Rookie right-hander Michael Kopech is all the rage right now — and deservedly so. But the White Sox have a 22-year-old right-hander in their farm system just as deserving of the hype, pitching coach Don Cooper said.
Dylan Cease just wrapped up a superb 2018 season between Class A Winston-Salem and Class AA Birmingham. He had a 2.40 ERA and struck out 160 batters in a career-high 124 innings. Like Kopech, he features a fastball in the upper 90s, as well as a slider, a curve and a changeup.
‘‘Stuff,’’ Cooper said when he was asked Sunday what makes Cease special. ‘‘The ball has life coming out of his hand. Listen, he might be just a tick behind [Kopech]. Arguably, he might be ahead of him.’’
Coming from Cooper, that’s high praise for Cease, who was the Cubs’ top pitching prospect when the Sox pried him and outfielder Eloy Jimenez from them in a trade for left-hander Jose Quintana last season.
One question about Cease, who had Tommy John surgery in high school and was shut down with shoulder fatigue late last season, was his durability. But he answered that this season by surpassing his previous career high of 93 innings with ease and going 3-0 with a 0.94 ERA in his last eight starts. He struck out 71 in 47 2/3 innings during that span.
On that note, he was shut down last week — with no issues.
‘‘What are we going to gain with two more starts?’’ Cooper said. ‘‘The ends wouldn’t justify the means. He achieved the innings we wanted him to get, and he achieved the improvement. He’s done everything we wanted him to do. We’re taking care of him because he’s one of our big pieces.’’
‘‘He’s just really put himself on the map,’’ director of player development Chris Getz said Monday.
With Carlos Rodon (age 25), who took a 4-0 record and a 1.60 ERA in his last seven outings into his start Monday against the Yankees, Kopech (22), Lucas Giolito (24) and Reynaldo Lopez (24) already in the majors and Cease trending toward a debut late next season, a promising Sox rotation is taking shape. And there are other prospects, such as Dane Dunning, who might bump someone out.
Cease said prospects like to speculate about what the Sox’ roster and lineup will look like in two years, when the team is supposed to contend again. But he’s the low-key sort who doesn’t get too caught up in it.
‘‘I just try to stay locked in with executing pitches and doing what I have to do right now,’’ Cease said.
Locked in, he was.
‘‘I was definitely satisfied with the growth this year,’’ Cease said. ‘‘I went from not being really confident throwing my off-speed [stuff] for strikes to being really confident in throwing everything for strikes.’’
Getz said Cease has accomplished more than staying healthy and getting through innings.
‘‘He’s taken a step forward from a fastball-command standpoint, really improved his slider, his curveball is very good and he improved his changeup, as well,’’ Getz said. ‘‘He’s commanding pitches and, physically, had a very smooth season.’’
Kopech started this season at Class AAA Charlotte, and Cease well might start there in 2019. Getz isn’t ready to declare that this soon, but he knows Cease is close to knocking at the door of the Sox’ young rotation.
‘‘Both he and Kopech have the ability to be front-line pitchers,’’ Getz said. ‘‘Dylan is a mature kid. He has a very good understanding of himself as a player and person. Coming into 2019, I expect him to continue to put himself in position to be part of this soon.
‘‘He’s just a very balanced kid. He has a great arm. He understands how his stuff plays, and emotionally he knows how to remain poised on the mound and let his ability take over.’’