Taking stock of the White Sox rotation after Michael Kopech opts out of 2020 season

Among the list of hope-inspiring arrivals to the 2020 White Sox was the return of Michael Kopech, who missed the end of his 2018 campaign and all of the 2019 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. The hope was for the prized once-prospect to get back on track in a shortened season and make strides in his long-term development, be it as a member of the rotation or as some heat out of the bullpen.

It took some by surprise, then, when it was announced that Kopech was to not participate in MLB’s 2020 season. While he’s not medically considered high-risk, Kopech’s decision, the same one made by 12 other players, is not one to be negatively judged. Even putting aside the risks of playing amidst a still-raging pandemic that we know so little about, there is also risk in rushing back to play 60 games in 66 days and throwing 100+ MPH, while playing only one live game since Tommy John surgery. Kopech’s choice, it seems, was delivered and accepted amicably.

White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito via Zoom

“We as a team, as an organization, especially us as players, we support Michael in everything he’s going through,” Giolito said after starting the team’s intrasquad game today. “It’s just one of those things where he doesn’t feel comfortable being here and it’s a very strange season to begin with. Like he’s not the only player to opt-out, so it is what it is.”

With Kopech’s absence, the image of the White Sox’ rotation becomes a little clearer, though we may still not know what their best assortment of arms is even by the end of the season. Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel’s roles are certain as the front two starters of the rotation, with Giolito likely to get the ball come July 24.  Beyond them are a group of arms with a lot of questions that may still not be answered by the end of the season.

“I think the depth that we have, starting-pitching wise is great,” Giolito said.

Between Carlos Rodón, Dylan Cease, Reynaldo López and Gio Gonzalez, the White Sox have four pitchers who could theoretically fill out the last three starting spots, or four if they go with a six-man rotation.

“I really do love the mix of pitching that we have here,” Gonzalez said last Tuesday. “I think we have plenty of fire arms, especially from a couple starters and definitely guys out of the ‘pen”

On the surface at least, Gio Gonzalez seems to make the most sense as the third starter behind Keuchel and Giolito. Signed for on the cheap for one year at $5 million, Gonzalez comes off a year in which he only pitched 87.1 innings for the Brewers. In that time, though, he gave the Brewers solid production with an 8.04 K/9 and a 3.50 ERA. His 3.81 BB/9 gives concern for control, especially since it was on the higher end for his career, but some of that could be explained by injury. But his 4.04 FIP is encouraging, and if he can repeat what he did in 17 starts for Milwaukee last season, with some expected regression, he could be a valuable contributor to the middle of the Sox’ rotation.

Also a possibility for that spot is Carlos Rodón, who made only seven starts before going down with a torn UCL that required Tommy John surgery. To this point, Rodón hasn’t fully put everything together in the way of health and command, but a nine-game stretch from July through August of 2018 was what he can look like if everything comes together; he went 5-0 over 63.2 innings pitched with 49 strikeouts and a 1.84 ERA. He never got the chance to build off that run that now seems so far in the rearview mirror, but now, finally fully healthy, he may approach that place once again.

Reynaldo López has been around the Majors since his 2016 debut with the Washington Nationals, and after a full season in 2018 where he pitched to a 3.81 ERA, he emerged as a potential middle-of-the-rotation starter with possible upside to go beyond that. He easily hits mid-90s on his fastball and, based on velocity and movement, BaseballSavant compares him to 2018 Max Scherzer.

2019 wrote a completely different story however, a year in which he gave up the fourth-most home runs in baseball and his ERA ballooned to 5.38. His walk rate actually dropped last year, from 3.58 BB/9 in 2018 to 3.18, but giving up 1.71 home runs per nine innings is a brutal stat to achieve. López has attributed a lot of that to mental lapses and worked to adjust his focus in the offseason. It’s tough to make a long-term assessment on somebody over a 60-game season, but a make-or-break year could be on the horizon for López.

The White Sox probably didn’t plan Dylan Cease’s 2019 debut to go exactly the way it did. While he flashed his tantalizing stuff, throwing in the 87th percentile in fastball spin and in the 68th percentile for curveball spin, per BaseballSavant, through 73 innings pitched, his 1.85 HR/9 and 4.32 BB/9 showed a pitcher who greatly struggled with command.

But part of the growth process is letting a pitcher work through their struggles, and Cease figures to be on the roster throughout 2020. He’s unlikely to land behind Keuchel and Giolito for the three spot instead of Gonzalez or even Rodón, but as he gets more fine-tuned throughout the season and starts to gain command on his fastball, he could be extremely effective both in the rotation or even out of the bullpen if necessary.

“I think Cease’s arm is incredible how he gets the spin behind the ball,” Gonzalez said.

As this staff comes together, the final two names to watch out for are Dane Dunning and Jimmy Lambert, both making a return from Tommy John surgery. Though the six names above have the best chances to make up the rotation, Lambert and Dunning could work their way in somehow, either through the bullpen or making spot starts. The plan is for both of them to start off at the club’s second site in Schaumburg and potentially work their way into the fold if need be, but they offer depth to a rotation that doesn’t have a clear shape quite yet.

Hear audio from Joe McEwing and Lucas Giolito