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Why Kopech Now?

The tweets began in the midst of a disastrous second inning for Reynaldo Lopez.

"The Sox are calling up Michael Kopech," declared the woman sitting behind us. Being a non-tweeter, I immediately turned around in my seat to ask where she heard that news. "A friend of mine," she said.

"Any announcement from the ballclub?" I asked.

"Wait a minute," she responded, "Here's a tweet from [NBC Sports Chicago's] Chuck Garfien," and the Twitter world lit up.

By 2:20 p.m. at The Grate, the centerfield video board made it official. I can't say there was a roar from the 22,033 in attendance, but you could hear the name "Kopech" being uttered by a number of fans seated down the left field line. Being Family Day, most adults were too busy looking after and feeding the little ones. But by the fourth inning, the PR orchestration was in full bloom. Kopech's number 34 uniform was displayed on the board, and there was a palpable sigh of, "At last."

Hallelujah, people, help is on the way. At least we hope so.

When the word first filtered around the ballpark, Lopez, a prominent piece in The Rebuild, was busy giving up six runs to the Royals in the second inning. He needed 46 pitches to yield those tallies on five hits, a walk, and three homers. One could be excused if he or she thought the Royals were taking batting practice. For a bit of gross irony, we need to mention that the 24-year-old right-hander also struck out the side.

When Jorge Bonifacio lined Lopez's first pitch of the third inning into left field for a single, manager Ricky Renteria pulled the plug. "Holy Cow," I thought, "maybe Lopez and Kopech are trading places." But then I immediately flashed on Dylan Covey, also a member of the Sox starting rotation.

As recently as the middle of July, Lopez's ERA was under four. With Sunday's debacle, he now sports a 4.72 mark. In 18 innings this month, Lopez has given up 14 earned runs.

Perhaps you can't pin it on the Kopech news, but in a rash turn of events, the Sox matched the Royals' outburst in their half of the fourth inning. The six-run explosion was also highlighted by three dingers; a three-run shot by Avi Garcia who had just four hits in his previous 50 at bats, a two-run blast by Tim Anderson, and a solo, tying homer by Omar Narvaez, whose base hit an inning later scored Garcia with the eventual game-winner in the unlikely 7-6 victory.

Interestingly, Lopez and Kopech have very similar minor league experiences. Lopez appeared in 83 games in the minors, including 27 at the Triple-A level. Kopech has pitched in 85 games at all levels with the same number as Reynaldo at Triple-A. Kopech has a 24-22 record in the minors with a 3.05 ERA, a WHIP of 1.21 with 514 strikeouts in 395 innings compared to Lopez's 25-26, 3.34, 1.16 and 434 K's in 428 innings. Aside from Kopech's startling strikeout rate, the two young pitchers obviously have had comparable minor league records.

Kopech's debut will take place Tuesday night at The Grate against the Twins, and the pundits are expecting a big crowd. Nevertheless, the Sox website this morning had plenty of good seats available.

Does Kopech's promotion mean that Eloy Jimenez can't be far behind? If Kopech is the Sox's top pitching prospect, Jimenez clearly is the best offensive help available. Over the past five seasons, Eloy has played in 394 minor league games including 41 this season at Triple-A Charlotte where he's slashing .338/.382/.994. He has 11 homers and 27 RBI. In comparison Sox second baseman Yoan Moncada, a lad who received almost as much hype as Jimenez, appeared in just 175 minor-league contests of which 80 were at Charlotte before the Sox decided he was big league-ready in July of last year.

In this space last week, I argued that bringing up Jimenez or Kopech at this juncture would be sacrificing a year of service time at the end of their contracts and not worth promoting either until next season. I still believe that. Even after beating Central Division also-rans Detroit and Kansas City last week in four of six games, the team stands at 46-77. They became non-competitive before the snow melted. Aside from satisfying the fans' and writers' curiosity, what's the point?

Kopech's presence will have absolutely no bearing on his team's place in the standings. I can only guess that giving Kopech a taste of major league competition will help judge just how much he has developed. After a rollercoaster of performances earlier this summer, Kopech has dominated lately. In his last 20 innings he's fanned 27 without issuing a walk. In his last 44 innings, he has struck out 59 hitters while walking only four. His ERA at Charlotte once was 5.20. Today it's 3.70. All of which proves that he's mastered everything Triple-A can toss at him, so now he's ready for The Show.

If it weren't for the contractual considerations, I'd be all in for promoting Kopech and Jimenez, but general manager Rick Hahn has been preaching patience since The Rebuild began with the trade of Chris Sale after the 2016 season. I can wait for these guys until we get a re-do beginning next season.

Maybe The Grate will rock Tuesday night with 30,000 fans, who have been following Kopech for most of the season. But that's hardly a reason to bring up the kid now.

You also have to wonder what Hahn's philosophy is in terms of the ripe moment to promote these youngsters. Consistency seems to be absent. He'd have a difficult time convincing most people that Kopech is ready for the majors while Jimenez is not.

One also could argue that he erred grievously in bringing up Moncada last July and sticking with him ever since. Unlike Jimenez, Moncada was a .285 minor league hitter who averaged more than a strikeout a game. With two more whiffs on Sunday, he's just 48 strikeouts short of the all-time record. Assuming that he continues to strike out at his present rate, he'll beat the record of 223 by more than 10. Think about it. There have been thousands upon thousands of big league players in the modern era since 1901, and Yoan Moncada is on a pace to strike out more than any of them.

Consider also that centerfielder Adam Engel, a .166 hitter a year ago, now is batting .226 compared to Moncada's .217. Moncada also has been charged with 17 errors this season. Only three players in all of baseball have made more.

Having said all that, I still believe that given time Moncada could develop into a legitimate major league player. He's a talented athlete, but that doesn't justify keeping him at a level where he is currently overmatched. Despite the occasional home run - he's slammed 15 this season - and the useless statistic of exit velocity, his progress is going in the wrong direction.

The Sox rushed Carson Fulmer, their top draft choice in 2015, to the big leagues just a year later. When Fulmer stumbled badly earlier this season, he went back to Charlotte where he's now pitching out of the bullpen without great success. Wouldn't the same criteria apply to a kid like Moncada with the difficulty he's encountering? Apparently not.

Now all of this might turn out just splendidly. Kopech might live up to his billing, beginning Tuesday evening. Jimenez may arrive shortly and start hitting like many of the budding stars that sprinkle rosters around the major leagues. Remaining at the big league level, Moncada might begin to make contact and realize the potential that has been predicted for him. And the other bright youngsters in the Sox system - ranked No. 3 among the 30 organizations - will continue to gain experience, develop nicely, and eventually join Kopech, Jimenez, and Moncada on a bulldozer of a ballclub on the South Side.

Or maybe not.


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

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