When everyone predicted last month that the Chicago White Sox would run away with the American League Central, general manager Rick Hahn expressed concern about the prospect of a “little rocky” start.
“Just the nature of the off-season, the short spring, expectations of a faster schedule at the start of the year were going to create some volatility in the roster and the performance was likely to be over,” Hahn said Monday afternoon. “I didn’t anticipate losing six in a row after (winning) eight in a row. But it’s not a total shock that we haven’t found our sea legs or that this team hasn’t got its identity. ,
In fact this Sox team already had an identity that was forged during its run for the post season in 2021. But lately we’ve seen that cocky, against-the-world attitude on display.
A six-game winning streak would do so, and the return of third baseman Yoan Moncada and reliever Joe Kelly from the injured list on Monday added to the team’s swagger.
Switch-hitting Moncada can’t solve all of his early issues hitting right-handers, and Kelly must prove he can play for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series nearly 6½ months after suffering a right biceps nerve injury. The latter is back completely. Still, they are two valuable ingredients for this White Sox stew.
The Sox came home to the summer season on Monday to start homestands against the Cleveland Guardians and New York Yankees. Michael Kopech, who has dominated last season since joining the rotation following his sabbatical at the bullpen, took the mound against the Guardians in search of his first win.
It’s understandable that the Sox have handled Kopech with the Kid gloves – 23 innings in his first five starts – despite an impressive 1.17 ERA. But has manager Tony La Russa thrown Kopech in the eighth or ninth inning this entire season?
“If you predict what he’ll get today, you’re fooling yourself or someone else,” La Russa said before the start of Monday. “If he’s running, he can pitch seven or eight if he’s getting out early. If not, maybe half.
“We know the reality is that this is his first (full) year as a debutante. It is a long season and as far as extending that is concerned, we will err on the side of caution.”
Kopech showed his dismay in the dugout after being removed in the fifth inning of his last start against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, although he later said he understood the Sox was looking out for his well being.
It’s hard to come out when you’re almost nonchalant. Kopech restricted right-handers to an average of .114 in Monday’s game, with no extra-base hits against him.
“I don’t think he’s brought anything close to his ‘A’ game yet, and he absolutely dominates,” fellow starter Dylan Cease said on Monday. “When he’s clicking on all cylinders, it’s going to be scary.”
Siege, who could be on his way to his first All-Star selection, said Kopech is learning to be a regular starter for the first time since 2018. He missed 2019 after surgery on Tommy John’s right elbow and sat out. Pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
“He’s clearly a good pitcher already, and he did it to get out of the bullpen,” said Cease. “But now it is the next step in getting through the lineup a couple of times. He has absolutely the stuff to do.”
It’s been a minute since the rebuilding of Kopech and Moncada became the first two prospects achieved by Hahn, when he sent Chris Sells to the Boston Red Sox at the 2016 winter meetings. Injuries and COVID-19-related absences have kept both players from living up to the initial promotion, but it’s easy to forget that Moncada has only played four full seasons, while Kopech has only eight career starts entering 2022 Was.
If the promised land is on the Socks docket, both players should be the key crew on the ride.
The Sox selected Jake Burger for Triple-A Charlotte to open Moncada’s roster spot. Kelly replaced reliever Aaron Bummer, who was placed on IL Retroactive Saturday with a right knee sprain.
“Just a weird thing that happened in Boston,” Bummer said. “Just felt something on the last two pitches. We are definitely playing it smart. We’re playing it safe this time of year and trying not to push anything, and it will be healthy for a long time.”
Hahn is looking into Kelly’s health in March after signing a two-year, $17 million deal with an option slated for 2024. Kelly once suffered a back injury in 2019 while cooking crawfish for his teammates.
“He was cooking some Cajun food,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I think he stood a little longer than he wanted. That’s what he told me.”
With their never-ending series of untimely injuries, the Sox will hopefully keep Kelly off the stove in 2022. Hand her some takeout menus from many of our best restaurants.
It couldn’t hurt. The Sox have become experts at overcoming obstacles over the past two-plus seasons, and their opening travails in October may only be a blip.
“One of the beautiful things about this sport is over the course of a long summer, the real talent and the true potential of the team prevail,” Hahn said.
Summer arrived early Monday, interrupting our miserable Chicago spring.
We can only hope it’s a long one.