The news appeared jarring. Red Sox prospect Michael Kopech, already subject to considerable scrutiny after he received a 50-game suspension in 2015 for testing positive for a banned amphetamine, will now miss more time to open 2016 after suffering a small fracture in his pitching hand during a fight with his teammate. It was, as GM Mike Hazen described it bluntly to Nick Cafardo, "stupid" and "disappointing."
Given the questions about Kopech's makeup that inevitably followed last year's suspension, it's fair to wonder how his latest misstep will recast the view of him. With the ability to channel mid- to high-90s velocity as a starter with an increasingly promising three-pitch mix, he has No. 2 starter potential. On the other hand, as one evaluator noted, "Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me."
In theory, the pause surrounding Kopech could have implications for both the righthander's career and the organization. After missing roughly a third of last year, Kopech seems likely to lose more starts to open this year. As Hazen suggested, that lost time represents a self-imposed obstacle in his career, missed development time that will slow his career progress.
"You don't want to put more barriers in front of you than professional baseball already presents to you," said Hazen.
But ultimately, does the fact that Kopech now has twice put barriers in front of himself alter the view of his prospect standing? The question has significance for the Red Sox, since Kopech – ranked the Red Sox' No. 5 prospect by Baseball America (disclaimer: I write the publication's Red Sox list), represented either a potential future pitching staff building block or one of the organization's best trade chips, with this year representing a potentially significant one for the organization to make that determination.
So will Kopech now be viewed in a drastically different light? Certainly, the length of his absence could impact whether he's a consideration to be dealt prior to this year's trade deadline. But beyond that, the initial view of several evaluators from a number of teams appeared to be that Kopech is an enormously talented teenager (he turns 20 in April) whose misdeeds aren't entirely uncommon.
Fights involving prospects are far from unprecedented (one of Hanley Ramirez's former minor league teammates, Jeff Bailey, once recalled that he threatened to beat up Ramirez "every other day"), even if Kopech's altercation had atypical consequences for his availability for the season. At a time when the details of this fight haven't been disclosed, the facts of the altercation matter to how it colors the assessment of the young pitcher – whether, for instance, Kopech was provoked or defending himself, whether it was merely an act of roughhousing gone awry, whether he behaved irresponsibly or recklessly. For now, the view of most evaluators was that the fight would be taken as a sign of immaturity but would not necessarily alter how teams view the righthander.
"If he's awesome on the field, people will look the other way," noted one AL pro scouting source. "Talent trumps all, and provides plenty of second chances."
"This won't hurt his stock at all. Kids being kids," said another. "Any good scout would look into it, but wouldn't get hung up on it unless it was a recurring theme."
"Given his youth, teams will likely view this as immaturity more than anything else. The biggest issue is missed development time," said an NL pro scouting source. "Kopech is so talented with such electric stuff that as long as he's able to display the same stuff upon [his return], like he did during this past [fall instructional league season following his suspension] when he was sitting in the upper 90's with swing and miss stuff, it won't really hurt his value."
Ultimately, there comes a point when enough incidents lead teams to a conclusion that "it seems inevitable that off-field distractions will persist," noted one NL evaluator. "That's when I think a player's value takes a hit. When everyone else in the organization looks for answers, but the sense is that, no matter what we do, trouble is going to find him, that's when the stock drops."
For many, it doesn't appear that Kopech has reached that point – though clearly if he has not yet arrived at the point of a red flag, there are now caution banners surrounding him, with concern not just for his value as a player, but his well-being as a young man.
"It is not unique, when kids are scared or just socially or professionally overwhelmed, these are some of the behavioral results that develop," noted another NL evaluator in a text. "It's easy to punish these kids by sending them home and not allowing them to play, but I ask: 1) Do they get better by not playing? 2) I would only suspend him if he does not agree to a counseled program of educational self-development. This, of course, without knowing the facts … But show him the support with a program he obviously needs while playing the game when he is medically ready. Let's save him now!"
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.