Kopech moves to bullpen with eyes set on '24 rotation spot

September 9th, 2023

DETROIT -- White Sox right-hander will work out of the bullpen for what could be the remainder of the 2023 season but certainly for this weekend, which was a move announced by manager Pedro Grifol prior to a 6-0 victory over the Tigers in Friday’s series opener at Comerica Park.

Kopech has made 26 starts this season but has struggled mightily over his 10 second-half starts, posting a 7.49 ERA with 40 walks and 39 hits allowed over 39 2/3 innings. His last start came on Sept. 3 at home against the Tigers when he was pulled after walking five in 1 2/3 innings and throwing just 16 of 44 pitches for strikes.

Despite the struggles, which have been equal part confidence-based and mechanics issues, Grifol stressed that Kopech is still on target to be part of the ‘24 rotation.

“We talked to him about it and we’re going to back off a little bit and throw him out of [the bullpen],” Grifol said. “That does not mean that he’s a bullpen guy. It does not mean we’re not going to start him in the future.

“He’s starting next year. You’re not going to read into anything. He’s a starter. He’s going to be a starter. We’re building him to be a starter for next year and that’s how we’re going to approach it “

José Ureña, 31, will get the call Saturday in Kopech’s regular spot. Ureña had an 0-4 record and a 9.82 ERA over five starts for Colorado this season but had a 1-1 mark with a 3.38 ERA in four starts with Triple-A Charlotte. Ureña also pitched for the Tigers in ‘21.

Bullpen usage for Kopech could begin as early as Saturday after he did not pitch Friday, with no set plan involved to only use him on his scheduled start days. Kopech had a strong season in relief during the ‘21 season, striking out 103 against 24 walks in 69 1/3 innings.

“It’s kind of giving me an opportunity to work on some things mentally and physically,” Kopech said. “I’ve gone down there before. I know that it’s a little different preparing to come into that game than it is as a starter.

“But you don’t have a whole lot of time to think or overthink or do tweaks and all that. It’s more get out there and get after it type of thing. We think that will serve me well at this point. So, it’s an opportunity I’m trying my best to embrace. I’ve done it before so it’s not completely new, but it is something I haven’t done in a couple of years. So, I’m looking forward to that.”

There certainly have been positive ‘23 signs for Kopech from the rotation, but the bulk of them took place prior to the All-Star break. He allowed one hit in six innings against the Twins on May 2, and struck out 10 while allowing one hit during eight scoreless against the Royals on May 19, as examples. He also has failed to complete five innings in each of his last five starts.

Dylan Cease and Kopech are the only starting certainties for the ‘24 White Sox as they are presently constructed. Despite Grifol’s strong words, Kopech’s role could change. The 27-year-old seems prepared and at peace with whatever lies ahead.

“I would like to start. I’ve always said I would like to be a starter,” Kopech said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to be able to do that. But at the end of the day, I’m a Major League baseball player and I’m a Major League pitcher and whatever innings or inning I’m throwing doesn’t change that fact. I’m extremely grateful to be in the position I’m in.”

“The last few outings his mechanics have been something that he’s been battling a little bit. So just going to back him off now and not have to go a lot of pitches, innings, we’re just going to play it inning by inning,” Grifol said. “If he goes out there and has a good clean inning and he feels good, we might throw him out there for the second. Other than that, we’re going to be looking for small wins here towards the end and build him up for 2024.”

Behind seven scoreless innings and seven strikeouts from Mike Clevinger, the White Sox (55-86) won a second straight game on this road trip. Luis Robert Jr. doubled in the seventh to break up Reese Olson’s no-hitter and Yoán Moncada followed with a two-run homer for his third straight game with a long ball for the first time in his career.