Does the Michael Kopech injury dramatically alter the timeline of the White Sox rebuild?


The White Sox just lost their top-ranked pitching prospect.

They’ll get him back, but likely not until the 2020 season, that news dropping Friday afternoon like a bomb on the team’s high-profile rebuilding effort. Kopech will likely undergo Tommy John surgery and miss not just the last few weeks of this season but the entirety of the 2019 season, as well.

The immediate question is, obviously, what it means for Kopech, who stands out in the organization’s wealth of talented prospects as a future star, someone who has talked about himself becoming a Cy Young winner — and has received that same projection from those around the game. His recent promotion energized not just those in the stands at Guaranteed Rate Field but those in the home clubhouse, too. He’s a flamethrower who struck out a combined 327 batters in two seasons as a White Sox minor leaguer.

Though the White Sox rotation of the future figures to be a crowded one, many fans and observers pegged Kopech as the potential ace of that staff. Where those projections stand after Friday’s news, however, is a complete mystery.

These days, Tommy John surgery hardly prevents pitchers from returning to dominance. In announcing the news, general manager Rick Hahn spoke multiple times about his belief that Kopech will still be a big-time big league starting pitcher.

“This is by no means the last we’ve seen of Michael Kopech,” Hahn said. “This is the last we’ve seen of him for ’18 and very likely for ’19, but he’s still going to play a significant role on what we project to be some very, very good White Sox teams in the future.

“We’ve been through these before. Lucas Giolito is … one who has been through it before. Dylan Cease was just named minor league pitcher of the year by, he has been through it before. These guys get back to the level that they’re capable of pitching at.

“We saw, prior to this, it was a wonderful year for Michael. He showed you what he’s capable of doing at the big league level. He’s capable of dominating at this level. He’s an extremely diligent worker who’s going to have some tough work ahead of him in the near future, but again, by 2020 he’s going to be back and building off of what he’s accomplished this season.”

But the missed season is no small thing.

Kopech was just four starts into his big league career, and we’ve seen this season how the first full go-round at the major league level can be full of challenges. Look at the up-and-down campaigns from Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez. If 2020 arrives and the White Sox rebuild has advanced to the point where they’re ready to start competing and contending, will Kopech be ready to compete at the level the team will need him to when he’s still getting his first tastes of the big leagues?

Kopech’s injury is a big deal, but it’s far from the only affliction to befall one of the White Sox highly touted prospects. Luis Robert, Dane Dunning, Alec Hansen, Jake Burger, Micker Adolfo and Zack Burdi all missed significant time this season or have yet to return from their respective injuries, stealing development time away from them, as well. Throw Kopech into the mix, and the entire timeline of the rebuilding effort could be altered from where it was at the beginning of the calendar year.

Hahn is, and justifiably so, confident that his front office has imported enough talent into the organization that it can weather even this long list of significant injuries. But he also brought up the idea of needing to bring in more help this offseason to make up for some of the bad luck.

“I don’t want to make any bold proclamations one way or the other right now. We’re still digesting all of this,” Hahn said when asked about how Kopech’s injury could affect the long-term picture. “I do know that throughout this process, we were making this about more than just one guy. We knew that there were going to be setbacks, whether it was due to injury or other performance, and that we were going to have to be prepared and have enough depth in order to insulate ourselves, either internally or via trade and free agency, to be able to withstand some of this stuff.

“Yes, this is going to be a challenge, but in the coming weeks and months we will respond to it and put ourselves in the best position for the long term.”

So that 2020 date that so many fans and observers had circled as the point when this thing was going to move from rebuilding to contending. It, to borrow a phrase of Hahn’s, by no means is out of the question at this point. But does it come into question? With Kopech a year behind and coming off a long layoff, with all of those other guys further behind schedule than they would have been without the injury-induced absences, does the timeline shift?

We won’t know until that date roll around. But it seems a perfectly reasonable question to ask in the wake of the biggest news of the White Sox season.

Here’s what we know: When Kopech makes his first start of the 2020 season, it will be just the fifth of his major league career, or about 20-something fewer than it was supposed to be. That seems pretty impactful.

“This obviously hurts. It’s obviously a disappointment,” Hahn said. “But it’s one that we tried to prepare ourselves for along the way. You’ve heard us speak repeatedly throughout this process about the importance of depth, the importance of quality options and the importance of us never feeling like we had enough. We do have other quality arms coming up through the system behind Michael that will contribute in the coming years, and we also feel that Michael has a bright future in a White Sox uniform for a very long time.

“Unfortunately for all of us, we’re going to have to wait a little bit longer before we start seeing him on a regular basis on that mound.”

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