CHICAGO - Lance Lynn had a simple answer to the question of what the Chicago White Sox need this season to return to the postseason and stay there longer.
"Be better than last year. Keep what we did well, and things that we weren’t good at, make sure we get better," the All-Star pitcher said.
The White Sox won the AL Central Division last season, with their starting pitching leading the way. Some of the starters faded down the stretch, and Chicago was eliminated by the Houston Astros in the division series.
Lynn (11-6, 2.69 ERA) and Carlos Rodon (13-5, 2.37) were All-Stars last season. Former All-Star Lucas Giolito (11-9, 3.53) was solid, Dylan Cease (13-7, 3.91) showed improvement in his first full season and veteran Dallas Keuchel, who was very good in 2020, slumped to a 9-9, 5.28 year.
Lynn dealt with right knee inflammation during the second half last year, while Rodon had shoulder issues. Now the lefty Rodon is gone, having signed a two-year deal with the San Francisco Giants.
To replace him, the White Sox have right-hander Michael Kopech, who emerged last season as a key part of the bullpen. He was acquired in 2017 but was waylaid with Tommy John surgery and then opted out of the 2020 COVID-19-shortened season.
Now, the fireballer will need to be extended to pitch starter innings, something the 99-day lockout and shorter spring training will make more difficult.
"Going into the rotation for the first time, taking every start for what it is," manager Tony La Russa said of Kopech. "He needs to be patient, be fair to himself. He has that talent."
If Kopech needs more time, Chicago has holdover Reynaldo Lopez and newcomer Vince Velasquez ready to step in. Velasquez, 29, signed with the team this week after playing seven seasons, mostly with Philadelphia. He’s averaged more than a strikeout per inning over his career, but has a 4.95 career ERA and was at 6.30 last season in 94 1/3 innings with the Phillies and San Diego.
Kopech, who had a 3.50 ERA in 69 1/3 innings last season, did make four starts early in the season, mostly during seven-inning doubleheader games. Being expected to make 20 or more starts is a whole new ballgame for the 25-year-old, though he was a starter in the minor leagues.
Giolito, who has been through some ups and downs himself, is impressed with Kopech.
"He looks really good. He put some good work in the offseason," Giolito said Tuesday. "For him, it’s just a matter of finding that really good five-day routine. The rest of the starting pitchers will be talking to him about that.
"It’s all about preparation. You have one day where you perform, so it’s the four days that lead up to it where you put in all that work, and you can go out there and let it happen. I think he’s going to be just fine."
Preparation was key during the lockout as well. While teams couldn’t contact the players, there was still an effort by the pitching staff to stay ready for whenever the season would start.
"I’m not babysitting anybody, but the guys that were here in Arizona were getting together and doing their thing as much as they could," Lynn said.
Giolito said he put on 20 pounds to give himself more leg strength.
Catcher Yasmani Grandal said he’s "confident in my staff" after what he’s seen so far in spring training.
"They showed what they can do, guys made huge strides. Kopech was itching to start last year, especially towards the end of the year," Grandal said. "But also Cease took a step forward. Coming into this year, I feel pretty confident."
Lynn was able to rest his right knee in the offseason and eventually return to his routine, but he isn’t planning on changing it.