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Prospect Kopech poised to take next step

White Sox righty set to bring refined changeup into start vs. A's
MLB.com @RichardJustice

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- This is where 21-year-old right-hander Michael Kopech would like to make things really difficult for the White Sox.

"I hope he does," general manager Rick Hahn said.

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- This is where 21-year-old right-hander Michael Kopech would like to make things really difficult for the White Sox.

"I hope he does," general manager Rick Hahn said.

As Spring Training days go, Monday will be about as good as it gets for an organization brimming with both highly regarded prospects and optimism. The White Sox will hand the baseball to their top pitching prospect -- and MLB Pipeline's No. 10 overall -- in Kopech for a start against the Athletics at Camelback Ranch.

Cue the 102-mph gas and 90-mph slider. After a 2017 season in which Kopech exceeded every expectation, this will be the next opportunity to show the White Sox his time has come.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

He arrived at Spring Training with a simple mandate: to refine, polish and become comfortable with a changeup that would make his power pitches even better.

"The changeup has been a work in progress for the past couple of years," Kopech said, "and that seems to be where everyone's focus is. I came to camp early and started working on it right away, and feel I've made long strides just in the past couple of weeks.

"It's a grip I've played around with the last two or three years trying to figure it out. It's just getting comfortable with it. I think I've finally found one."

Would that be the final brick in the wall?

"Yeah, for me," he said. "Throwing that and getting ahead in counts, which I feel I did a pretty good job of in the second half of last season. If I can iron out those little things, I feel like I'll be in a good position."

Video: Kopech talks about camaraderie, dealing with nerves

The Sox couldn't be happier about a 2017 season in which he threw a career-high 134 1/3 innings, struck out 172, had a 2.88 ERA and finished with a promotion to Triple-A Charlotte for three starts.

"Physically and emotionally, I'm more in control," Kopech said. "When I take the mound, I feel like I'm able to control my pitches better. That being said, I feel very in control of my thoughts and how comfortable, per se, I am on the mound."

Kopech had two starts and two relief appearances at 2017 Spring Training, but that camp was more about experiencing big league competition for the first time and understanding what manager Rick Renteria and his staff expect.

"It's getting comfortable over the course of time," Kopech said. "It's going to happen naturally. It's also feeling more comfortable with my pitches. I don't feel like I'm going to be out of place when I take the mound. I feel like I deserve to be there. To get to compete with the guys at this level is a good opportunity. I'm really excited about it. For me to get a start this early in camp, hopefully get a couple more opportunities under my belt, it's a big opportunity, and I'm going to try and take advantage of it."

As Hahn said, "A year ago at this time, 20 years old, he had never thrown more than 75 innings in a year, wasn't ever above A-ball. The plan for Michael was to take the ball every fifth day and have some success. Now he blew past those expectations and got stronger as the year went on.

"Now he's got 130-plus innings under his belt and will continue to build on that base. He was dominant with his fastball and his slider. We need to see a little more changeup. At age 21, he'll be in Triple-A to start the year and work with those assignments. If he blows by those like he did last year, then it'll create a good problem for us."

Kopech seems nearly certain to make his big league debut sometime during the 2018 season in what will be another major step in a White Sox rebuild that (so far) has gone faster than almost anyone envisioned.

"It's hard not to think about it," Kopech said. "But I am focused on what I have to do right now. Hopefully, I'll get that opportunity sooner rather than later, but that's not in my control. I'm excited to take it day by day and see where it goes."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter @RichardJustice.

Chicago White Sox, Michael Kopech