CHICAGO – The White Sox were expecting the rebuild to be painful along the way, but not like this.
Not even close.
Prized pitching prospect Michael Kopech became the latest in a lengthy line of young talent to go down with an injury, and the 22-year-old starter is facing Tommy John surgery that will keep him on the sidelines until the 2020 season.
“It’s been a whirlwind of emotions for me in the past couple of weeks, obviously,” Kopech said Friday afternoon at Guaranteed Rate Field. “From just about my absolute peak to the absolute rock bottom for me. I think to say it’s unexpected would be an understatement.
“It [stinks]. That’s it. It [stinks].”
One of the best pitchers in minor-league baseball this season before joining the Sox’s starting rotation Aug. 21 from Triple-A Charlotte, Kopech’s biggest issue in his first four major league starts was dealing with rain delays.
But something seemed to be wrong with the hard-throwing righty in his last start – Wednesday night against the Detroit Tigers.
Yes, there was the third rain delay in three home starts, but Kopech’s velocity was noticeably down before and after the 28-minute stoppage in play.
After giving up seven runs on nine hits (four home runs) in 31/3 innings against Detroit, Kopech said he felt fine and blamed his performance on a lack of preparation.
But when he woke up Thursday morning, his elbow did not feel right.
Kopech contacted the Sox on the off day, and he was sent to Dr. Nikhal Verma, a team physician, Friday.
“Unfortunately, that examination revealed a rather significant tear in his ulnar collateral ligament,” Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. “The preliminary recommendation is for Michael to undergo Tommy John surgery. There will be a second opinion coming in the coming days, so we’re still going to hold out a little bit of hope that perhaps there’s a different prognosis.
“But we are certainly preparing for him to not only miss the remainder of the 2018 season but also miss the 2019 season. If there are any silver linings to this, it would simply be that given the timing of this injury, he will be on pace to be completely without restriction for the start of spring training for 2020 and fully able for the 2020 season.”
While his velocity was down Wednesday, Kopech is not exactly sure when he injured his throwing elbow.
“If you are looking for a specific pitch or day, I couldn’t tell you,” he said. “It’s been gradual. I just thought it was a little bit of discomfort. I thought it was something I could throw through. Obviously, my last couple of starts, my velocity has been a little bit down. Didn’t think much of it.
“But I did think it would be better to get it checked out after starting a couple of days ago just to see if there was something I could fix. This isn’t the answer I expected, but move on from it from now.”
Kopech is not sure when – or where – he is going to get a second opinion.
“I don’t have a date for it yet,” he said. “I am going to get a second opinion even though they seemed pretty certain about what it was. I’m assuming it will be next week at some point, but again, I don’t have a date yet. I’m just going to wait and see what I can figure it out.”
Hahn said Kopech was “stunned” when they first talked about the prognosis Friday.
“He was talking about making his next start,” the Sox’s GM said. “I almost think there was a part of him that almost didn’t say anything because just talking with him a few minutes ago, he said, ‘I sort of felt this was normal soreness and the kind of thing I could pitch through.’ ”
“It probably speaks to how strong this kid really is. You can tell it from looking at him and you can see him on the mound and you see him walking around and his workout regimen, but he was pitching with a pretty significant tear in there and he was pitching pretty effectively at the big-league level with it, it seems.”
Unfortunately, it is going to be a long time before Kopech is back on a big league mound.
“You know, after a rough beginning to the season for me, turning it around is really big,” Kopech said. “It’s exciting for me. I accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish. I cut down my walks. I went deeper in games. I pitched more efficiently. I got myself to the big leagues. It’s unfortunate and (stinks), but I don’t think my work ethic has ever been in question. If it has then I’m here to prove that it shouldn’t be and I’ll come back stronger than before.”