Michael Kopech threw a 95-mph fastball for a called strike with his first pitch of Game 2 of an April 18 doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.
The Chicago White Sox right-hander kept throwing strikes against his former organization in his first start since Sept. 5, 2018. Kopech allowed one run on one hit with four strikeouts and one walk in three-plus innings. He didn’t factor in the decision in a game the Sox won 5-1.
“Definitely for me, a taste of what’s to come hopefully,” Kopech said after the game.
After using him mostly as a reliever during his first full season in 2021, the Sox anticipate Kopech transferring back into a starter’s role in 2022 — and with the team not extending a qualifying offer to free agent Carlos Rodón, a spot in the rotation opened up.
“We’re going to have experienced starters in Lucas (Giolito) and Lance (Lynn), Dallas (Keuchel) and (Dylan) Cease, guys who have already had full years under their belts,” Sox general manager Rick Hahn said Tuesday at the GM Meetings at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa. “So we’re not going to be looking at (Kopech) as coming in and giving us 200 (innings) next year. We’re going to try to get him as consistently strong as possible throughout the entire season, because he was a little stronger in the first half (of 2021) than the second.
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“He did have that hamstring issue (going on the injured list from May 28-June 30 with a strained left hamstring), which put a little monkey wrench into the progression. We’re hopeful we’ll find the right balance between his workload and the rest and the pacing of next season that come October, we look around the room and say, ‘This guy deserves to be in the mix of starting a postseason game.’ ”
Kopech, 25, went 4-3 with a 3.50 ERA in 44 appearances, including four spot starts, striking out 103 and walking 24 in 69⅓ innings. He was 1-0 with a 1.93 ERA and 23 strikeouts in the four starts.
Kopech made four starts as a rookie in 2018. The day after that Sept. 5 start against the Detroit Tigers, he was diagnosed with a torn right ulnar collateral ligament and underwent Tommy John surgery Sept. 18.
After missing all of 2019 while recovering and opting out in pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Kopech made the temporary transition to the bullpen in 2021, trying to build back up his arm strength for a return to the rotation.
“With Michael in his first year in the rotation (since 2018), we’re going to have to be creative, whether it’s skipping a start or throwing an inning out of the pen on his start day, conserve those bullets and keep him strong,” Hahn said. “We’re going to rely on him and how he looks and reports as the summer goes on.”
With Kopech’s change in roles, Ryan Tepera among the veteran free agents and the team contemplating the best fit for Craig Kimbrel — either with the Sox or making a trade — the bullpen will look different in 2022.
The Sox are determining the most effective way to use lefty Garrett Crochet, who went 3-5 with a 2.82 ERA in 54 relief appearances. Crochet, 22, struck out 65 in 54⅓ innings.
“He had a very good year, which does make you hesitant to move him out of something that’s working because he is valuable in that role,” Hahn said. “That said, we still very much believe in his potential to be an impactful starter too. That’s just something we want to find a way to possibly bring out of him. What I don’t have a good answer on yet is exactly how we’re going to balance that on the ‘22 club.”
Among the options for the 2020 first-round pick is following a path similar to Kopech.
“Obviously we had Kopech probably deeper into his professional development entering the ‘21 season than Crochet was, but we were able to find a way to use (Kopech) in the bullpen but still get him the occasional start, get him stretched out some and put him in a decent position entering this season to be in the rotation,” Hahn said. “So it’s possible that’s what we do with Garrett next year. ... We haven’t just yet arrived on how best to balance the success he had in the role he performed with what we think very well might be a successful future as a starter.”
Asked if Crochet could do that while still pitching in the big leagues, Hahn said: “You saw it with Kopech last year, that all happened at the big-league level. Yes, there is a path that would have him starting in the minors for a certain amount of time and then potentially joining the bullpen at some point later in the year.
“That’s just one (hypothetical). Nothing along those lines has been determined at all. It’s just trying to be creative in a way to maximize this kid’s talent.”
Liam Hendriks is named AL reliever of the year
Liam Hendriks became the first White Sox pitcher to earn the American League’s Mariano Rivera Reliever of the Year award, which was established in 2014. Hendriks is also the first person to win it in consecutive seasons, having received the honor in 2020 with the Oakland Athletics.
Hendriks had an AL-best 38 saves in 44 opportunities, an 8-3 record and a 2.54 ERA. He led major-league relievers with 113 strikeouts, and his 0.73 WHIP and 16.14 strikeout-to-walk ratio also were tops in the AL.
Josh Hader of the Milwaukee Brewers won the National League’s Trevor Hoffman Reliever of the Year award for the third time.