coming into camp this year.

“We asked him to do things a little differently, which it looks like has really helped him.”

Which young White Sox pitcher is impressing the most at camp?

The White Sox are obviously building for the future, and when it comes to that future, they did good work to restock on the pitching front with several moves at last summer’s trade deadline, adding well regarded pitching prospects Nick Nastrini, Jake Eder and Ky Bush to their minor league system. In addition to those starting pitchers, reliever Jordan Leasure joined the organization and earned some attention with some impressive numbers.

According to Katz, Leasure is continuing to grab attention this spring.

“I asked (Andrew) Benintedi, the other day we were eating lunch, and I asked him, ‘Who’s the best guy you’ve faced so far?’ And (Leasure’s) name popped up. That was a huge compliment,” Katz said. “I saw him in the Fall League throw once, and seeing him throw the other day in his live BP, it was quite impressive.

“The fastball gets on guys. That was the feedback that they all said to me. … Just watching at-bats, he had to go through (Yoán) Moncada, Benintendi, (Luis) Robert, and he was getting to the top of the zone, didn’t back down. It looked the part. The hitters’ reaction said it was getting on them. … There’s something to it, for sure.

We’ll see if Leasure impresses enough to emerge from a wide-open bullpen competition with a major league job. But whether he cracks the roster coming out of camp or makes the big league team later on, he’s one to watch when it comes to the pitching staff of the future.

Which veterans in White Sox camp have a shot at roster spots?

If guys like Leasure are the future, the White Sox will spend the next several weeks trying to figure out which veteran arms can be part of their present. Certainly there are a lot of them in camp, with recent reliever additions like Jesse Chavez, Corey Knebel, Dominic Leone and Bryan Shaw looking as capable as anyone else of making the team.

But Katz had some praise for a few veteran guys who aren’t getting as much attention, citing Jake Woodford and Jake Cousins among those who have opened eyes in the early stages of spring training.

Meanwhile, Katz had even more to say on Justin Anderson, the veteran reliever who’s in camp despite not having pitched in the majors since 2019. He was an Angel back then, and Katz has experience with him stemming from his own time with that organization. Now, he’s talking him up as someone with a shot of becoming something with the White Sox.

“I think a lot of him. That’s why he’s here,” Katz said. “He’s somebody who was, for the Angels, kind of like (Keynan) Middleton, an eighth-inning, ninth-inning guy. A similar situation, kind of. He got injured, fell off the map a little bit. So I’m really excited to get him into games and show what he can do, because he is a big-time arm and has that experience at the back end of games.

“People should know about him and not forget about him.”

The White Sox picked Middleton up last offseason, and he played a starring role in the bullpen for much of the season before being traded at the deadline, after which he set off all sorts of drama by criticizing the team’s clubhouse culture.

In Anderson, Katz sees someone who could take a similar opportunity and run with it.

“They’re different pitchers, but the history (is similar),” Katz said. “Middleton last year was kind of on his last legs with an NRI, and he was able to put together a really nice year for himself and got a big league contract. So it reminds me a little bit of that situation, where you’re talking about a guy who hasn’t done it for a couple years — even though he has been pitching — but at the big league level.

“I think he could surprise some guys and have that kind of outcome.”

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