White Sox will lean on altered rotation in 2022

Michael Kopech is in; free agent Carlos Rodon likely is out.

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Michael Kopech will become a starting pitcher in 2022. (Getty Images)

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As long as Rick Hahn and Ken Williams are in charge, starting pitching will be priority No. 1 in shaping the White Sox’ roster.

It was so when Mark Buehrle, Jose Contreras, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia and Orlando Hernandez powered the Sox to their 2005 World Series championship. And it was the case when Sox starters, with a major-league-best 3.57 ERA, were the backbone of the Sox’ division-winning team that won 93 games last season.

The Sox will count on more of the same in 2022, but likely without a major piece — Carlos Rodon, who was signed before last season to compete for a fifth starter’s spot but emerged as the most dominant pitcher in the American League in the first half.

The All-Star left-hander is a free agent, though, and seemingly will find a new team when the lockout concludes, leaving a hole in the Sox’ rotation as large as Rodon’s thick 6-3, 245-pound frame. But Michael Kopech is moving in from the bullpen, probably capable of equaling the 134 innings Rodon contributed in a season hampered by shoulder fatigue. Kopech has never pitched more than the 134 innings he logged in 2017 and has pitched a slim total of 82‰ innings over the last three seasons. So he will be watched closely.

“With Michael in his first year in the rotation, we’re going to have to be creative,” Hahn said at the general managers meetings in November, “whether it’s skipping a start or throwing an inning out of the pen on his start day, conserve those bullets and keep him strong. We’re going to rely on him and how he looks and reports as the summer goes on.”

Returning are All-Star righty Lance Lynn, who signed a two-year, $38 million extension in July; 2020 All-Star Lucas Giolito; and Dylan Cease, who featured the best stuff of the lot. Cease took a big leap forward and was seventh in the majors with 226 strikeouts. He has the look of a 26-year-old who is one adjustment away from being an All-Star himself.

Then there’s soft-tossing lefty Dallas Keuchel, a two-time All-Star and one-time Cy Young winner who had the worst year of his career in 2021 with a 5.28 ERA one year after posting a 1.99 ERA. Keuchel was left off the playoff roster, something Hahn wouldn’t have envisioned when he signed the veteran to a three-year, $55 million deal two offseasons ago.

“There is reason to be optimistic that he can come back and be closer to the guy who was fifth in the Cy Young [in the 60-game 2020 season] than the guy we saw last year,” Hahn said.

Keuchel couldn’t have done much worse than Lynn (3‰ innings, five runs), Giolito (4„ innings, four runs), Rodon (third-inning KO) and Cease (second-inning KO), though, during the Astros’ 3-1 trouncing of the Sox in the AL Division Series. It was an ending that left a sour taste and has the Sox processing the possible fatigue impact of ranking fourth in the majors in innings pitched on the heels of a shortened season.

In any event, a team with World Series goals should bolster its top five with a back-end type starter who can also provide long innings in relief when needed, even with Reynaldo Lopez in the mix after an encouraging turnaround season that saw him post a 3.43 ERA. Hahn has prospects such as Jimmy Lambert and Jonathan Stiever on the 40-man roster, but he figures to add a proven pitcher before Opening Day, whenever that is.

With more emphasis on workloads and bullpens in today’s game, perhaps the dependence on starting pitching isn’t what it was when Hahn and Williams were running the show in 2005. But it’s close, and the adage of “momentum in baseball is tomorrow’s starting pitcher” still holds true.

Hahn wasn’t seeing a red flag when Sox starters were seeing red in the playoffs.

“We came off a 60-game season asking guys to be strong and pitch at their max in month 7, or 8 if you include spring training,” he said. “That’s a lot to ask. So just because a fair amount of starters potentially ran out of gas or hit walls in October in 2021 doesn’t mean we’re going to get a repeat of that in ’22.’’

Pitchers have been throwing on their own but away from the off-limits Sox complex in Glendale, Arizona, and having had no contact with coaches or staff, it’s not known what kind of shape the rotation will be in whenever major-league camp opens. Whenever it does, an abbreviated spring training — not unlike the three-week July camp leading to the 2020 season that opened on July 23 — is expected.

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