By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Walking through the streets of this great city as the newly acquired star prospect, being recognized as the guy whose powerful arm produced a 110-mph throw on a viral video, Michael Kopech is a long way from his home in small-town Texas.
The new fame, the high hopes, the pictures, the autographs, the selfies, it’s all different for the 20-year-old Kopech.
“It’s something I’ve had to adjust to,” Kopech said.
Kopech’s new status as a face of the White Sox’s future was on display this past weekend at the annual SoxFest convention, which gathered diehard fans at the downtown Hilton to welcome in a new season. Only this SoxFest was different, with the fan base instead more focused on celebrating its now-promising future rather than this 2017 season.
Even general manager Rick Hahn was transparent enough to admit struggles could be headed the White Sox’s way as they build for the future. Judging by the reception for a young player like Kopech, the fans are re-energized by a new direction.
The White Sox started their busy offseason with a blockbuster deal in December that sent ace left-hander Chris Sale to the Red Sox for a return headlined by Kopech, a right-hander and the No. 16 prospect in the new MLB.com rankings, and second baseman Yoan Moncada, the second-rated prospect. Then, Hahn pulled a mega deal for outfielder Adam Eaton that returned right-hander Lucas Giolito (No. 11 prospect) and right-hander Reynaldo Lopez (No. 46) as the headliners.
Now, the White Sox boast six of the top 100 prospects in the game, per MLB.com rankings. Should they find the right package for left-hander Jose Quintana — Hahn is holding out for the right price — they could have even more.
Kopech and Giolito were two of the stars at the SoxFest, the arms of the White Sox’s future. They were two of the major returns from these blockbuster deals, two pitchers who inspire hope for the organization. Kopech will start the season at high Class-A or Double-A, Hahn has said. Giolito is likely to start at Triple-A.
“The talent’s amazing,” Giolito said. “Just look at all these guys. We’re all here, we’re ready to work, we’re ready to put it all together.
“I’m excited that we’re all going to develop together and put a good team together here in Chicago.”
Giolito wasn’t too surprised when his name was included in the deal for Eaton — certainly not nearly as surprised as most in Chicago were. Hahn caught the Nationals pressed in win-now mode, looking at a possible future without superstar Bryce Harper after the 2017 season. In Giolito, the White Sox landed another potential top-end starter two days after landing Kopech.
The 22-year-old Giolito has an imposing frame on the mound, standing at 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds. His big league debut didn’t go as planned this past season, with the rookie posting a 6.75 ERA in 21 1/3 innings. That doesn’t concern the White Sox, who plan on starting him in Triple-A Charlotte and developing him to their liking.
As for Kopech, his viral video was the talk of SoxFest. It’s rare to see a radar gun hit 110 mph. Driving that fast in Illinois is a Class-A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison. Kopech downplayed it, explaining he was working in the “overload phase” of his arm-training program. Essentially, it was a max-out session for velocity with an underload phase ball.
“It’s not something I really thrive to do, throw a certain number,” Kopech said. “Velocity’s always cool, and I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to throw extremely hard. That’s great for me. But my main focus is pitching. If I can use that tool to help me get somebody out, that’s all it’s for.”
Still, it caught the attention of the White Sox in attendance. Top catching prospect Zack Collins has faced Kopech once before.
“Thank God he walked me,” Collins joked. “Don’t tell him I said that.”
Pressed to give a date for when the White Sox will be poised for perennial contention, Hahn hinted at 2019 while acknowledging the many variables in play. In the meantime, the developmental phase of the organization will bring great work. Unlike what the rival Cubs did on the north side of town, the White Sox’s rebuild largely revolves around the progress of young pitching, not hitters.
The White Sox have many candidates for their rotation of the future — Kopech, Giolito, Lopez, Carlos Rodon, Carson Fulmer, Zack Burdi, Spencer Adams and more. Scouting is an inexact science,and rebuilding comes with a risk, but the reward could be great. If the White Sox hit on half their pitching prospects, they could have one of the best rotations in baseball.
Becoming one of the faces of a rebuild takes some getting used to, but Kopech and Giolito are eager for what’s ahead, even if it means getting stopped on the street.
“It’s a good opportunity for the White Sox as a team,” Kopech said, “because we’re going to have a chance to be good for a long time.”