Chicago White Sox: Michael Kopech injury a bitter pill for fans

Chicago White Sox (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
Chicago White Sox (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images) /

The Chicago White Sox lost their prized pitching prospect for the next calendar year. It should be ok, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt right now.

The news of Michael Kopech requiring the dreaded Tommy John surgery didn’t cause a huge ripple in the Chicago sports scene. And yet it remains a gut-punch to Chicago White Sox fans, for reasons that go just beyond what you can find in a box score. It’s the possibility of the loss of promise and hope.

There was no guarantee what Kopech would be. And given his tender age, he still could be any of the things that Sox fans have dreamt of. The problem is getting a player in the system from “prospect” to even “plus-major leaguer” is one fraught with peril and chance. And that’s without missing an entire year of development.

Sure, there are pitchers who have come back from the surgery, at more advanced ages, to be very good to great again. The name Yu Darvish will make Sox fans wince, but he did it. We’ll see what happens with Johnny Cueto at the end of next year or 2020. Jose Fernandez is another who returned to greatness after the surgery, though sadly for far too short of a time.

Jameson Taillon and Matt Harvey are other names Southsiders are going to want to focus on (though in the case of the latter maybe not too long). The length of that list though is going to give one pause instead of confidence.

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Shuttling prospects into stardom in the majors at times can feel like carrying a tray full of exotic cocktails. Even a stiff breeze can deprive you of the full delivery of what you were promised and hoped for.

Kopech had ironed out some of his control problems for a month or two in the minors, but is that just a spike or a trend? It’ll be a year or more now before we know. And being left with only questions is cold comfort.

The hope Kopech brought when he finally arrived at the show was that there was light to be seen finally.

Sox fans could see him on the mound next year in July in their mind’s eye with Eloy Jimenez patrolling a corner outfield spot against the Cleveland Indians in what could be an actual meaningful game as an upstart Sox team challenged the Tribe’s supremacy.

Kopech’s mere presence was a sign of what could be. His absence is still that, but the other side of that coin.

But Kopech hinted at more. Because there’s something about a true “ace,” which he has hinted at being down the road.

There’s a reason that there was a “Felix Day” in Seattle for years. Or Detroit actually had sunshine when Justin Verlander was due to take the mound. Or the city of Boston transformed on days where Pedro Martinez was pitching. It’s not a holiday exactly, but it’s close.

Kopech signaled a sheer force that doesn’t come around that much. That there would come a day that no matter what, on that fifth day, there was nothing a Sox opponent could do. With Kopech on the mound, they were the best team in the league. There was a mastery over a game that was designed to never be conquered, such is the nature of baseball, for just one day.

An ace not only provides more wins for a team than losses, but there’s a swagger as well. The Chicago Cubs don’t win 97 games in 2015 without Jake Arrieta‘s minuscule ERA, but they also don’t win it without the belief he instilled that spilled over from the days he pitched into the days he didn’t. Clayton Kershaw has been dragging around so-so pitching staffs in Los Angeles for nearly a decade now simply through sheer will.

Sox fans know this already because it was only two years ago that Chris Sale did all of this for them. And Kopech, though a goof and weirdo himself, likely wasn’t going to turn into the overgrown baby that Sale proved himself to be.

But that didn’t matter when Sale was on the mound. When he pitched, the Sox were a force, no matter what dreck was behind him (and a lot of the time it was dreck). No matter where the Sox were, fans could look forward and enjoy watching their team on that day. It was an oasis.

Kopech already faced long odds to become that. The obstacle of this surgery and recovery and rehab only make them longer. And however they go about it, a team needs one pitcher who can throw his hand on an opposing lineup’s forehead and watch them swing their arms helplessly short of his and his team’s body.

The Houston Astros have Verlander. The Los Angeles Dodgers Kershaw. The Cubs Lester in 2016. Cleveland had Corey Kluber. When Kershaw and Kluber finally failed, so did their teams at the last hurdle. The San Francisco Giants with Madison Bumgarner. The Red Sox and Lester in ’13. (I’m omitting the Kansas City Royals because I’m more and more convinced that didn’t happen).

The Sox thought they might have theirs for when it’s time. They still might, but the time to find out is longer, and the questions bigger.