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Change of Plans: Implications of the White Sox Not Continuing to Stretch Out Michael Kopech

Michael Kopech's perplexing usage since his return from injury in July has compounded the problems caused by late-season injuries to the White Sox starting rotation.
Michael Kopech Chicago White Sox

Photo: WhiteSox/Twitter

Coming into 2021, most White Sox fans assumed that a physically and mentally healthy Michael Kopech would be ramped up to assume a spot in the starting rotation by the end of the championship season. Before his hamstring exploded after throwing a pitch against the Cardinals on May 26, it appeared as though that was the plan to an extent.

However, somewhere along the way the plans changed and Kopech has essentially become a single-inning reliever, which could spell some issues going forward for the young hurler and the Sox.

Veering Off Course

Before the aforementioned hamstring issue in late May that cost Kopech over a month of the season, it appeared as though the team was focused on building up his innings and stretching him out to give him a clear path to the starting rotation either by season's end or by 2022. Many in the fan base, yours truly included, believed he would take hold of a rotation spot in favor of either Carlos Rodon or Dylan Cease by the start of September at the latest. If you look at his early-season usage, a compelling case could be made that the team viewed him as a potential starting option in the later months of the 2021 campaign.

Kopech made 14 appearances before the fateful afternoon game in May. During those 14 outings, 11 of them were multi-inning roles with three spot starts sprinkled in. During those spot starts, two of which came in shortened doubleheader appearances, he would pitch anywhere from 3-5 innings. Kopech seemingly was the "go-to guy" for those double dips as a means to not only stretch out his arm but help give the pitching staff quality innings in tight situations.

Fast forward to his return on July 1, and Kopech has since made 26 relief appearances with only six of them being multi-inning affairs. Granted, some of this issue has been due to ineffectiveness in particular outings, however, he has never gone longer than 2.1 IP in any outing since his return. This is a strange turn of events considering how he was utilized prior to the injury. When the White Sox have been pressed into doubleheader duty thanks to cancellations, we've seen the likes of Jimmy Lambert and Reynaldo Lopez most frequently take the hill for those shortened-game starts, not Kopech.

The question that has to be asked is, why? What changed when he went on the injured list in May that caused the team to deviate from a seemingly well laid out plan during the season's first two months? We've never gotten any clarification as to why the young fireballer has essentially become a single-inning, low-leverage reliever.

Compounded Issue

As we sit here on September 22 with a division title to be clinched any day now, this team is faced with a new problem. Carlos Rodon simply cannot be relied upon to provide quality starts from game to game the way we saw in the season's first half. Six weeks of shoulder soreness has seen the lefty, who was in the midst of his best season as a big leaguer, become a shell of the pitcher we saw in the season's first half. Many of us had penciled Rodon into a starting role for one of the three guaranteed games of the ALDS. However, we can no longer with any sense of certainty do that.

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Photo: NBC Sports Chicago

Photo: NBC Sports Chicago

This brings us back to Michael Kopech and his strange usage. Had the White Sox continued on the path of using Kopech in multiple innings and stretching out his arm, he potentially could have been slotted into Rodon's rotation spot. Now, if the southpaw is unable to take the ball when Game 3 of the ALDS rolls around on October 10, we are looking at a scenario where the inconsistent Dylan Cease or cooked Diamond Dallas Keuchel will be starting the team's first home playoff game in 13 years.

How Kopech went from holding a spot starter role and being stretched out for multiple innings to a seemingly three-out reliever is vexing, to say the least. The injury situation with Carlos Rodon and question marks surrounding his availability only add another layer of mystery as to why Kopech was handled in the manner he has been since his return. The fact that there has been little to no clarity provided by the team only leaves many of us to wonder what exactly is going on here.

Cloudy Future

I still think most of us within the fan base view Michael Kopech as an eventual mainstay in the starting rotation. However, having only accrued 61 innings here in 2021 could prove to be problematic. The fact that he has not been stretched out more than what we've seen to this point could have serious ramifications going into 2022.

Michael Kopech White Sox

Photo: WhiteSox/Twitter

I'm fully aware that he hadn't thrown a competitive pitch since August of 2018 heading into the season, but one now has to question what Kopech's path to a future White Sox rotation spot looks like. I hate to say this, but if he is installed in the rotation to start next season we could very well be looking at a repeat of the situation we are currently seeing unfold with Carlos Rodon. A lack of buildup for the young righty may well lead to bouts of dead arm/fatigue that puts the White Sox in a similar position come late next season.

Obviously, I'm jumping the gun by thinking about what the 2022 White Sox rotation will look like, but this is something that has to be taken into consideration when evaluating Kopech's usage this season. Had he been stretched out and given multi-inning roles the way he was up until his hamstring injury, perhaps this team would be better equipped to handle the issues they are currently facing with Carlos Rodon's achy shoulder.

For now, we have to hope that a week off in between starts against Cincinnati and then potentially another extended breather before Game 3 of the ALDS against Houston will get Carlos Rodon back to the point where he can be effective once again. Had Michael Kopech been stretched out more effectively in the season's second half, some of these concerns could've been alleviated. Alas, these intertwined issues will now be at the forefront for a team that is limping into October.