Michael Kopech is back. Now, what's his immediate future?

Michael Kopech is back. Now, what’s his immediate future?

“I wouldn’t say that I’ve had nothing going on.”

That’s about as close as Michael Kopech got to detailing the personal reasons that led him to opt out of the 2020 season in his Zoom conference with reporters on Saturday. Then again, when the not-nothing can be found by googling his name, he can leave the work to others.

He might’ve talked around the turmoil, but he still centered it in the conversation for sufficient honesty. Last year’s team-involved dialogue swung between Don Cooper fretting and wondering aloud, “I sure hope he’s OK,” and Kopech’s side saying that he merely didn’t trust the path back from Tommy John surgery during a shortened season. The news items that leaked afterward to celebrity news outlets over the summer suggested Cooper was closer, even if he was unwise in how he voiced his concern.

Some might say the specifics are none of our business. I’d argue it helps us to know a little bit, mostly in order to know if we’re even considering the correct things. His previous candor regarding anxiety and depression is as rare as it is welcome, but it can make it too easy to draw wrong conclusions about baseball struggles, as though mental health concerns are pertinent to only him. Sometimes it just might be a mechanical thing.

Here, the questions are:

  1. Was there any fallout from last year’s decision?
  2. Is he in the right headspace to contribute from here?

Regarding the former, no, although having a new manager and pitching coach kinda cleaned the slate for him. Tony La Russa has issued nothing but support so far. He sounded giddy — by La Russa standards, anyway — about Kopech’s first bullpen session. With Kopech joining the Zoom call after the manager’s session on Saturday, reporters asked him about the reintegration to the team.

“He’s totally embraced,” La Russa said. “The guys are really happy to see him, everybody’s celebrating the birth of the baby. We’re all celebrating the way he’s throwing.”

As for his path back to the majors, which Rick Hahn said could take the shape of a bullpen spot if it’s the best place to face live hitting at the start of the season, La Russa left it more open-ended.

“I think he’s excited to be back, excited to be healthy, and we’re making it real clear: This is going to be a competitive camp. The guys that pitch and play the best are the ones that get to pitch and play.”

* * * * * * * * *

Kopech didn’t sound as excited. Partially because audible excitement isn’t in his natural vocal arsenal, partially because he sounds like he’s been through a lot and wanted to avoid airing it out, and partially because being two years away from actual game action means that he’s not in a position to let his guard down.

He chose a different word when asked him how he felt: “Relieved.” And when asked about the moment where he felt fully back in the saddle, Kopech said it hasn’t happened yet.

As Kopech addressed the second question above, it sounds like such a moment should be around the corner. Reading his body, Kopech said, “My arm’s feeling as good as it has been in a long time.” As for his mind, he spoke a lot about regaining perspective and being the best version of himself, but not just for himself.

“I think that the past year I’ve really had an opportunity to kinda sit back and look at things from the outside and I’ve been around a lot of people who care about my career, but also care about me as a person,” Kopech said. “I’ve just spent a lot of time trying to better myself for my teammates when I got back, and my life moving forward. I think taking that time away from baseball was kinda hard, but I think it was important for me. But now I’m back and ready to compete.”

Kopech’s time away was so away that he said he didn’t watch much of the White Sox last year, but removing baseball from his life to the extent that he did made its role more understandable.

“I think I learned that I need this game a lot more than I realized,” Kopech said. “It’s a lot easier said than done to take a step away from something you’ve done for your entire life. Taking a step back from that and realizing how big of a piece it is to this entire puzzle for me has kind of just put it all in perspective.”

Later on the call, he drew a tie to his new fatherhood status:

“Like any young person does, I’ve lived a life that’s pretty selfish for the past six, seven years, whatever my minor league career has been. Now I have a life that I have to look after that’s a lot more important than being selfish. My career doesn’t just dictate my future anymore, but it dictates my son’s, and that’s kinda all the motivation I need.”

* * * * * * * * *

Kopech sounds open to any plans the White Sox have for his return to the 26-man roster. He said the team proved it could succeed without him, so he’s ready to help however they want him to, with designs on proving himself along the way. He said that the plans for 2021 are still vague, and we probably won’t have more defined answers until players begin accruing real spring workloads.

If you’re impatient and looking for details of any kind, James Fegan relayed Dallas Keuchel’s ideas for a Kopech plan, which are even more bullpen-centric:

“In my opinion as well, he would be better suited in the bullpen for an inning or two, and then you could kind of vary his innings to match what you want (in order) to give him a full season. And if we’re playing 20 games in the playoffs you have to add those extra innings, as well,” Sox starter Dallas Keuchel said. “I would rather see somebody else start if they’re going to go five or six innings, bring Mike back in for an inning or two and start adding his innings up to where, hey, you’ve got an inning or two at a time, let’s focus on those two and everybody else fills in the last two innings or something like that.”

That sounds great, but it’s contingent on a couple things, such as Kopech’s routine shifting seamlessly to relief work. More pressing, it requires the White Sox having enough non-Kopech options who are able to go five or six innings, which was the primary reason why many stumped for the Sox to sign rotation depth more durable than Carlos Rodón. It already feels like wishcasting to hope the Sox could avoid requiring Kopech’s starting services for the first month or two. This plan requires the Sox avoiding that option for seven months.

Then again, with a new manager and pitching coach on board, the consideration of alternative starter strategies is no longer quixotic, and we shouldn’t be thinking in strict terms of “five or six innings” from the fifth spot. Perhaps La Russa and Ethan Katz will eschew the opener or tandem plans like Rick Renteria and Cooper did, but I don’t think the Sox would overhaul their coaching staff only to preserve the strategies of 10 years ago. I wouldn’t have trusted the old administration to get through a 162-game season without Kopech in a traditional form, but that old framework is no longer relevant. It’s nice to sit back and see how a new usage plan unfolds, and it’ll be even better to see Kopech take part in it, regardless of the part.

(Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire)

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