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White Sox, Tony La Russa, Michael Kopech

Is Tony La Russa going to ruin Chicago White Sox youngster Michael Kopech?

Tony La Russa is the old head overseeing Chicago White Sox right-hander Michael Kopech’s return from Tommy John surgery. That should be troubling for White Sox fans.

Kopech has flashed undeniable talent early in the 2021 campaign after being sidelined for the entirety of the 2019 season and opting to sit out last summer. He has a 1.61 ERA in his first 22.1 innings of work, striking out 35 against just eight walks. The 25-year-old is unquestionably a future rotation staple on the South Side.

Yet, as Kopech prepares to start Game 2 of Friday’s doubleheader with the Kansas City Royals later this evening, it’s hard not to feel concerned for his health. Why? La Russa is pulling the strings.

White Sox manager has made questionable decisions

La Russa has already gotten himself into hot water this season with a few suspect managerial decisions. He also had to be informed by a reporter he was not obligated to use closer Liam Hendriks as a baserunner in an extra-inning loss to the Cincinnati Reds last week.

The most obvious mistakes, however, all relate to La Russa’s willingness and determination to roll with pitchers far too long. As Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic and others have detailed, he stuck with reliever Matt Foster too long earlier in April and wasn’t aware ace Lucas Giolito was losing steam at the end of his April 27 start against the Detroit Tigers.

Indeed, La Russa has already thrown caution to the wind with respect to Kopech’s pitch count.

Kopech began the year coming out of the bullpen, a reasonable decision considering Chicago’s rotation depth and the fact he was making his return from Tommy John. He got stretched out for a couple innings for his first few outings and threw 3.0 innings on April 18.

Still, there was no excuse for letting Kopech throw 87 pitches in his second start on April 25. Yes, he was dominant, striking out 10 and allowing just one run on four hits. But Chicago had already staked him to an eight-run lead after just three innings. Why was he still out there, more than doubling his previous season-high for pitches in a game?

Elbow reconstruction is a sensitive thing especially when it comes to top arms like Kopech. Yet, La Russa has not shown much sensitivity or caution with respect to his health.

Thinking about the future

Kopech is an important part of the team’s ability to win in 2021. However, he is far more important in terms of sustainable, long-term success.

Consider: both Lance Lynn and Carlos Rodon will be free agents at the end of the season. Dallas Keuchel could follow in 2023 should the White Sox decline his $20 million club option.

That isn’t to say the White Sox will lose all those guys. Still, it makes Kopech’s health that much more important as a guy with frontline potential. He could play a pivotal role alongside fellow youngsters like Giolito and Dylan Cease as well as pipeline arms such as Jonathan Stiever. The positional core is intact; it’s the rotation that will help define Chicago’s ability to create a sense of continuity.

Chicago is taking the right approach by using the fireballer as a spot starter and long reliever or guy who can throw innings in high leverage. However, management should be wary of how long of a leash La Russa gives him in his starts.

It’s only May. The White Sox need Kopech healthy later in the season and in the coming years. Yet, that hardly feels like a guarantee given La Russa’s old school tendencies to lean on his arms.

The bottom line

Realistically, La Russa has done a pretty good job managing the White Sox considering the number of injuries they have sustained to key guys like Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert.

However, some of the early-season miscues in managerial tactics–especially with respect to the pitching staff–hardly lend confidence to the idea La Russa will appropriately manage Kopech’s workload.

It’s something worth watching both on Friday night and as the season rolls along.