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PHOENIX — The biggest questions facing the White Sox’ pitching staff ahead of the 2022 season are only getting bigger as camp starts out in the desert.
The end of baseball’s lockout was supposed to begin the clarifying process for the South Siders, who would finally be able to get a look at Michael Kopech, finally be able to trade Craig Kimbrel and finally be able to figure out whether a starting-pitching shake up was necessary after three months of inactivity.
Instead, Tony La Russa spent his first media sessions of camp informing that Kopech has yet to throw live batting practice, proclaiming his belief that Kimbrel would be on the team’s Opening Day roster and suggesting adamantly that Dallas Keuchel was in for a bounce-back season in 2022 – before watching the lefty put plenty of guys on base in his first live BP session of the spring.
That left more questions than answers regarding exactly where the White Sox stand on the pitching front, all while La Russa echoed Rick Hahn in the insistence that pitching depth would be the most important thing as baseball steamrolls toward the regular season.
It’s not what you’d call an enviable spot to be in, even if there are camps across Arizona and Florida with similar looming mysteries. But not every team in the league has championship aspirations.
What’s the deal with Michael Kopech?
In what’s unfortunately become a preseason tradition for the White Sox, there’s mystery surrounding what Kopech will be able to give in the upcoming campaign. That was the case before the lockout brought the sport to a standstill for three months and before La Russa started talking Saturday, with Kopech elevated to the starting rotation following a season of reacclimation pitching out of the bullpen in 2021.
Given the fact that Kopech missed two entire seasons and pitched just 69.1 innings last season, it was fair to be completely unsure how effective he’d be switching back to a full-time starter’s role, and Hahn said in November that the team wasn’t anticipating the fireballer to log 200 innings, with the development that takes place in 2022 as important, if not more so, for 2023 and the years beyond as Kopech’s performance would be to the White Sox’ championship quest this year.
Then La Russa got to talking Saturday and informed that the team is rather unsure what state Kopech is in at the moment – not altogether unsurprising given its inability to communicate with him for the past three months – seeming, even, to suggest that he could be behind schedule.
“The most literal (thing we can do) early on is eyeball him when he gets here and see where he is,” La Russa said. “We followed the letter of the law, we did not reach out to anybody (during the lockout), which was really difficult. But now that Ethan (Katz) has reached out, (we know that Kopech) hasn’t done as much work, for whatever the reason. I think there are a couple of reasons.
“The fact is if he’s coming as a starter, he throws (on a) Monday, he can’t throw again until Saturday. If you count those five days, how many times out can he take the mound, how much stamina can he build?
“Take what we’ve got, be intelligent, and (we’re) pulling for him. We need him. Build him up as healthy and as slowly as we have to.”
The White Sox were already planning what Hahn called a “creative” usage when it came to Kopech, the intention to manage his workload while simultaneously making sure he’d be ready for October action. Now, more wrinkles to that planning.
One, the general effects of the lockout, which are expected to apply to pitchers across baseball. A shortened spring won’t do any favors for them, in terms of readiness to take on a regular workload, with La Russa saying that a normal six-week camp is necessary to prepare even the veterans for a 100-pitch workload come Opening Day. Well, this spring will be significantly shorter, and Kopech was already going to be working his way back into starter’s shape.
Two, apparently Kopech isn’t even up to where he should be, and that could be forcing the White Sox to reevaluate what they were going to do to fill in the innings that Kopech wasn’t anticipated to pitch. Is that more work for the bullpen? More spot starts for guys like Reynaldo López? Or more work in the immediate for Hahn, who could have to make further starting-pitching additions to be ready in case Kopech isn’t ready to shoulder much come Opening Day?
We’ll find out plenty more – as will the White Sox – once Kopech actually arrives at camp and starts throwing. But right now, more mystery.
Craig Kimbrel: To trade or not to trade?
La Russa was blunt when asked if he expected Kimbrel to be in the White Sox bullpen on Opening Day.
“Yes,” he said emphatically.
Hahn is in charge of shaping this roster and making any trades, not La Russa, and when you think about it, what else would you expect La Russa to say in this situation when talking about one of his current players?
But La Russa is not oblivious to the discussions of the winter, and he knows it’s possible he won’t have the services of a guy he’s complimented at every turn since last summer’s deadline deal. So while the emphatic “yes” might have stirred up social media, it’s the context that matters most, and La Russa provided plenty.
“He really likes it here. But he really likes closing,” La Russa said. “I like the first part of it a lot because (I know from when) I had him in Boston he’s a first-class person, family guy. He fit in very well with our team. He’s got a chance to be a Hall-of-Fame closer, right? Rock and a hard place.
“But I know him, though. Whatever role he has, he’s too competitive, going to give it his best. If he’s here, another dynamite arm. We’ll see.”
Indeed we will, and while La Russa’s comments didn’t really provide anything new, they at least shine a light on the two roads that Hahn and the front office can take with Kimbrel after picking up his $16 million option in November.
Hahn spoke volumes by making the rare, for him, move of openly discussing Kimbrel as a potential trade candidate before the lockout began, and Kimbrel’s been viewed as a probable former White Sox reliever ever since. Given his track record – as recent as making the NL All-Star team for outrageously good work with the Cubs in the first half of the 2021 season – Kimbrel can certainly still be a big league closer, and there are likely teams who would happily make him theirs.
But the White Sox, too, are currently the employers of one of the game’s all-time great relievers, and the woeful results after last year’s trade do not automatically equal the same should he remain part of the South Side bullpen. The transition from All-Star closer to setup man in front of another All-Star closer didn’t go well, but it was also trial by fire. Might a full offseason to better acclimate himself to his new job with a new team yield the hoped for results? It might.
Here’s one certainty La Russa provided: If Kimbrel stays a White Sock, he’ll be back in that setup role.
“He’s going to pitch like (he did when) we got him last year,” La Russa said. “(He’ll) pitch late, and if we are winning a bunch of games, he can close when you want to protect Liam. … There’s not a script for those games: ‘You’re the closer Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and you’ve got Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday.” That’s just not the way games are played.
“I think if he’s here, the fact that he had the experience last year making that transition, he’s had to deal with how different that is. All I know is, when we got him, he was as good as any closer in baseball. He’s been that way his whole (time in the) game. Having him in our bullpen, if we’re ‘stuck’ with him, I’m happy as I can be.”
But there was an even greater statement made in the hours after La Russa spoke, with the White Sox reportedly adding free-agent reliever Joe Kelly on a two-year deal, further beefing up the back end of the bullpen, even crowding it to the point that a Kimbrel trade makes sense as one of Hahn’s next moves.
To La Russa’s point, Kimbrel staying has the potential to make for a ferocious relief corps, the kind of thing Hahn envisioned when he traded for Kimbrel back in July. But Kimbrel, too, especially now that Kelly and Kendall Graveman have helped stem a bullpen exodus, could provide other immediate benefits to a team still in the process of building for a run at a championship.
Starting-pitching shake up?
We know the White Sox won’t be bringing Carlos Rodón back after the left-hander agreed to a two-year deal with the Giants on Friday. Meanwhile, though, there remains a need on the starting staff.
That’s not to say the White Sox don’t have five guys, because they do: Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn, Dylan Cease, Keuchel and Kopech. Five starting pitchers! Ah! Ah! Ah!
But Hahn mentioned pitching depth as a priority for his front office now that transactions are back on, and La Russa echoed his general manager Saturday.
“It’s going to be the story, I think, of at least the first couple months,” La Russa said. “Every organization’s depth is really going to be tapped.”
As discussed above, that depth was already going to be crucial for the White Sox, given the Kopech uncertainty, and now that there’s potentially even more Kopech uncertainty, it’s going to be even more crucial. It’s plenty reasonable to be of the opinion that just López and some minor leaguers past the current starting five won’t cut it.
It would not be at all surprising to see Hahn make a necessary, if unsexy, move to bring in an arm or two who could fill in in a pinch for an injured starter but might start the season as a long reliever in the big league bullpen or a starter in the Triple-A rotation.
Of course, plenty of fans will hope for far more than that, especially after seeing the results of Keuchel’s live batting practice sessions Saturday, in which the lefty allowed three of the five hitters he faced in each of two innings to reach base, three via base hits, two via doubles and one via a walk.
Those results are relatively meaningless, of course, given that it’s the opening days of camp and this was the backfield at Camelback Ranch, not Game 7 of the World Series or even an April afternoon in Detroit. But they’re also the kind of results Keuchel made a habit of last season, when he had a career-worst year and was left off the White Sox’ playoff roster.
La Russa, for one, is confident in a Keuchel bounce back, something that doesn’t require a wild imagination considering the lefty’s historical tendency to swing back and forth between stellar seasons and less-than-ideal ones.
“You look at his career, this guy is a high-quality pitcher,” La Russa said. “At the end of the year, you guys did interviews with him, and what did he say? ‘I wasn’t happy. I’m disappointed.’ So here’s a guy with that track record, what do you think he’s been doing all winter? ‘Give me the ball.’
“So I’m fired up. I know he was working with a lot of the guys that pitched (Friday), and they say he’s looking good. I think we’re lucky to have him.”
But while La Russa’s belief in one of his players was unsurprising, so too was it unsurprising that the news of Keuchel’s Saturday afternoon base-runner festival was greeted with moans on social media and calls for him to be jettisoned from the rotation in favor of an upgrade.
Getting better is a stated daily goal for Hahn’s front office as it navigates through Hot Stove Spring, and certainly there’s nothing saying that a shake up is impossible. But Keuchel, one of the highest paid players on the team and a guy brought in as a free-agent splash whose championship history was supposed to help the White Sox make some of their own, is not the type of guy who gets cut too often. And so the idea of upgrading the rotation comes with other items on the to-do list: If you want the White Sox to add an impact starting pitcher from outside the organization, they’ll have to make room for him.
Is that one of Hahn’s next planned moves after he kickstarted his post-lockout work with the Kelly and Josh Harrison additions Saturday? We’ll find out. As of now, though, more question marks on a pitching staff with no shortage of them.
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