Chicago White Sox

White Sox eyeing newly cleared Cuban free agent Luis Robert

White Sox eyeing newly cleared Cuban free agent Luis Robert

The White Sox potentially could add another significant piece to their farm system next month after Luis Robert was officially cleared for free agency on Thursday.

The Cuban outfielder can be signed as soon as May 20 after Major League Baseball cleared him to become a free agent as part of the 2016-17 international class.

Though the White Sox have made no official comments, its believed the team intends to make a strong push for Robert’s services. While the White Sox selected three position players high in the 2016 draft and added two more in December trades, they need more talent to achieve what general manager Rick Hahn has described as a “critical mass.” Some observers believe that Robert, 19, would be a viable candidate to be the first overall pick in the amateur baseball draft were he eligible.

One rival evaluator recently said the White Sox are strong contenders for Robert. Baseball America also has linked the White Sox to Robert often the past few months.

Robert’s addition to the 2016-17 class means he can be signed under the rules of the old Collective Bargaining Agreement, which should result in a significantly better payday.

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Back in March, BA’s Ben Badler described Robert as having “a strong, lean frame at 6-foot-3 with broad shoulders, a wide back and quick-twitch athleticism. A right-handed hitter with excellent bat speed and a sound swing, Robert has plus power with room to continue filling out and increase that in the future.” Because he’s 19, Robert is at an advantage over younger international prospects in that he’s physically easier to project than some of his 15- and 16-year-old counterparts.

That Robert is extremely talented and projectable could result in a shootout between teams bidding for Robert’s services without facing some of the harsher penalties that they would have had he instead been part of the 2017-18 class.

Under the rules of the old CBA, teams only pay a luxury tax for exceeding their allotted bonus pool. Current White Sox prospect Yoan Moncada was signed for $31.5 million under the rules of the old CBA by the Boston Red Sox in March 2015. The Red Sox also paid a $31.5 million tax as part of the signing.  

The White Sox have revamped their farm system over the past 10 months. All but one of their top 10 prospects according to MLB.com have been drafted or acquired in trades. But of those 10, only Moncada, Luis Alexander Basabe and Zack Collins are position players. The team also selected outfielders Alex Call and Jameson Fisher with their third- and fourth-round selections in the draft.

The addition of Robert could have the White Sox well on their way in what Hahn has said will be a long and, at times, painful rebuilding process.

How Michael Kopech's rigorous offseason strength and conditioning program played a role in Friday's promotion

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USA TODAY

How Michael Kopech's rigorous offseason strength and conditioning program played a role in Friday's promotion

He’s never pitched more innings and yet Michael Kopech feels great from a physical standpoint. The White Sox prospect -- who was promoted to Triple-A Charlotte in a surprising move on Friday -- is also throwing as well as he has at any point in his young career.

Kopech and those around him attribute how he feels on the mound in spite of a large innings total to a rigorous offseason strength and conditioning program. Kopech, who spends up to an hour a day in the gym in between starts during the season, works out 15-18 hours a week during the offseason in order to be prepared to withstand the rigors of a full season. With an 0.66 ERA over his last 41 innings, Kopech feels that work has been validated.

“There’s a lot of natural fatigue throughout the season,” Kopech said. “I feel like I do a pretty good job in the offseason of preparing myself for a full-innings load and that’s what I’ve done every offseason.

“Unfortunately, until this year I haven’t had that opportunity. Now that I’ve finally got the opportunity, I’m starting to see the work that I did, it’s paid off. I do feel like that has had a lot to do with (the success).”

Kopech has done many things to impress his now former Birmingham Barons manager Julio Vinas. But one event that recently stood out was when Kopech hit 99 mph on the radar gun with his 95th pitch of the game without any extra effort. The right-hander naturally produced the same velocity fastball he had earlier in the game.

Vinas has little doubt about the origin of the pitch.

“He’s a workhorse,” Vinas said. “I get here early. He’s here and always doing something to better himself, whether you see him in the outfield getting some extra running in, you see him in the weight room, he gets after it. It just shows how hard he works. To maintain that 99-mph fastball when 95 pitches into a game, you’ve got to be in great shape. He is because you never see him laboring.”

But Kopech was struggling in June when he posted a 6.95 ERA in five starts and walked 18 batters in 22 innings. The stretch had the White Sox wondering if MLB Pipeline’s No. 12-ranked prospect had hit a wall. The pitcher had completed 75 innings by the end of June, which was 3 2/3 shy of what he totaled in all of 2016, including 22 1/3 innings in the Arizona Fall League.

[MORE: Pair of White Sox top pitching prospects promoted] 

The White Sox made no certain plans, but determined they’d be vigilant in seeing how Kopech handled the workload. The team gave him a nine-day break in between starts around the All-Star Futures Game and made a mechanical adjustment with Kopech, too.

Just like that, Kopech has soared, which led to his promotion on Friday.

“Since then he’s on the best run he’s been on,” player development director Chris Getz said. “He’s in a really good place. But we’re constantly having conversations on his work, physically where he’s at, his weight and then obviously the on-field performance. Are there any indications of fatigue or anything like that? We’re near the stretch run and then the finish line and well aware of the innings and what he has done in the past.

“If he were to hit a wall and we feel like physically he needed to be shut down we certainly were open to it. We weren’t going to force any issues, but he’s shown no signs. He’s a physically gifted guy who works very hard, has a goal in mind to finish a full season. He’s on track to that do that.”

Kopech thinks it’s due to the offseason work he has always put In but never had a chance to test out. This is the first time he’s had the chance to pitch a full season as 2015 ended with his 50-game suspension and the first half of 2016 was wiped out by injury.

Kopech said he works out two to three hours a day for five or six days in the offseason. He’s also “getting after it” in the gym for an hour on three of the four days in between his starts.

On road trips, Kopech also eats pre-packaged meals prepared by a nutritionist rather than normal clubhouse fare to eat healthy.

Kopech was expected to start on Friday at Birmingham before he was promoted. Now the plan calls for him to start on Monday at Charlotte. If he stays on a regular schedule, Kopech would be in line for three starts at Charlotte, a plan for which he feels physically prepared.

“I haven’t really felt very fatigued,” Kopech said. “I’ve felt comfortable. I feel like I’m within myself. I don’t feel like I’m overthrowing when I need to rear back. I don’t feel like I’m losing any velo. I’ve felt pretty comfortable in probably close to double the amount of innings I threw last year.”

Pair of White Sox top pitching prospects promoted

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USA TODAY

Pair of White Sox top pitching prospects promoted

White Sox fans located in Chicago and Charlotte will get a glimpse into the future next week.

The White Sox announced they will promote pitching prospect Lucas Giolito to the majors and he will start in Monday's doubleheader against the Minnesota Twins. Michael Kopech, the White Sox No. 3 overall prospect, has been promoted to Triple-A Charlotte and will start on Monday night against Norfolk, the team also announced on Friday.

Giolito, who the White Sox acquired along with Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning in an offseason trade from the Washington Nationals for Adam Eaton, is MLB Pipeline's No. 59 overall prospect.

After a shaky start to begin the 2017 season, Giolito has turned the corner as of late.

In his last five starts with the Knights, Giolito has a 1.71 ERA in 31.2 innings pitched. During that span, Giolito has a 28/11 K/BB ratio and opposing hitters are slashing just .221/.288/.319. The 23-year-old Giolito has a 6-10 record with a 4.48 ERA in 24 starts in 2017.

Giolito, a former first round pick of the Nationals in 2012, had a brief stint in the majors last season and had a 6.75 ERA in six games with Washington.

Kopech, who was a key piece the White Sox acquired in a blockbuster offseason deal with the Boston Red Sox for Chris Sale, has been nothing short of dominant in the minors.

Kopech has a 0.66 ERA with 54 strikeouts and seven walks in his last 41 innings with the Birmingham Barons. In 22 minor league starts this season, Kopech has a 2.87 ERA and a 1.148 WHIP with 155 strikeouts in 119.1 innings.

Kopech is currently MLB Pipeline's No. 1 pitching prospect in the minors.