It had been a while for Michael Kopech.
The fireballing righty made his second-half debut Tuesday night in Denver, the schedule and the All-Star break and the White Sox’ desire not to overwork the still-in-development starting pitcher meaning it’d been 11 days since his previous outing.
This time, things went a lot better than the last time Kopech’s wait lasted double digits, when he was roughed up in Toronto after a 10-day break. This time, he and the defenders behind him danced out of various jams, helping a low-scoring White Sox offense win the day at homer-happy Coors Field, topping the Rockies by a 2-1 score.
Kopech wasn’t outrageously impressive, by his standards, lasting just 5.1 innings and striking out only four, while walking three. But there were no runs on the scoreboard when he left, the biggest determinant of pitching success.
Kopech’s ability to navigate through consistent trouble Tuesday was a testament to the defense behind him on this night, but it’s one of those signs you look for of someone evolving from a thrower into a pitcher.
“He’s done the work,” Tony La Russa said of Kopech earlier this month. “He’s very open-minded, and he’s willing to work. At this point of his career, … he’s still learning every time he goes out there. This is his first full year in the rotation. Johnny Cueto didn’t look like (he does in 2022) his first year.”
As the summer has worn on, though, Kopech’s effectiveness has been less of a discussion than his usage has been, perhaps no shock considering the White Sox’ longstanding vow to manage him “creatively” and ensure he’ll be strong enough to make starts in the season’s most crucial games, down the stretch and, the team hopes, well into October.
Whether it’s been Rick Hahn or La Russa or Ethan Katz, the description of the White Sox’ approach to Kopech has been consistent. Whether or not there was a number of innings team brass envisioned for Kopech, it’s never been about that number. It’s been about how Kopech has looked, how he has responded to his first full season as a big league starter a year after throwing just 70-ish innings as a bullpen arm, which of course came after back-to-back lost seasons in the wake of Tommy John surgery.
Kopech has already gone past his innings total from 2021, at 88.1 of them after Tuesday’s effort, and that’s sparked fan curiosity about how the team will spread out the remainder of his 2022 workload, some even wondering if a shutdown of sorts could be around the corner.
All of this comes a week away from baseball’s Aug. 2 trade deadline, the wonder being whether another starting pitcher added to the current, healthy group could help the White Sox better manage Kopech over the regular season’s final two months.
The name in question, considering the rumors, is old friend José Quintana, who’s been mentioned as someone the White Sox have shown interest in by folks including FanSided’s Robert Murray.
Quintana’s been good for the Pirates, with a 3.70 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 97.1 innings of work, and he happens to be a left-handed starting pitcher, something the White Sox lack after the DFA’ing of Dallas Keuchel earlier this season.
Undoubtedly, Quintana would be a nice addition, and the old maxim goes that you can never have too much pitching. From a depth perspective, he’d offer more certainty in the event of an injury elsewhere in the starting rotation than Davis Martin, the White Sox’ current sixth starter, who has been very good in brief fill-in duty this year.
The question is what the move accomplishes if no one gets hurt, and that’s where the argument that it allows the team to give Kopech repeated breaks comes in. You’d wonder if throwing Kopech out of his rhythm would perhaps do more harm than good, but as Hahn has said since the offseason, this year is about making Kopech a reliable starter for 2023 and beyond as much as it is strengthening the rotation through his work 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,” 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.”
As they stand today, the White Sox have a solid starting five, even with Lucas Giolito still searching for the kind of consistent greatness that has made him the staff ace throughout the recent past. Lance Lynn is fresh off his best start of the season and is hopeful it’s a stepping stone to the kind of routine excellence that made him the third-place finisher in last year’s AL Cy Young vote. Dylan Cease has been fantastic and should get consideration for the top spot in this year’s vote, while Cueto has surprisingly been the team’s second best starter, seemingly turning in a six-inning outing that gives it a chance to win every time out.
Kopech has been right in the middle of them, in terms of the quality of the season he’s had, but he still carries the biggest question marks.
The idea that the White Sox could limit Kopech’s workload by moving him back to the bullpen seems to be a non-starter, with Hahn saying last weekend – and Katz reiterating Tuesday to the Sun-Times – that there are no plans to make such a move. Indeed, Kopech has long been projected to be a starter, and again, part of the team’s goals this season is to make sure he can be a horse in future seasons.
“I don’t think (returning Kopech to the bullpen is) going to be the scenario,” Hahn said last Friday. “I think Michael views himself as a starter. We view him as a starter, even if there are those who view him as a closer. But we view him as a starter, and he’s comfortable in the role. Knock on wood, we’re able to maintain and keep him strong and healthy in that role through October. If we have to adjust, we’ll adjust.”
Hahn stated his desire to pursue bullpen help over the next week, and it’s likely he’ll add to a relief corps that’s been impacted by injuries. Garrett Crochet’s season-long absence and now a lengthy recovery from a lat strain for Aaron Bummer has robbed the relief corps of its late-inning lefties. Joe Kelly coming on of late is a huge development for the high-leverage group that includes Liam Hendriks, Kendall Graveman and even Reynaldo López. But surely Hahn would prefer that group was larger, hence his priority of adding bullpen arms at the deadline.
Quintana could factor in that calculus, too, hypothetically serving in the swingman role that was initially outlined for Vince Velasquez, who has been on the injured list since July 6. Quintana is a lefty, something the relief group could use more of, and he pitched out of the bullpen after going from the Angels to the Giants last August.
Hahn did not take adding a starter off the table, and doing so, whether in the form of Quintana or someone else, would serve as a really nice insurance policy, if nothing else. Because the preference seems to be for this quintet – Kopech included – to be the guys who carry the White Sox through to the end of the season.
“I would love for these to be the five from here on out,” Hahn said. “If there’s a chance to add to it and get better, we’ll look at it. I’m not sure about that market having a ton of volume in it right now. We’ll just have to wait and see. But we’re not going to say no to anything that could potentially make us better.
“I certainly know enough by this point not to ever feel comfortable that plans are going to work out when it comes to pitching, so we’re going to remain open-minded and flexible. But hopefully these are the five that stay healthy and stay strong and answer the call every fifth day.”
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