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Young Guns

His photo graced the entire back page of the Sun-Times on Saturday. He's been interviewed live during at least one game this spring. Every time he pitches, a graphic chronicles his exploits. He was the White Sox Pitcher of the Month in April.

In addition, there are other less-publicized factoids about 22-year-old fireballer Michael Kopech, baseball's 10th-rated prospect. As a member of the Red Sox organization in 2015 - Kopech came over in the Chris Sale deal prior to last season - the right-hander was benched for 50 games for using one of the 134 banned substances on the MLB list. He missed time also at the start of the next season because of a broken right hand sustained in spring training, the result of an altercation with a teammate.

But those temporary setbacks are much less enticing than the fact that Kopech's fastball once was timed at 105 mph in a Carolina League game. With a running start, he's hurled a baseball at 110 mph into a net. You don't see that very often. Granted, he doesn't throw as hard as Sidd Finch, but thankfully Kopech is no fictional character.

Flinging a baseball at triple-digit speeds in no way guarantees that a pitcher can stifle big league hitters, and one assumes that is why Kopech continues pitching a Triple-A Charlotte rather than on the South Side. But surely his time is coming. We just don't know when.

Back in 2014, Kopech was headed to the University of Arizona until the Red Sox drafted him in the first round (33rd overall). In all likelihood, a signing bonus of more than $1.6 million persuaded the young man and his parents that college could wait or be ignored altogether. Contributing to the mix were 129 strikeouts in 64 innings his senior year of high school in Mt. Pleasant, Texas, about 120 miles east of Dallas. The Boston front office had reason to feel especially generous.

Fast forward to the present, and we find that Kopech has toiled for parts of five seasons in the minor leagues. He's appeared in 66 games, all but one as a starter. He's pitched almost 300 innings, averaging 11.5 strikeouts for nine innings and 4.3 walks. His WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) is a sparkling 1.18. Although his won-loss record is a mediocre 17-16, Kopech owns a more-than-respectable 2.73 ERA.

To try to grasp the progress of Kopech, we might look at two young pitchers presently in the Sox' rotation. Similar to Kopech, both Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez signed contracts as teenagers, and both spent parts of six seasons in the minor leagues. Time has been required for them to develop their skills.

Pitching in the Nationals and Sox systems, Giolito, also a first-round pick, appeared in 99 games, all except two as a starter, pitching almost 500 innings in the minors with solid numbers: 31-25 record, 3.18 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.248.

Lopez, who also came to the Sox from Washington, appeared in 83 games and started 78 in the minor leagues. His ERA was 3.34 with an outstanding WHIP of 1.159. He also averaged a strikeout an inning.

Those are strong numbers, and both Lopez, who is just 24, and Giolito, 23, spent more time in the minors than Kopech has to this point. Obviously neither was rushed to the major leagues, although both Lopez and Giolito pitched some games for the Nationals in 2016 before spending most of last season at Charlotte. Each was promoted to the big club last August.

So, judging from the experiences of Giolito and Lopez and the way the White Sox handled them, chances are, barring injury or other unforeseen circumstances, we will see Kopech in a Sox uniform possibly in July but certainly by August. With a rotation that presently includes Hector Santiago, occasionally Chris Volstad, and Miguel Gonzalez when he comes back from an injury, Kopech will enter with grand fanfare.

When he does arrive, Kopech very well might join Carlos Rodon as a regular White Sox starter. You remember him, the lefty out of North Carolina State, and the Sox' top draft choice in 2014. Much less has been written about Rodon these days than Kopech, but Rodon is projected as a top-of-the-staff pitcher. He was selected third overall four years ago behind two high school kids neither of whom has spent a day above Single-A ball. The Cubs took Kyle Schwarber with the fourth pick.

But I digress. The path to the big leagues for a college pitcher is markedly different than the high school prodigies. Rodon pitched a total of 34-plus innings in the minors in 2014 before he appeared in a Sox uniform in April of 2015. After three relief appearances, he started every fifth day and went 9-6 with a 3.75 ERA. Without question Rodon required far less seasoning than guys who don't pitch in college.

Unfortunately, since that inaugural season, a series of arm and shoulder problems have plagued Rodon, who's been pitching in Arizona in extended spring training, whatever that is. Last week the team's website reported, "Rodon will make his third start at extended spring camp this week. His fourth most likely will come in Arizona as he works the rehab trail back from arthroscopic shoulder surgery last September. 'Our next update on him will be assigning him to a certain affiliate for a rehab outing,' [general manager Rick] Hahn said."

In other words, we might see Rodon pitching for the Sox sometime in June. He would join another former college pitcher, teammate Carson Fulmer, who followed Rodon a year later as the Sox' top draft pick (8th overall) after pitching in the College World Series for Vanderbilt. At this point it appears that Fulmer has fewer skills than Rodon. After signing, Fulmer pitched 23 innings in the low minors in 2015 before being promoted the next season to Double- and Triple-A. The Sox brought him up in July two years ago, and he was, well, awful. In eight relief appearances, Carson's ERA was 8.49.

Fulmer spent most of last season at Charlotte before being summoned again to the South Side. This time he was improved. In seven games, Carson went 3-1 with an ERA of 3.86 and a WHIP of 1.33.

Now at age 24, Fulmer takes the ball every fifth day, and so far this season, it's been a mixed bag. A week ago Saturday, he threw seven shutout innings against Kansas City for his second straight strong outing. However, last Friday night pitching at home against the Twins, Fulmer couldn't get out of the fourth inning. The Twinkies slammed four home runs off Fulmer, leading to a 6-4 White Sox defeat. You could excuse the fans for thinking they were watching batting practice.

Although Fulmer is pitching at the big league level, he remains a work in progress. The best starting pitcher in baseball is Max Scherzer. When he was Fulmer's age in 2009, he was a member of the Diamondbacks with just parts of two season of minor league baseball under his belt after pitching at the University of Missouri. That season Scherzer was 9-11 with an ERA of 4.12. Like Fulmer, he had a few blow-up games leading to an early exit. The key was that Scherzer was good and healthy enough to log 170 innings nine years ago as he was learning how to pitch at the highest level. He was traded to Detroit and two years later won 15 games. Since then he's won three Cy Youngs and, not so incidentally, banked millions of dollars.

Sox fans would be absolutely giddy if Fulmer turned out to be anywhere near as effective as Scherzer, but the point is that Fulmer, along with his young compadres, basically is beginning to test the waters. The Sox no doubt will have a number of weeks like the last one in which they lost five of six games as Fulmer and others pile up the innings, endure a formidable dose of misfortune, and rebound to pitch another day.

While Kopech is receiving most of the attention and publicity now, the development of Fulmer - along with Lopez, Giolito, and Rodon - is equally important. That's why we continue to watch . . . and hope.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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