SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When Tony La Russa managed him with the Cardinals, future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols would say every spring that he had to make the team. It was a given that he would, of course, but La Russa didn’t mind that mindset.
The White Sox have designs on making right-hander Michael Kopech part of their starting rotation in 2022, but Kopech, a starter throughout his amateur and minor-league career, won’t be handed a rotation spot before going to spring training in February.
“He’s going to camp determined to make it as a starter,” La Russa told the Sun-Times. “When the young prospect comes in and they say he’s our second baseman or our center fielder, he’s a starting pitcher . . . what you tell him is you really believe in him and he has a chance. If somebody says, ‘Kopech, you’re in the rotation,’ it’s not really good for him. He is talented, he could handle it but it’s better that you go out and fight for your job and earn it. You get the respect from your teammates. Like Albert, every year he said he had to make the team.”
The Sox’ rotation of Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, Carlos Rodon and Dallas Keuchel was the backbone of a team that won 93 games and the AL Central Division, the team’s first title since 2008.
Keuchel, 33, a former Cy Young winner who has one year left on a contract that pays him $18 million next season, struggled with a 5.28 ERA and was left off the postseason roster.
Rodon will be a free agent so his future with the team that drafted him is uncertain.
So there’s room for Kopech in the rotation, even if the Sox add a starter in the offseason. The Sox had five days after the conclusion of the World Series to extend qualifying offers to free agents Rodon, Ryan Tepera, Leury Garcia and Billy Hamilton, and the players have 10 days to accept or reject.
“It would be great for our team and that’s what he wants,” Giolito said of Kopech on Thursday. “That’s what he knows that he can do. Obviously the stuff is electric. There’s no question there. The biggest challenge for him is going to be just pretty much managing the innings jump.”
As a reliever, Kopech was primarily a fastball-slider pitcher but will likely throw more changeups as a starter. Giolito, who has one of the best changeups in baseball, called Kopech’s “ridiculous” at times.
And at the same time, he has the drive for it. I think he’s ready to take that step,” Giolito said.
Left-hander Garrett Crochet (2.82 ERA), the 2020 first-round pick who like Kopech wants to start but is cutting his major-league teeth in the bullpen, will pitch out of the pen again in 2022. While Kopech made four starts and built up some length with more multiple-inning relief appearances, Crochet — who appeared in 10 more games (54) than Kopech — averaged four outs per appearance over the last three months of the season.
Stretching out Crochet, who came to the majors in 2021 without any minor-league experience, to be a starter in spring training “is too much to ask,” La Russa said.
Kopech has 84 minor-league starts over five seasons under his belt. After opting out of the 60-game 2020 season cut short because of the coronavirus, he appeared in 44 games for the Sox in 2021, 40 as a reliever. In 69 1/3 innings, he posted a 3.50 ERA, striking out 103 and walking 24.
In his four starts covering 14 innings, Kopech struck out 23, walked four and posted a 1.93 ERA.
“Luckily, he has a bunch of guys along in the rotation with him that can help him out when he does have questions about a starter’s routine,” Giolito said.