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Two big arms. Two high ceilings. Two big question marks.
How Michael Kopech and Garrett Crochet fare in 2022 could say a lot about how able the White Sox are to achieve their sky-high, championship-level goals for the upcoming season. And in the seasons beyond.
The eyes are significantly more focused on Kopech, of course, the long talked about fireballer taking on a starter’s workload after a year of reacclimation in the bullpen. His assignment is not exactly filling the shoes of Carlos Rodón, who had a Cy Young type season in 2021 before heading to the Giants on a free-agent deal. But the hope is that Kopech will ascend to that caliber of pitcher.
This is just one of several early steps in that process. Kopech, who is expected to make his first Cactus League appearance this week, will have his innings managed in 2022, to the point that the White Sox have as much focus on his long-term future as what he can contribute to what they hope is a championship team this year.
“It is important to be able to develop young players at the big league level in order to have something that’s sustainable,” Rick Hahn said in November at the GM meetings. “So finding a way to grow Michael into the regular starter’s workload so we have that for the ‘23 season and beyond is going to be important. We think we’ll be able to do it in a way that, hopefully, maximizes his effectiveness in ‘22 and leads to more wins for us in ‘22. But at the same time, we have to remain cognizant that he’s an important part of the future, too.”
The White Sox are understandably high on what Kopech can contribute in the present, as well, after he was one of the team’s more impressive relief arms in 2021, and one of the driving forces behind this workload management is to keep him available for high leverage games in September and October.
There was a little wrench thrown into the White Sox’ planning when it comes to Kopech, the pitcher dealing with another bout of COVID in late February that paused his offseason activity and set him behind schedule just a bit. Between that and the existing plans to manage his innings, Kopech’s first few starts of the season might be shorter than those of some of the other pitchers, especially experienced veterans like Lance Lynn, Dallas Keuchel and Lucas Giolito.
“Kopech is going to be a starter, so it’s, ‘Hey, how are we going to blanket him because he’s not going to be able to go very long?’” Keuchel said earlier this spring. “We’ve got to be smart with how we line up guys, and I told (Ethan) Katz, ‘If you need me to go before Kopech on the 4 or 3 (spot in the rotation) and he’s 4, or if he’s 4 I’ll be 5 to kind of make sure that we’re going to fill some innings in after his start.’ Because we’re going to use three or four (bullpen) guys for the first month, month and a half when Mike takes the ball.”
“It’s outing to outing, inning to inning for him and monitor it that way and see how he’s doing, feedback in between outings,” Katz said. “It’s kind of like (the way the White Sox handled) Carlos in the sense that, kind of seeing where he’s at and kind of making the right assessment. And maybe it’s a skipped start at some point and somebody else hops in to give him a little breather. We’ll see how he’s doing.”
Lynn said it: Kopech has the potential to be one of the elite pitchers in the American League. The hype that’s followed him since 2016, when the White Sox made him a rebuilding cornerstone as a featured part of the Chris Sale trade, was delayed by back-to-back missed seasons. But it’s still there, and he had moments in 2021 that flashed the potential of a future top-of-the-rotation pitcher.
As much as the White Sox want that guy to be a part of the starting staff for years to come – he’s under team control through the 2025 season – they also know what he can do against major league hitters right now. And so just like Dylan Cease was able to rise to the role of a reliable playoff starter by the end of his breakout 2021, Kopech could find himself in the same place come October. The White Sox want to make sure he’s able to pitch in that kind of game, on that kind of stage.
“It just depends on what he’s done up to that point,” Katz said. “A lot of those decisions, you have to be realistic with what you have in the bullpen that day. You can’t kill those guys, either. And if he’s going well, yeah, that might be one day he gets a little extra and we just take him back the next outing. We plan ahead that way.
“Because if we have a shortened bullpen and he’s cruising, he’s got five innings and he can easily go two more innings and his pitch count is down, let’s give him the opportunity because those non-stressful innings are a lot different than having those stressful innings. It’s just something we’ve got to monitor and be on top of.”
The White Sox will be similarly mindful when it comes to Crochet, whose future still lies in the team’s starting rotation. But his present is as a valuable bullpen arm. Though admittedly unsettled on what route they’d take with the lefty back in November, the White Sox realized their best chance of winning the World Series this season included Crochet as a part of the major league relief corps, not as a starter-in-training in the minor leagues.
But now they’ve taken a path that requires Crochet to get important outs as a reliever and ready for a future as a starter at the same time.
Though Hahn and Katz have compared the way they could use Crochet with how the team used Kopech last year, there are a few key differences between the two. Kopech spent years as a minor league starter and reached the big leagues before needing a season of relief work after two straight years without game action. Crochet went from pitching as a college junior to the major leagues in a matter of months, without any minor league experience.
But the most important difference, perhaps, for the upcoming campaign? Crochet is a lefty.
“It is a fine balance,” Katz said of maximizing Crochet’s relief present and starting future. “Right now, he is a part of the bullpen. And we’ve got to take care of business this year and kind of see how things go. If there’s opportunities for a multiple-inning type of situation, like Kopech, and he’s feeling good and he’s got time to recover, then yeah.
“It was a little bit easier to kind of map out, sometimes, with Kopech, like, ‘We’re going to hold you for a start in this game.’ It might not be so easy with just two lefties in the ‘pen (Crochet and Aaron Bummer) and if we’ve got to win that game, we’ve got to win today. So it’s a balancing act.
“And it’s also (you’ve got to) see how he recovers, because the way Michael recovers to how Garrett recovers (could be different). If he goes out there and throws three innings, we might be in trouble for three to four days and that could kill the ‘pen. So it’s just a balancing act of making sure that he’s feeling good, we can push him a little bit more, but we also have coverage on the back end of the ‘pen.”
While there’s more immediate importance, arguably, in how the White Sox handle Kopech this season – he’s 20 percent of their starting rotation, after all – there’s no doubting how critical both arms are to the team’s success. The magnifying glass will be on what the White Sox do with both pitchers in 2022, not only because they’ll have plenty of impact on whether the team wins the World Series this fall but whether it wins the World Series in the falls that follow.
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