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Kopech's role for Sox could change over course of 2021 originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
We know where Michael Kopech will start the 2021 season. We know where the White Sox want Kopech to end up in the long term.
The journey between those two points, though, seems a bit fluid.
Kopech will begin the 2021 season as a part of a ferocious White Sox bullpen. While it views Kopech as a long-term starter, the team wants to ease him back into things after he missed the entirety of the last two campaigns. With the start of the Triple-A season delayed until May, there's no point in having Kopech wait around any longer just so the White Sox can manage his innings in the minors. Plus, as Kopech has shown in fleeting glimpses of past action — including that electric Cactus League inning a year ago — he's a potentially dominating pitcher who can help the White Sox immensely in their quest for a championship.
Of course, that's the whole idea behind what general manager Rick Hahn called a "creative" approach to Kopech's usage during the 2021 regular season, that the White Sox would have that flame-throwing right arm at full strength and at their disposal come October. Starting him every fifth day beginning April 1 might not make that possible.
And so Kopech will begin the season in the bullpen. But manager Tony La Russa admitted that might not be a permanent thing, not just in reference to Kopech's targeted place in the 2022 rotation but as a preview of what could happen should all that talent bloom after a two-year hibernation.
"I think the answer has to be yes," La Russa said Thursday, asked if Kopech's role could change over the course of the 2021 season, "mostly because the season is so unpredictable. Nobody has a crystal ball. You start out with him as a starter-in-waiting and getting some experience and learning, but as the season gets on and the opportunities are there — and the way he competes, we're going to try and win, so you take your best shot and he's going to try to be part of that best shot. So (we're) not putting any limitations on him."
For Kopech, that means adjusting to a relief role while also being a potential midseason addition to the rotation. While four spots on the White Sox starting staff are well spoken for — by Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Lance Lynn and Dylan Cease — the fifth spot comes with some big question marks. Carlos Rodón and Reynaldo López, among others, are battling for that gig in camp. Youngsters like Jimmy Lambert and Jonathan Stiever figure to be minor league options. And Hahn said he expects the White Sox to have the "economic ability" to add at the deadline, if need be.
But, in the event of the team needing a starting-pitching fix, what if Kopech is the best solution, just a few hundred feet away in the left-field bullpen at Guaranteed Rate Field?
It goes hand in hand with the double-barrel mission when it comes to Kopech: prepare him for regular starting work in 2022 and beyond, as well as utilize him as a weapon during a championship chase in 2021. The possibility exists that those two priorities might overlap at some point.
"We're developing him as a starter," La Russa said of the White Sox long-term approach to Kopech. "Becoming a starter in the big leagues, where you've got the assignment every five days, is a tremendous responsibility. Many times it's unfair, unless a pitcher has a lot of experience.
"Nowadays, as quickly as we're rushing pitchers to the big leagues, it makes even more sense if you can take him for year — it's what we did with Adam (Wainwright with the St. Louis Cardinals) — and pitch him as needed. ... There's a lot of advantages to breaking in a young guy, and getting his feet wet as a reliever."
As for how Kopech is approaching things?
"I’m still going to pitch the way I know how to pitch and the way that I’ve been working on pitching, which is throwing to the glove, commanding all my pitches, rather than just trying to blow stuff by people or wipeout breaking balls or whatever the case might be," he said. "I’m still going to have a starter’s approach out of the bullpen."
That could serve him well should a new role present itself in the middle of the season.
As for when that would possibly happen? Well, if you know, let La Russa and the White Sox borrow your crystal ball. But it would depend on how things are going, what kind of need, if any, there might be in the rotation and how Kopech is pitching out of the 'pen, obviously.
Being creative involves flexibility and fluidity. And so when it sounds like Kopech isn't even sure what his 2021 will look like — "right now, it’s kind of whatever they need out of me" — it's because no one can know for sure.
That book is still to be written. That fire is still to be thrown.
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