Michael Kopech returns to open arms of White Sox

“I learned that I needed this game a lot more than I realized,” said Kopech, who missed the 2019 season with an injury and opted out of 2020 for personal reasons he expanded on Saturday from White Sox camp.

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Michael Kopech throws off a mound at White Sox spring training this week. (Chicago White Sox)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Michael Kopech is back in a White Sox uniform after two seasons away from baseball.

He says he learned a lot during that time.

“I learned that I needed this game a lot more than I realized,” the promising 24-year-old right-hander said, speaking publicly for the first time in almost a year.

When Kopech opted out of the 2020 season, he did so for personal reasons, the Sox said at the time. He expanded on that a bit Saturday.

“There were multiple reasons,” Kopech said. “COVID being one of the reasons with having some health issues in my family. There were a lot of personal reasons, as well. I’ve been candid in the past about mental health being important and prioritizing that so I can be the best version of myself on the field. That’s a lot of what it came down to, as well.”

Kopech said he was “welcomed back with open arms” by the organization, including teammates, and felt relieved throwing off a mound and feeling the ball come out of his hand with life in these first few days of spring training.

“My arm feels about where it should be right now,” he said.

Manager Tony La Russa, who smiled and said the Sox “embraced” Kopech’s return, can vouch for that.

“Everybody is celebrating the birth of the baby,’’ La Russa said. ‘‘And we’re all celebrating the way he’s throwing.’’

Kopech and actress Vanessa Morgan became parents for the first time in January — a boy named River. Kopech filed for divorce June 9, but being a father has given him a fresh perspective on life, he said.

“Now I have a life that I have to look after that’s a lot more important than being selfish,” he said. “My career doesn’t just dictate my future anymore, but it dictates my son’s. That’s kind of all the motivation I need.”

The Sox are motivated to go deep into the postseason, and while viewed as starters in the long term, Kopech and 21-year-old left-hander Garrett Crochet, another premium arm, could be used as valuable weapons in the bullpen opening the 2021 season.

“I don’t know if I can speak to exactly what [my role] is going to be right now, but we talked about the flexibility of being in a different role than I anticipated in the past,” Kopech said, “so maybe [I’m] not coming in and being a part of the rotation right away. I just want to help the team win.”

Acquired with Yoan Moncada in the Sox’ start-the-rebuild trade of Chris Sale to the Red Sox, Kopech has a high ceiling but has pitched in only four major-league games, in September 2018. That debut month didn’t end well, with a UCL tear in his elbow requiring Tommy John surgery, keeping him out of the 2019 season. In 2020, he was believed to be physically healthy but opted out of the pandemic-shortened 60-game season.

An introspective and thoughtful sort, Kopech has been open in the past about dealing with depression.

“Taking that time away from baseball was kind of hard, but it was important for me,” he said. “But now I’m back and ready to compete.”

With the Sox in contention mode, Kopech shapes up as potentially a large addition, depending on how effective he can be.

“We’ve got to be cognizant of a couple of things,” general manager Rick Hahn said. “One, obviously not having faced hitters in the last two years, he does not have an innings base underneath him right now, a significant innings base to build off of. And the second thing we need to be aware of is — as a team with fairly lofty expectations — we want him strong and contributing through October.”

Kopech’s return heightens the Sox’ odds of playing in October.

“Getting my first bullpen and being able to let loose a little bit, I felt pretty comfortable out there,” he said, “and I feel like I’m in a good position to go into the season. I’m excited about baseball. I’m excited about things that are happening in my personal life, and I’m excited about being able to help this team win.”

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