Chicago Sun-Times

More work? bring it on

Right-hander kopech determined to shoulder his share of pitching load this season

- BY DARYL VAN SCHOUWEN | dvanschouw­ | @cst_soxvan

GLENDALE, Ariz. — It’s time for White Sox right-hander Michael Kopech to take a big step forward, and he knows it.

Perhaps a polished changeup will help. Part of the prospect treasure the Sox acquired from the Red Sox for left-hander Chris Sale in December 2016 — third baseman Yoan Moncada and two lesser minorleagu­ers accompanie­d him in that blockbuste­r deal that kicked off the Sox’ rebuild — Kopech, 26, still has plenty of upside.

His career has been interrupte­d by Tommy John surgery that cost him the 2019 season, his decision to opt out of the abbreviate­d 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns and knee and shoulder problems that limited him to 119⅓ innings last season.

Last season, his first as a full-time starter, was far from a bust, considerin­g his 3.54 ERA. But it wasn’t acceptable, in his view, because he wanted to contribute more.

That’s Kopech’s goal in 2023. Individual stuff, such as All-Star Games, you can have, he said.

‘‘Most of [my goals] are oriented around the team,’’ Kopech said Friday.

If the Sox excel, the individual stuff will take care of itself, Kopech said. He simply wants to be reliable every fifth day for his teammates, to carry his share of the load for a team with postseason hopes after the disappoint­ment of an 81-81 season in 2022.

‘‘I want to go out there and I want to pitch as many innings as I can because I want to take a load off the bullpen,’’ Kopech said. ‘‘I want to be able to make every start I can and not burden anyone else to have to pick up that load. I saw what that was like last year when I couldn’t do that. That was tough for everybody.

‘‘But also, as one common team goal, we all have the World Series championsh­ip in mind. If we could work diligently toward that, then it’s a very realistic goal.’’

A major point of focus for Kopech this spring is developing his changeup to go with his fastball, slider and curve. It’s not hard to envision an effective four-pitch mix taking him to another level.

‘‘He has just worked really hard on it,’’ pitching coach Ethan Katz said. ‘‘It was something last year that was really good in bullpens and then come game time, even with his strengths, and he sprinkled it in here and there. But the time he spent this offseason has really showed up in his bullpens with his command of it and how he’s throwing it. He threw it [Thursday] in live batting practice and got a swing-and-miss right on right, so he’s feeling pretty good about it.’’

Kopech said he learned how to be a more complete pitcher last season. His right knee was a trouble spot for much of the season (he had his meniscus repaired at the end of it), and while he is expected to be ready for the second series of the season — and potentiall­y the home opener April 3 against the Giants — he’s a little behind where the Sox expected him to be right now.

That explains why he hasn’t pitched in a spring game yet, limited to bullpen sessions and live batting practices.

‘‘The plan is to have another live BP or two,’’ Kopech said.

‘‘It’s just to make sure that we are not pushing him too hard,’’ Katz said. ‘‘Surgery was a little bit more than we originally thought, and just kind of making sure that he’s fully healthy come the season.

‘‘Everything has been fine right now. He’s been sharp and doing everything we need him to do. He’s been working hard on the slide step, too, with the new rules, so he’s made some great adjustment­s so far. But all of his stuff has been very sharp.’’

 ?? AP ?? Michael Kopech was limited to 119⅓ innings last season because of knee and shoulder issues.
AP Michael Kopech was limited to 119⅓ innings last season because of knee and shoulder issues.
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