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Fixing Michael Kopech: White Sox turn to new front-office hire Brian Bannister for one of offseason’s top priorities
When Michael Kopech was 20 years old, he made a dozen starts for a pair of Class A affiliates of the Red Sox, posting a 2.08 ERA and striking out 86 batters in just 56.1 innings.
The following offseason, he was traded to the White Sox. And seven years later, the White Sox are still waiting for Kopech to become the pitcher who was promised.
It’s not to say they haven’t seen plenty of flashes of greatness over the years. The season after he changed his Sox, he was fantastic in the minor leagues, making 25 starts and logging 134.1 innings while posting a 2.88 ERA and striking out 172 batters.
But Kopech’s ascendency to the majors has gone anything but normally, his career upended in his fourth major league start, which he left early, learning soon after he needed Tommy John surgery, which wiped out his 2019 season. He sat out the COVID-shortened 2020 season for personal reasons. When he finally returned to a big league mound, he did so as a reliever and spot starter. In the last two seasons, spent as a full-time member of the rotation, inconsistency has been the defining characteristic, those flashes of brilliance becoming less and less common.
The 2023 campaign was a disaster for everyone involved with South Side baseball, but Kopech’s numbers were particularly glaring. He was routinely shelled by opposing lineups, finishing the season with a 5.43 ERA, 29 home runs allowed and an AL-high 91 walks issued.
But one thing that happened before the 2023 season ran out for the White Sox might be the key to getting Kopech turned around.
“I had Michael in Boston,” Bannister said. “I’m a big believer in him. We’ve already had some initial discussions. … Going forward, there are things we did in Boston that I’m looking to also do here, and I think we can give him what he needs to take his game to another level like he was a couple years ago.”
Among Chris Getz’s trio of front-office additions that have generated some optimism at 35th and Shields was Brian Bannister, who came aboard as the organization’s new senior adviser to pitching, a role he held under various titles with the Giants and Red Sox. While Bannister was in Boston, Kopech was one of his young pupils. A reunion all these years later might just be the fix the White Sox are searching for.
But even without the existing relationship between Bannister and Kopech, Bannister’s arrival could work wonders. It’s something he’s focused on throughout what has become a pretty successful career as a molder of pitching staffs: taking what is broken and returning it to its former glory.
“My sweet spot has always been helping pitchers who are either coming off a down year or have lost their identity a little bit and really getting in there and building trust with them and helping them identify what makes them a productive major league pitcher and just walking alongside them in that process,” Bannister said.
Kopech is obviously a unique case, as he’s yet to reach the expected heights he had as a prospect now half a decade removed from his major league debut. But there’s little doubt that the ingredients are still there. His fastball still ranks as one of the best in the game. And despite a couple more health-related issues this year — he had surgery to remove a cyst in his knee at season’s end, a cyst he said had been in there since the previous summer — Kopech just racked up the most innings he has in a single season as big leaguer, at 129.1, while making a career-high 27 starts.
The potential is still there. Now a return to working with Bannister could finally bring it out in full.
“I’ve liked Banny since I met him,” Kopech said. “He’s been nothing but good to me as a professional. He can offer a lot with the experience he’s had being with the (Red) Sox and Giants. I’m excited to have him on, excited to get to know him more on a personal level, see where that can take my career and hopefully take this team.”
Of course, this isn’t a shot in the dark like some of the other players Bannister has taken from scrap-heap pickups to reliable big league starters. The White Sox need Kopech to become that dependable arm in their rotation.
The cupboard is pretty bare after midseason trades of players that could have been brought back in one way or another, such as Lance Lynn and Lucas Giolito. Mike Clevinger seems likely to head to free agency after a strong 2023. Jesse Scholtens and Touki Toussaint didn’t exactly take their late-season opportunities and stake claims to rotation spots in 2024. And Davis Martin, who so admirably pitched as a sixth starter in 2022, is still on the mend from his own Tommy John surgery.
That leaves Dylan Cease and Kopech as the lone projected members of the White Sox’ starting staff for next season. Offseason additions by Getz, Bannister and the rest of the new crew running the show in the front office are mandatory. But so is getting Kopech right.
It remains to be seen what Getz & Co. will accomplish this winter and what sort of role they’ll need Kopech to play. Will they add top-of-the-rotation arms, forcing Kopech into a lower-stress role at the back of the rotation? Or will it be nothing but reclamation projects, ones that could have Kopech pitching toward the front of the rotation?
Regardless, the White Sox need Kopech to be a better version of himself in 2024.
The hopes are high that Bannister, along with pitching coach Ethan Katz, can work some magic and finally bring out the top-of-the-rotation arm Kopech has long been expected to be. The White Sox are adamant that Kopech is being viewed as a starting pitcher, no matter what the bizarre move to the bullpen at the end of the season might have suggested.
Still, frustrated fans sick of waiting for Kopech to emerge as a dependable starter continue to advocate he be moved to a relief role on a full-time basis, largely based on the success he had pitching out of the bullpen during the 2021 season, which remains his most successful major league campaign to date.
Though Kopech’s first-inning struggles this year — a 6.75 ERA and an ugly 1.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio — would seem to work against that notion, Pedro Grifol pointed to Kopech’s “versatility” as something that could land him where those frustrated fans want him to, should the work of making him a successful starter not prove fruitful.
“Good starting pitching is very hard to find,” Grifol said. “We’ve seen his potential to be a really good starting pitcher. We’re going to exhaust that until we can’t anymore, and we’re going to use every resource we have in this organization and even outside the organization to exhaust his ability to be a starter. I’ve seen him really, really good, dominant in this game. He’s going to come to spring training to win a job in that rotation.
“The great thing about him is he’s versatile. We’ve seen him do both (starting and relieving). If one doesn’t work, he’ll fall into the other one. (And) he won’t fall into the underbelly of the bullpen, he falls into the leverage side of the bullpen. (But) I’m not even there yet.”
For now, though, this offseason will be about making sure Kopech can avoid making the White Sox’ starting-pitching need any greater than it already is and about giving them a pair of starting pitchers they can count on as they set their sights on 2024.
“We certainly have hopes for him to be able to go out there and compete every fifth day,” Getz said. “He’s a major league starter, but it’s just a matter of putting him in the best position for next season and we think we’ve got a gameplan to do that for him.
“The good for Michael is he has had stretches of success. … He needs to find something to believe in, and foundationally, he has a lot of success already at this level. Does he want to do better? Of course. But he has that to work off of, and now as coaches or as an organization, (we have to) lead him in the direction so he has something to focus on and then, of course — if everything clicks — get the big results that he wants.”
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