December 6, 2016 will forever be a watershed moment in the history of the Chicago White Sox franchise. It was on that day the South Siders chose a defined course after years of meddling. Whether that decision was right or wrong is still a matter of some conjecture. But nevertheless, it will be one that receives heavy scrutiny well into the future. On that day, the White Sox sent ace starting pitcher Chris Sale, who was on a Hall of Fame trajectory at the time, to the Boston Red Sox. The two centerpieces of the deal were uber prospects Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech.
Moncada and Kopech were identified as the two players that were to lead the next great White Sox team. One on the field every day in Moncada, and Kopech to spearhead a rotation that was expected to be the envy of the league. Five-plus years since the trade, the returns have been very mixed for a variety of different reasons. Moncada has battled inconsistency while Kopech has endured physical ailments that caused him to lose close to two and a half years of development time.
All of that is in the past now, but the two will forever be linked because they comprised the return for a player that could have gone down as the greatest pitcher in the history of an American League charter franchise. Now in 2022, Moncada and Kopech have the ability to change the fate of the White Sox if they can reach the star levels expected of them at the time of the deal.
Michael Kopech is transitioning back into the starting rotation in 2022 for the first time in four seasons. This ramp-up will have its fair share of complications and question marks. The right-handed fireballer from Texas will be on an innings limit this season, though no one outside the organization knows what that number truly is. Many have speculated somewhere in the range of 120-130 innings is the most likely outcome for Kopech. This will leave a significant gap in terms of innings that the team must cover.
Lance Lynn’s knee injury, which will sideline him well into May at the earliest, further complicates the innings shortfall. Kopech himself underwent a slow build-up during Spring Training, only appearing in two contests. His first start of the regular season was respectable but only spanned four innings, which figures to be a common occurrence in 2022.
Getting Kopech to consistently cover at least 15 outs, something I will drive home repeatedly in printed word and on Sox On Tap podcasts this season, will be paramount if the White Sox are going to survive the six-month marathon. Kopech’s ability to limit additional strain for an already thinned pitching staff will come into focus with more turns through the rotation.
Kopech acquitted himself nicely during his first full MLB season a year ago, pitching out of the bullpen. He threw 69.1 IP of 3.50 ERA ball with 13.37 K/9. His peripheral numbers were solid as well, posting a .261 xwOBA, which was in the 93rd percentile of baseball last season. There were ups and downs as he battled dead arm phases on a few occasions but that was to be expected given it was his first game action since late 2018. Kopech’s transition to the starting rotation this season was always going to be one of the more intriguing White Sox storylines of 2022.
It will be imperative for Michael Kopech to consistently provide the desired length Tony La Russa and Ethan Katz set out for him on a start-by-start basis. This team simply cannot afford to have games in which Kopech’s control and command evade him and put additional strain on this bullpen. If Kopech can consistently provide the team with the predetermined number of outs, it will go a long way toward his development and ensuring the bullpen gets adequate rest over the course of a 162-game schedule.
There is perhaps no player on the Chicago White Sox roster that elicits as much emotion on a daily basis as Yoan Moncada. By far the most polarizing player in a White Sox uniform, Moncada has an opportunity to control the narrative surrounding his presence with a strong 2022 season. Sadly, things are off to a bumpy start as the third baseman landed on the injured list prior to Opening Day.
Moncada’s injury opened up his detractors to do their usual song and dance where they question his toughness and desire. Ultimately, Moncada has an opportunity to put this narrative to bed with a strong season when he returns sooner, which is hopefully rather than later.
As I’ve talked about in the past, Moncada is a good player. Yoan ranked tied for ninth in the league with a .375 OBP a year ago, amassing 4.5 fWAR. I know those numbers tell me that the Cuban third baseman is a useful player, but I understand some of the frustrations within the fan base surrounding his play. It’s perfectly fine to want more from Moncada. The player we saw in 2019 was looking like an MVP-caliber one — the type of player that would take some of the sting away from trading away a franchise cornerstone.
Since that breakout season, his power has receded, leading to frustration among fans. Again, let me be clear, Yoan Moncada is a good baseball player. But we know he has more upside in him. If the White Sox are to make a deep run into October, they will need the soon-to-be 27-year-old to play closer to the level he achieved three years ago. If the Pale Hose can get the Moncada that has the high on-base skills coupled with power production that generates a slugging percentage of .480 or higher, I think it will go a long way to assuage the detractors.
Michael Kopech and Yoan Moncada will forever be linked because they came to the Chicago White Sox organization together at the expense of trading a future Hall of Famer. Those are certainly big shoes to fill, but we’ve seen that both players have the ability to be difference-makers.
I firmly believe that no two players can alter the trajectory of the 2022 season more than Kopech and Moncada. Both have faced immense scrutiny from the fan base and they have an opportunity to reshape the narratives that surround them to this point. Both are already behind schedule as the season begins, so it is now incumbent upon them to make up for lost time.
If Kopech is able to take the next step and be a consistent presence in the rotation, for however long that is, this team will be able to weather the storm of Lance Lynn’s absence a little better. Once he returns, if Moncada is able to show the skill set that made him a darling of the scouting community — and if the run production matches what his advocates stand behind on a daily basis — the White Sox are going to be an offensive force.
One thing is certain: no two players will be under a microscope more than Michael Kopech and Yoan Moncada in 2022. As they go, so go the 2022 Chicago White Sox, in my opinion. If they put it all together, they have a chance to rewrite the narratives and potentially cement legacies at the corner of 35th/Shields.
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