GLENDALE, Ariz. — Michael Kopech is back in uniform after two seasons away from baseball.
“I think I learned I needed this game a lot more than I realized,” the White Sox’ promising 24-year-old right-hander said Saturday, making his first public comments since opting out of the 2020 season.
It was only said by the Sox at the time that Kopech opted out for personal reasons.
“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 felt “welcomed back with open arms” and felt a sense of relief 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 said the Sox “embraced” his return, can vouch for that.
“Everybody is celebrating the birth of the baby [Kopech became a father for the first time in January]. And we’re all celebrating the way he’s throwing,” La Russa said.
While viewed as starters in the long term, Kopech and left-hander Garrett Crochet, another premium arm, could both break into the 2021 season from the bullpen. Crochet is certainly destined for that role, and general manager Rick Hahn, while lacking specifics, suggested Tuesday Kopech might be used in a variety of ways.
“I don’t know if I can speak to excactly 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 not coming in and being part of the rotation right away. Maybe as a reliever or something along those lines. I’m going to pitch the best I can every time so nothing changes in that regard. I just want to help the team win.”
Acquired with Yoan Moncada in the start-the-rebuild trade of Chris Sale to the Red Sox, Kopech possesses an electric arm and a high ceiling, but he has pitched in only four major league games, in September of 2018. That debut month didn’t end well, with a UCL tear in his elbow requiring Tommy John surgery that kept him out of the 2019 season. In 2020, he was believed to be healthy but opted out of the pandemic-shortened 60-game game season.
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,” Hahn said. “One, obviously having not 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 we want him — as a team with fairly lofty expectations — we want him strong and contributing through October.
“So we have to be a little bit creative about how we’re going to use him in order to get him helping us in Chicago and continuing his development and finishing the year strong and able to contribute, ideally, to a World Series championship.”
“I never lost motivation to win for this team,” Kopech said.
“And with us coming all together right now, and seeing all the talent up close in the early stages of spring, everybody is anticipating that we’re going to win.
“But yeah, getting my first bullpen and being able to let loose a little bit, I felt pretty comfortable out there and I feel like I’m in a good position where I should be 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.”