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PHOENIX – Michael Kopech is the talk of White Sox camp, and not necessarily because folks are lining up to see him blow away opposing hitters.
That’s the hope, of course, for the team and its fans. But the fireballing righty has had a rocky road to his first full season as a big league starting pitcher, and the questions keep popping up.
Tony La Russa revealed Kopech was behind schedule because he wasn’t able to get in as much work as he hoped during the pandemic, and Rick Hahn informed Monday that Kopech dealt with an illness at the beginning of the year that derailed his preparation, adding that Kopech will not be ready to last too long in games when the season begins.
So when Kopech took the mound for a bullpen session Monday, all eyes turned on No. 34.
As first spring bullpens go, it wasn’t too out of the ordinary. Some good pitches, some pitches that made Kopech swear in frustration.
But this is no ordinary spring, and with the lockout preventing the White Sox from communicating with their players, this was a fact-finding mission for team brass. Ethan Katz stood a foot or two from Kopech during the entire session. La Russa watched Kopech throw from his golf cart and took notes. Rick Hahn was present. So were Kopech’s fellow starting pitchers.
Again, none of this is otherworldly, as the pitchers often draw this type of crowd. But with Kopech, the attention is more warranted than in some other situations.
“Healthy,” La Russa said when asked how Kopech looked. “You could see, just from his body language, he made a few throws (that he didn’t like). He’s got that admirable perfectionist thing.
“But (he looked) healthy, that’s what I liked. And I thought his delivery was good enough. I thought he did a good job of pitching within himself, which is something that Ethan and Curt (Hasler) have talked about. His first time out there, don’t reach for that extra now, build up to it.”
While the White Sox’ plan with Kopech remains to be seen – other than the information that there will be workload management happening from Day 1 in order to save his bullets for October – the expectations are being set. Perhaps a little high, in some cases. And that’s got White Sox people reminding everyone to manage those expectations like they’re Kopech’s workload.
“The way it should be framed by us and you and himself is be patient with (getting to what’s) reasonable,” La Russa said. “He’s working to get in the rotation for the first time. Take every start for what it is. It’s not reasonable to think he’s going to pitch as experienced and effective as (Lucas Giolito) and Lance (Lynn) and Dallas (Keuchel).
“I would never set a limit on him. I remember the first game we pitched him in (a spot start), he was supposed to pitch two innings. He looked good to me, but then he pitched into the fourth. Be fair and reasonable, we all will, and be patient with himself. When you have that talent … sometimes they get so in a hurry to get to the big leagues, they force it and they go backward.”
Joe Kelly’s Tony La Russa connection
Joe Kelly officially became a White Sock on Monday, but he’s not a newbie to everyone. He’s a former teammate of Lynn’s when the two were on the same Cardinals pitching staff, and he pitched out of the same bullpen as Craig Kimbrel for the Red Sox’ World Series team in 2018.
“Joe just brings us a different type of intensity,” Lynn said. “I’ve known Joe for a long time. Joe likes to win, he likes to get after it, and that’s what we need.”
But the most discussed connection was the one with La Russa, who was reported to have a significant influence on the signing. Kelly came up with the Cardinals, and though his big league debut came a year after La Russa’s championship-winning ride into the sunset in 2011, the two were in major league camp together that spring.
“His first big league camp was 2011,” La Russa recalled, “and I can remember to this day … I was saying this to (Dave) Duncan, ‘Wow, man.’ We didn’t know about him. And we found out they were going to send him to the Florida State League, and I said, ‘I want to manage in the Florida State League.’ He was that good looking.”
La Russa and Kelly reunited years later when La Russa was a part of the Red Sox front office during that championship season, and the two were involved in a mishap of sorts when La Russa misplaced one of his World Series rings after Kelly lent the Hall of Famer his glove to use during a ceremonial first pitch. Turns out the ring got lodged in Kelly’s glove, and the reliever was unwittingly in possession of the jewelry while folks scrambled around looking for it.
“Next day, I put my hand in it, and, ‘Ow, man, that hurts,’” Kelly remembered. “I look in there, and right where my ring finger goes in my glove, it was his World Series ring. I went to my PR guy, and I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got Tony’s ring. Tell him I want 50 grand, or I’m not giving it back.”
That joke apparently didn’t go over well.
“He just said, ‘I want my ring back.’”
Eloy’s coming, hide your heart, girl
Eloy Jiménez made his debut at White Sox camp Monday, and he brought fireworks.
For the more sensitive readers, earmuffs are recommended.
The spring batting-practice trifecta of Jiménez, Luis Robert and Micker Adolfo has been entertaining as hell for years now, dating back to their arrivals in the organization. Though Adolfo’s career hasn’t taken off like his teammates’, this group remains must-see stuff at Camelback Ranch each spring.
While batting-practice bombs count as much toward wins and trophies as the swings you take in the backyard, Jiménez should be getting White Sox fans excited for the upcoming season. His injury-induced absence a year ago was weathered nicely en route to an AL Central crown, but his presence this year could make the difference between getting to the playoffs and making a deep run.
Part of the reason the White Sox were ousted from the postseason in such disappointing fashion was a power imbalance with the Astros, who collected twice as many extra-base hits in that ALDS than the South Siders.
Jiménez has the kind of power that has folks salivating over a 40-homer season. So get used to those kinds of bombs.
Lance Lynn isn’t here to run
With so much talk of the lockout’s effects on players’ physical condition, Lynn was asked multiple times for his take on the subject, the health of his knee and how a weird offseason impacted his typical conditioning routine.
Yeah, about that.
“I’m not big on conditioning ever,” he said to chuckles. Turns out he was being serious.
“What, you have to run it across home plate to get anybody out? When we start doing that, that’s when I’m done.”
Finally exchanged pleasantries with fellow South Side Mustache Club member Dylan Cease on Monday.
“Wow, look at that. Great minds think alike.”
Next thing you know, he’ll be super into Foghat.
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