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White Sox rebuild ‘a trying process,’ but Don Cooper welcomes the challenge

Predicting who the rebuilding White Sox might deal and who they might keep as the trade deadline approaches. (Colleen Kane)

Don Cooper has trouble falling asleep most nights as a whir of information on White Sox pitchers moves through his mind.

The long-time Sox pitching coach goes over his conversations from the day and thinks about the sideline sessions and starting pitcher the next day until eventually, at some early morning hour, sleep finally quiets the noise.

"My body might be tired, but my mind is racing," Cooper said. "That’s the way I’ve always been. And when it doesn’t work, it can get frustrating."

That doesn’t mean Cooper is tiring of the job as he nears his 15-year anniversary as the club’s pitching coach. Formerly the club’s minor-league pitching coordinator, he was hired on July 22, 2002, as a replacement for Nardi Contreras.

Since then, he has worked under four managers, helped the Sox win a World Series championship, coached 10 pitchers who were All-Stars 18 times, experienced the frustration of an eight-year playoff drought and now is part of a full-scale rebuild for the first time in his tenure.

The 61-year-old New York native marvels at how he has become the oldest Sox coach, but he still describes the job as "the dream." And he said as long as he remains healthy – he has battled vertigo in recent years – he hopes to continue on.

"I plan on working as long as I can physically do this or as long as they want me," Cooper said. "Nobody wants to be someplace they’re not wanted, but I’ve been very lucky and blessed to be here, because they seem to have wanted me here for at least 15 years."

Cooper said he has long had the teaching of delivery down, but he has learned most about navigating relationships amid wins and losses over 15 years. Sox left-hander Derek Holland said he doesn’t know if there’s a style quite like that of Cooper, whom he called a straight shooter.

"He’s an interesting guy, but he’s real knowledgeable," Sox reliever Anthony Swarzak said. "It’s not a coincidence that he’s been around as long as he has and has had the pitchers here that have had the success they’ve had. It speaks volumes for what kind of coach he is and what kind of man he is."

A look at which teams White Sox GM Rick Hahn could make a deal with ahead of the trade deadline.

(Colleen Kane)

Cooper said the last few years have been the most challenging as the Sox have struggled to be competitive and now face new obstacles as they rebuild.

In the rotation this season, the Sox have dealt with injuries to Carlos Rodon, Miguel Gonzalez and James Shields, the underperformance of Jose Quintana for two months and the attempted turnarounds of veteran pitchers Holland and Mike Pelfrey. Sox starters rank 26th with a 4.95 ERA, and most frustrating for Cooper is they haven’t gone deep into games. They rank 27th with 463 2/3 innings pitched, putting stress on a bullpen that has posted a solid 3.94 ERA.

"Rebuilding can be a real trying process," Cooper said. "Everybody still comes to the park thinking we’re going to win the game tonight, and how are we going to do that? My first thought every morning when I wake up is, ‘Yes, we won last night’ or ‘Son of a (expletive), we didn’t win. We have to come back and win today.’"

There are more challenges ahead.

Immediately, Cooper might have to watch one of his favorite pitchers be traded away.

He has guided Quintana from his first big-league pitch in 2012 and said that kind of long-term relationship builds fondness. He first mentioned Mark Buehrle when asked of his favorite pitchers, noting how much he learned about the needs of left-handed pitchers from watching Buehrle. He also spoke of his long-term work with Nate Jones and Jake Petricka.

But Cooper has watched long-time mentees go before, most recently Chris Sale in December, and he said the difficulty of saying goodbye doesn’t last long.

"My mind is filled with the 13 guys we have on our staff, and what we might do to get more production out of each guy," Cooper said. "The names change, but my job and their job doesn’t."

Among the joys of the rebuild for Cooper and bullpen coach Curt Hasler, whom Cooper said has been a welcome addition, will be identifying and working with the pitchers that can help build the next championship.

He is frequently updated on the progress of the Triple-A Charlotte prospects and called it "unbelievable" how much media coverage they receive. When pitchers such as Reynaldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech or Zack Burdi finally arrive, a new obstacle will emerge as many will face big-league struggles amid such expectations.

"It’s kind of like a relay race, and I get the baton handed to me, and now we have to take it across the finish line and finish the work that was put in," Cooper said. "I’m looking forward to that, but I know it’s a challenge."

Twitter @ChiTribKane