Add White Sox pitcher Michael Kopech to the list of players opting out of the 2020 baseball season. Late Friday afternoon, the team announced that their top pitching prospect had made the decision not to play this year.
“Michael Kopech has informed us of his decision to not participate in the 2020 season,” general manager Rick Hahn said in a statement Friday. “We recognize that reaching this decision is incredibly difficult for any competitive athlete, and our organization is understanding and supportive. We will work with Michael to assure his development continues throughout 2020, and we look forward to welcoming him back into our clubhouse for the 2021 season.”
Kopech has not pitched since September 2018, when an elbow injury meant he needed Tommy John surgery and cost him the 2019 season as he recovered. He was expected to be fully recovered and able to pitch at the major league level this season.
Before spring training was shut down due to COVID-19 concerns, Kopech had pitched one inning on March 10. In that inning, six of his pitches were 100 mph or higher, so Kopech looked on track to contribute to the White Sox this season.
The plan for Kopech, before the virus stopped the season and then eventually shortened it to 60 games, was for him to start the year at Triple-A Charlotte to build up his arm and prepare to rejoin the major league club.
When players reported to Chicago for the three-week summer camp on July 3, Kopech was not among them, though the reason at that time was unknown. Hahn called it “a personal matter” when speaking to reporters.
“It’s easy, I suppose, at times, to lose sight of the fact that you’re dealing with human beings here,” Hahn said on July 3. “And this is obviously a very unique time we’re all living through […] Fundamentally, we’re looking to put all our players in the best position they can be to perform and maximize their abilities on the field. And if there’s anything standing in the way of that, we’re going to provide them with whatever support and resources they need to help address those matters. I know it’s very general and I’m not going to get more specific than that, other than we fully support Michael and are going to provide him whatever time and resources he needs and look forward to seeing him in the future.”
Kopech is not in the high-risk group for COVID-19, so sitting out this year means he will not be paid and will not accrue any service time. He cannot rejoin the team officially until spring training 2021.
There was no public statement from Kopech on Friday, but The Athletic’s James Fegan reported that at least part of the reason for Kopech’s decision was uncertainty regarding his role:
Sources indicate that an abbreviated three-week ramp-up period cast doubt on Kopech’s ability to be properly ready for the season. That lingering question and the uncertainty about his role in an abbreviated 60-game campaign factored into his decision to pass up what would’ve been his first season back from Tommy John surgery.
Some of Kopech’s uncertainty might have come from the fact that the White Sox are projected to have a deep rotation in 2020. Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez, both acquired over the winter, are joining the group that already had Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dylan Cease in the mix. Add the return of Carlos Rodon from Tommy John surgery, and there isn’t a clear place for all of them in the starting corps.
Though the White Sox had never publicly said that they envisioned Kopech as anything other than a starting pitcher, at least one or two of the arms in that group would likely have had to pitch out of the bullpen in 2020.
Whatever the case, the White Sox are still projected to have one of the deeper rotations in the American League in 2020, and Hahn has stressed throughout the team’s rebuild process that their focus at this point is never about one season in isolation. Kopech will be in a position to play an important role in 2021.