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How to save a rotation: Dylan Cease, Michael Kopech helping White Sox thrive early

Vinnie Duber Avatar
April 16, 2022

Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn are on the shelf, the White Sox’ top two starting pitchers having combined for four innings of work in the first eight games of the 2022 campaign.

And yet this team is 6-2, one of those two losses actually coming in the one game Giolito pitched in this season.

Honestly, it’s a bit of a surprising result, not because the White Sox didn’t seem capable but because those two guys play such a huge role. Lynn was the No. 3 finisher in the Cy Young vote last year, Giolito not far behind at No. 11.

There were worthy questions about this rotation with both those arms healthy. Dallas Keuchel was coming off a career-worst season. Michael Kopech was entering his first full season as a big league starter. Then the top two guys went down, and the rotation as a whole turned into one giant question mark.

And yet without Giolito and Lynn, the starting staff – and the White Sox with it – has not spiraled into an inescapable abyss.

There are multiple reasons for that, of course, ones that illustrate that this is a team game, after all. The White Sox won Vince Velasquez’s first start in the home opener Tuesday. They’ve had days where a stacked lineup has carried the load. And the team’s relief corps, which has been asked to do a ton in the early going – not only with Giolito and Lynn down, but coming off a shortened spring that has starting pitchers of all stripes still building to their normal workloads – has been pretty sensational.

But in addition to leaning on all that through a monsoon of early-season injuries – Giolito and Lynn share IL space with Yoán Moncada, AJ Pollock, Garrett Crochet, Joe Kelly and Ryan Burr – the White Sox are getting very positive contributions from Dylan Cease and Kopech, the next two pitchers in the rotation behind the injured aces at the top. Their work in logging at least five innings in three of those six wins has been crucial in allowing the bullpen to catch some semblance of a breath.

“It’s something we talked about today,” Kopech said after allowing just one unearned run in five innings during Saturday’s 3-2 win over the Rays. “I want to be able to continue building up and continue going deeper and eating innings so we can take some stress off our relievers, especially since they’ve been heavily relied on this first week here.

“I’ve been in that position, as well, and I know what it feels like. I want to be able to do my job for the sake of the rest of the team.”

It’s important work at the moment. Though Keuchel can be added to that list of starting pitchers who aren’t just filling in but would have been here anyway, guys who can take some heat off the Velasquezes and Jimmy Lamberts of the world, he seemed ready for a little more work during the spring. Cease and Kopech were behind schedule, by comparison, with Cease unable to throw to hitters until showing up to Camelback Ranch post-lockout and Kopech delayed by a bout of COVID in late February.

Kopech only made a pair of starts during Cactus League play, one of them not at all impressive, from a results standpoint. But he looked very good Saturday. After a 25-pitch first inning that saw a pair of walks and a run score thanks to a Josh Harrison throwing error, Kopech was damn near perfect, allowing nothing more than a hit batter over his final four innings.

It was a solid reminder of why he was always ticketed for a spot in the rotation this season and some nice evidence that he can be relied on, despite a limited track record making big league starts and a much-discussed workload-management plan that might not see him log too many innings till the final stages of the season.

After a year of getting somewhat back to normal in the bullpen, there were some big questions about what he could contribute to a White Sox team with championship aspirations in 2022. Well, Exhibit A is now a stellar performance against one of the AL’s other top contenders.

“I settled in, definitely,” Kopech said, evaluating his outing. “First couple innings, I think I went out there without really an idea of anything, just overthinking a bit. Then I was able to find my groove and stay in there and give the team a chance, at least, and that’s all I was worried about. So I was satisfied with the day.

“In a game like today, if my first inning would have been as a reliever later on in the game, I don’t think I would’ve completed the inning. But as a starter, you get a chance to find your feet and find your legs and get out there and compete. I did that today, and we were able to get a little deeper than it might have looked in the first.”

That’s some critical growth for Kopech, who the White Sox are relying on not just in 2022 but in 2023 and beyond, as well. Rick Hahn was blunt in discussing Kopech’s season way back in November, saying it is just as much about developing him for the championship chases to come as it is about having him contribute to a championship chase this year.

Good thing, then, that Lynn hasn’t physically gone anywhere during his rehab from knee surgery, Kopech revealing the veteran pitcher helped straighten him out during Saturday’s game.

“I reached out to Lance a couple times this offseason,” Kopech said of using Lynn as a resource. “(Saturday), we were talking about … settling in earlier and not having to take two innings to make my adjustment, just finding that edge or that focus a little bit quicker.

“With a guy like Lance, who’s been doing it for over 10 years, it’s a lot easier to take what he says as truth. He’s been a great example for me since he got over here.”

Cease is further up the developmental ladder than Kopech, who missed the entirety of back-to-back seasons in 2020 and 2021 while Cease was figuring things out at the big league level. Cease starred Friday night, limiting the Rays to just a run in his 5.2 innings of work. He’s gone at least five in both his starts so far this season, the only White Sox pitcher who can say that a turn and a half through the rotation, and he’s showing the kind of stuff that had him pegged as a darkhorse Cy Young candidate before the campaign began.

In back-to-back games, the White Sox got the kind of rotation-saving performances they need right now. Continued growth by Cease and Kopech will be key to them reaching their championship-level goals. But in the immediate, it’s about doing their best to relieve the relievers, a group that’s been mighty successful while also being leaned on so heavily in the early going.

Friday night, Cease’s efforts meant Tony La Russa needed to only call on three relief pitchers, his late-inning trio of Aaron Bummer, Kendall Graveman and Liam Hendriks, to nail down a win. Saturday, four pitchers followed Kopech, the combination of Reynaldo López, José Ruiz, Bennett Sousa and Hendriks equaling a victory.

That relief success, obviously, is a credit to those relief pitchers, and Hendriks’ postgame assertion Saturday – that what was already described as a deep ‘pen is deeper still than folks think – holds plenty of water after watching this team for the last week and a half. But the starters who remain on this roster are doing the work that Giolito and Lynn are unable to do right now.

To quote Keuchel, that could be part of a “teeter-totter season,” in which certain players are needed now and others can carry the load later in the year. It could be, too, the blossoming of Cease and Kopech into the kinds of reliable arms that could power a yearlong success and fuel a deep postseason run.

La Russa will be the first to remind not for anyone to get ahead of themselves, so we’ll focus on this first stretch, this Giolito-less, Lynn-less stretch. And still in that, the work of Cease and Kopech looms large.

“We’ve got a winning record, and it wouldn’t have happened without their contribution,” the South Side skipper said of Cease and Kopech. “(But) this is Major League Baseball. They’ve got a lot more to do.”

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