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The new year is approaching every one of us quickly and so is the bright future of the Chicago White Sox. Since December 2016, general manager Rick Hahn has done everything he could to bring in the best young talent possible. From trading Chris Sale to the Red Sox and Adam Eaton to the Nationals, it looks like Hahn has made the right moves so far. Those deals brought pitchers Michael Kopech, Lucas Giolito, and Reynaldo Lopez to the South Side of Chicago. While most people would have preferred position players in those deals, Hahn clearly believed in the prospects he dealt for.
As the 2017 season progressed, fans grew eager to see one of the young arms that they had acquired during the off-season make it to the majors. Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez both had issues with their control and limiting walks, but their time would come. They worked on their craft with the Charlotte Knights, the White Sox Triple-A affiliate.
The then 22-year-old Lucas Giolito struggled at the start of the Triple-A season. He was unable to make it past the sixth inning in his first six starts due to a high amount of walks. Giolito finally found success in his seventh start of the season. He tossed a full six innings with five strikeouts and one walk. It looked like the young starter had turned a corner in that game, but the struggles continued until the end of June. The true turning point in the season for Giolito was on June 21st. He tossed five strong innings while striking out eight and walking two. Over his final ten starts in Triple-A, Giolito threw 56 innings with a 3.86 ERA and piled up 59 strikeouts to 22 walks. The hot stretch for the now 23-year-old Giolito made it obvious that he was ready for the next step. The young righty was recalled from Triple-A on August 22nd and made seven starts over the remaining month for the White Sox.
Reynaldo Lopez started off the 2017 season in similar fashion to Lucas Giolito. The walks were problematic early on, but the wildness swiftly turned into effectiveness. The 23-year-old Lopez turned in multiple great outings from May until August for the Charlotte Knights. In those 18 games that Lopez started from April 30 to August 6th, the righty threw 100.2 innings with 9.75 K/9, 3.22 BB/9, and he held opposing batters to a .212 average. Sox fans clamored for the young Dominican to make his White Sox debut after seeing how polished of a pitcher he was for the Knights. It wasn’t until August 11th that Lopez made his major league debut, but it made the White Sox front office and fans see what the future could hold. Lopez threw six innings of 2-run ball on 4 hits, 3 walks, and 6 strikeouts. He went on to make 7 more starts over the remainder of the season and finished with a 4.72 ERA. It wasn’t the most stellar beginning to a career, but there were flashes of potential for Lopez.
Giolito and Lopez are looking to stay in the major league rotation for a full season and Carlos Rodon will be entering his 4th season there in 2018. That accounts for 3 out of the 5 spots in the rotation for the future. There are plenty of arms in the White Sox farm system that will compete for spots in the rotation over the next couple of years. The two that could make their White Sox debuts in 2018 are Michael Kopech and Alec Hansen.
Michael Kopech features an 80 grade fastball on the 20-80 scouting scale. It has late life and sits in the high 90’s while being able to touch triple digits. Kopech pairs that with a 60 grade slider that ranges anywhere from 85-90 mph. His sinking changeup only grades out at a 50, but has shown potential to become a plus pitch as Kopech grows. He will turn 22 shortly after the 2018 season kicks off. Kopech is the closest minor leaguer to being major league ready for the White Sox. That polish showed in Kopech’s 2017 season when he posted a 2.88 ERA and 172 strikeouts over 134 innings between the Double-A and Triple-A levels. Free passes to opponents were an issue for Kopech early on in the season with 44 walks in his first 13 starts. However, his walk rate improved by the second half as he walked only 21 batters in the remaining 12 starts of the season.
According to scouting director Nick Hostetler in an interview in August, the flame-throwing righty will be given a chance to win a rotation spot during Spring Training. Hostetler went on to describe Kopech as mature beyond his years while speaking highly of his work ethic. The praise for Kopech shows how much faith the team has in Kopech reaching his full potential. The ceiling for Kopech is that of an ace and the more time that he gets to adjust to the major leagues the better it is for himself and the franchise.
The other name every White Sox fan and baseball enthusiast should know is Alec Hansen. The Oklahoma product was originally predicted to be the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, but his draft stock fell during his junior year, where he was relegated to the bullpen due to an inability to control his pitches. This provided the White Sox with some great value in the 2nd round.
At 23-years-old, Hansen owns a 70 grade fastball with lots of running movement and comfortably sits between 94-97 mph. The righty also has a 60 grade slider that sits in the mid-80’s with a lot of late movement. Hansen has a hard breaking curveball that grades out as a 55 on the scouting scale while his changeup is fairly average at this point of his development. Everything came together for Hansen this season as he rapidly ascended through the minors. From pitching in Single-A for the Kannapolis Intimidators to the Class-A Advanced Winston-Salem Dash to the Double-A Birmingham Barons, Hansen showed just how dominant he can be. He led the entire minor leagues this year in strikeouts with 191 between all 3 levels. Hansen compiled a 2.81 ERA between the 3 levels in 141.1 innings, which is supported by his 2.52 FIP in Single-A and 3.04 FIP in Single-A Advanced. Hansen shows a great knowledge of the strike zone while displaying great control of each of his pitches.
With Kopech ready to compete for a major league spot this spring and Hansen rushing through the minors, the South Side is seeing the rebuild come together quicker than expected. Rodon, Giolito, and Lopez are already cemented in the 2018 rotation, so Kopech will have to pitch well in the spring to stick with the major league club. Even if he doesn’t break into the rotation in March, Kopech can be expected to push the issue early and often with his performance in Triple-A Charlotte, where he finished in 2017. Alec Hansen is developing into a frontline starter at an accelerated rate, so he should follow a path similar to what we saw from Michael Kopech last year.
After 2 seasons of terrible performance by James Shields, it is unlikely he will return to the South Side for the 2019 season. This could lead to Hansen ending up as a September call-up for the Pale Hose in 2018. Rick Hahn and the White Sox will want to get one of their younger arms some experience and Hansen will be the benefactor of that opportunity. That means that at the beginning of the 2019 Chicago White Sox season, the rotation for manager Rick Renteria would consist of Carlos Rodon, Michael Kopech, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Alec Hansen. That is a very strong rotation of young arms that will be ready to show the league just what they can do. They are far from perfect, but with more major league experience and time with pitching coach Don Cooper, the rotation can become one of the best in baseball sooner than expected.