AL CentralAnalysis

Can the White Sox Rely on Kopech and Rodon in 2020 After Tommy John Surgery?

One of the biggest questions for the White Sox heading into the 2020 season and beyond, is their starting rotation. As of now, the rotation looks to be set with Lucas Giolito as the ace. Mixed with some new additions and veterans, Dallas Keuchel as the #2 and Gio Gonzalez at #3. Followed by the second year power pitcher, Dylan Cease at the 4th spot, and anchored down by Reynaldo Lopez, who is looking to make a ‘Giolito-esque’ comeback in 2020. As some might notice, there are a couple of big names that are missing from that rotation. Carlos Rodon, who was the #3 overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, and Michael Kopech, who was the second piece of the Chris Sale trade. At two different points of their careers, both players have the same goals in 2020: return after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and help the Chicago White Sox return to relevancy.

Michael Kopech, who is the current #20 prospect in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline, looks to come back from suffering a significant tear in his Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL). The injury occurred on September 5, 2018, and he underwent successful surgery two weeks later. Nearly 17 months later, Kopech is looking to continue where he left off, and become the most dangerous pitcher on the White Sox staff. Kopech went on the White Sox Talk Podcast with his wife, and discussed many things ranging from his injury, the recovery, and how his wife has helped him in this journey. Kopech opened up about the timing of his surgery and said, “Tommy John surgery was a blessing for me. I can go in-depth on this in a few levels. It gave me an opportunity to step back and appreciate things in life that I probably didn’t give enough attention to. For the first time, I got to put other things first, and there’s a lot more to be grateful for. I think the timing couldn’t be more perfect.” He discusses how he made sure that he put his mental health first, and that deleting his social media helped in that process. Although nobody wants to undergo Tommy John, it seems like this was the best time possible for Michael Kopech, both mentally and physically. With the surgery happening at the end of 2018, he unfortunately missed all of the 2019 season, which is a major blow towards his development. However, the timing allowed Kopech to have two full off-seasons to recover, making him ready to start pitching this Spring Training.

With normal recovery time for Tommy John surgery lasting anywhere from 12-15 months, Kopech is more than ready to get back on the mound after spending the last 17 months rehabbing and working on returning. Without any setbacks during the process, where Kopech will start the regular season is still a question. The most likely answer being in triple-A Charlotte, while he shakes off the rust. With the surgery, velocity is always the biggest question upon return. Kopech was able to hit 100+ MPH prior to surgery, and states he is still able to do so now.

Former #3 overall pick, Carlos Rodon is set to make his return in 2020 as well. Rodon is at a different point of his career, as this will be his sixth season in the MLB, and he is on the second half of his rookie contract, becoming a free agent in 2022. Rodon has had a problem with injuries in past seasons, and underwent his most recent surgery on May 15, 2019. As we are approaching 9 months since the surgery without setbacks, the team is expecting Rodon to return mid-season, possibly around July. While he still has a while to go, a July return would set him at about 14 months since the surgery. Although Rodon doesn’t have the 100+ MPH fastball like Kopech, he has shown flashes of being an elite pitcher, mostly with his wipeout slider. As the season goes on, Rodon’s recovery will be important, as he could potentially rejoin the team as they fight for the division title.

As common as Tommy John surgery is today, there are many examples of players that have had the surgery, and have recovered with no lingering effects. The most notable example is Jacob deGrom, who was the first starting pitcher to win the Cy Young Award after having Tommy John, when he won the award in both 2018 and 2019. Although he was beginning his career in the New York Mets system, deGrom suffered the injury only 6 games into his first season in Rookie league in 2010. The comparisons with Kopech are limited and might be a reach, but it shows that Kopech can still have a highly successful career. Both pitchers are power pitchers, and both throw the same pitches, with similar velocity. Although deGrom suffered his injury in Rookie league, and Kopech suffered his in his first MLB season, both players suffered it during their age 22 season, which is worth comparing. Obviously I’m not saying that Michael Kopech is going to be Jacob deGrom, but deGrom is a perfect example of a TJ success story. In his Major League career after the surgery, deGrom has posted a 66-49 record, 2.62 ERA, 148 ERA+, 2.78 FIP, 1.053 WHIP, 10.3 K/9, and has won back to back Cy Young’s in 2018 and 2019.

The occurrence of Tommy John surgery after having it once, is not too frequent. In MLB history, 331 players have had TJ, of those 331, only 45 have had to have the surgery again, coming in at about 13.6% of the players having it twice. It is extremely rare, but not unseen to have the surgery 3 times, which has only happened to 3 players, or at .91% of all cases. With proper surgery and rehabilitation, Tommy John is most likely a one-time issue, although some uncontrollable factors might affect that.

With new additions to their pitching staff this offseason, the White Sox will have plenty of options throughout the 2020 season. With Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dylan Cease all looking to build off of 2019, Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez being added, and Carlos Rodon and Michael Kopech returning from injury, there are 7 pitchers fighting for 5 spots in the starting rotation. With Kopech likely coming back in April-May, you could see Gonzalez heading to the bullpen in a long reliever role, or a transaction involving him. Depending on how Lopez performs, he could also make a move to the bullpen if he doesn’t show any signs of improvement from his disappointing 2019 season. When Rodon returns mid to late 2020, another move will have to be made. I believe that Rodon would excel in a bullpen role, similar to what Andrew Miller was to the Indians in 2016/2017, where he would come in and pitch multiple innings towards the end of the game. Carlos Rodon will be coming back to the team fresh, and eager to make a run into October. With Rodon’s history with durability issues, this could be a logical answer to a difficult situation.

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