Now that it appears the White Sox won’t be the surprise of the American League this season after all, the narrative the rest of the way shifts back to the future.
The rebuild remains in full swing on the South Side or, more specifically, in the Sox’ minor-league system, where prospects are making noise — and making their way toward the majors.
At the head of the class is flamethrowing right-hander Michael Kopech, who was named the organization’s top pitcher for April. The 22-year-old with a lightning bolt of an arm is fine-tuning his arsenal while pitching for Class AAA Charlotte, and with each start, he appears a step closer to making his big-league debut.
The Sox want Kopech, who regularly hits triple digits with his fastball, to continue to develop his secondary pitches, most notably his changeup. To that end, Kopech believes he has done just that.
“Honestly, I feel like my changeup is here,” Kopech said Friday on a conference call that also featured rising prospects Seby Zavala and Luis Basabe. “I’ve thrown it more and more. I’m comfortable with it. I had more swings and misses on it last start than I probably have in my entire career combined. I’m comfortable with my secondary stuff right now.”
So comfortable that Kopech sports a 2.67 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 27 innings in five starts with the Knights.
“For the most part, everything I’m working on here is for the major-league level,” Kopech said. “Keeping my direction toward the plate [and] throwing my changeup in counts that people are fastball-hunting because I’m a fastball pitcher.”
Despite the gaudy numbers and early success in the minors, Kopech remains a work in progress. During his last start — a no-decision Monday against Gwinnett — Kopech yielded four runs (three earned) and seven hits with two walks and six strikeouts in six innings.
The semi-rough outing was just all part of the learning process, Kopech said.
“The best thing you can do after a bad outing is learn from it,” he said. “If you don’t, it was a wasted day. I needed it because I was getting too comfortable and too relaxed. I needed an outing that was kind of a grind outing and to take what I could away from it.”
While slugger Eloy Jimenez and Kopech get the most attention, others are also faring well.
Zavala has been tearing up Southern League pitching while with Class AA Birmingham. The 24-year-old catcher — the No. 21 prospect in the Sox’ system — is tied for first in the league with six home runs, is tied for second with 19 RBI and is seventh with a .561 slugging percentage entering Friday.
“I had a good year last year, then went to the Arizona Fall League and had a good fall,” Zavala said.
“I’m not really trying to change too much, just stay consistent with my defense and my approach with hitting.”
Basabe, a 21-year-old outfielder, is the Sox’ No. 13 prospect. He ranks among Carolina League leaders in slugging (second at .629), total bases (second with 56) and batting average (10th at .315).
A strong spring training caught the eye of the Sox’ hierarchy, and Basabe continues to impress with Class A Winston-Salem.
“The experience in spring training was huge for me,” Basabe said. “I learned how to be focused on the game, how to be prepared for every opportunity and how to study the rival pitchers.”