Chicago White Sox: State of the System

Intro – Spring Training 2017

In the spring of 2017, I was lucky enough to take a trip to Arizona to see family and attend some spring training games. I was up early my first day to race to Camelback Ranch as soon as the gates opened. 2017 was really a sea change for the organization. Looking back at MLB.com’s 2016 preseason Top-10 is kind of sobering:

  1. Carson Fulmer
  2. Tim Anderson
  3. Spencer Adams
  4. Adam Engel
  5. Trey Michalczewski
  6. Jordan Guerrero
  7. Jacob May
  8. Micker Adolfo
  9. Courtney Hawkins
  10. Corey Zangari

By 2017, the rebuild was on in earnest. I got to watch Yoan Moncada take BP, I saw Michael Kopech‘s first spring training appearance in a White Sox uniform, and I was dumbstruck by the size of Alec Hansen when I saw him for the first time:

In awe at the size of this lad. Absolute unit.

However, if 2017 represented a season full of hope for White Sox fandom, 2018 can only be described as a retrenchment. And heading into 2019, the natives are getting restless.

We implore Yoan to swing the bat instead of looking at strike 3. We search for signs that Carlos Rodon‘s slider is coming back. We squint and see a Reynaldo Lopez that’s destined for the rotation and not the bullpen. We watch YouTube videos of Michael Kopech’s MLB debut at 2 a.m. when we can’t sleep. We seek out news on the state of Eloy’s pectoral muscles. WE WANT SEBY! And, most of all, we wait for news of a Manny Machado or Bryce Harper signing as a beacon to show us that we can still believe that Reinsdorf will give our beloved franchise another run to match the magic of 2005.

Positions of Strength – SP and OF

Let’s start with the good stuff. As best I can tell, the White Sox organization has two particular areas of potential strength at the moment: starting pitching and outfield.

Starting Pitching

On the starting pitching front, we ran out five kids under the age of 26 at some point last season as part of our starting rotation at the MLB level. Carlos Rodon, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Carson Fulmer, and Michael Kopech. These kids combined to start 96 of the club’s 162 games last season. It is certain that all five of them will not pan out. We all know that Carson Fulmer already appears to be on his expected path to the bullpen. But still, it encourages me that we have so many young potential starting pitchers already at the MLB level starting to figure things out.

Behind this initial wave is another wave of starting pitching that will at least complement the five pitchers above. In our “Cream of the Crop” White Sox Top-20 prospects list, Brenden Gorzelski and Alex Jensen note several pitchers with starting rotation upside:

#3 Prospect Dylan Cease (SP1/SP2 Ceiling):

“Speaking of 100 MPH fastballs with absolutely devastating breaking balls and a fringy changeup that improved last year, let’s talk about Cease. Cease lives 94-98 with good sink and a little run on his fastball and can dial up 100 if needed. The fastball should be a rare high swing and miss rate and high GB rate offering. When it’s on, his hammer curve is probably the best curve in the minors and should be his strikeout pitch.” -Alex Jensen

#5 Prospect Dane Dunning (SP2/SP3 Ceiling)

“Dunning is a polished pitcher with low 90’s heat, two solid but unspectacular offspeed offerings, and plus control.” -Alex Jensen

“The low 90’s sinker and his slider are his best pitches, both showing plus ability. The sinker shows great armside sink and is a great pitch at the bottom of the zone that misses barrels. The slider has good tilt and depth and compliments his sinker well.” -Brenden Gorzelski

#7 Prospect Alec Hansen (SP1 Ceiling)

“Hansen probably has the highest upside of any arm in this system besides Kopech….” -Brenden Gorzelski

“If you took a look at Kopech and Cease and thought to yourself “The ceiling is too low and the floors are too high”, then Alec Hansen is your guy. Call me crazy, but his ceiling is somehow higher than Kopech’s.” -Alex Jensen

#14 Prospect Jimmy Lambert (SP3 Ceiling)

“This is a pitcher I think is getting slept on a bit but has been able to make key adjustments that give him potential mid-rotation stuff.” -Brenden Gorzelski

That’s four more pitching prospects with a multi-year minor league track record and ceilings between SP1 and SP3. Throw in a couple 2018 draft picks that project as possible future rotation pieces as well (LHP Konnor Pilkington and RHP Jonathan Stiever), and it seems clear to me that starting pitching is an area of strength in the organization.

Outfield

When you look at the White Sox outfield prospects, the big question seems to be: where is everyone going to play? Eloy Jimenez (22, AAA Charlotte) is the crown jewel of the system right now. I think he’s going to start out as a LF but don’t be surprised when he slides to 1B/DH. He will hit so much that it won’t even matter. There is 50 HR thunder in his bat, which will be aided by the beautiful summers on Chicago’s south side.

Behind Eloy is a pile of well-rounded outfielders that I can see contributing to our future in some capacity:

Luis Robert (21, A+ Winston-Salem): is one of the premier athletes in minor league baseball. We are still waiting for things to ‘click’ for him. However, his AFL performance has given me reason to believe that 2019 could be the year for that to happen.

Luis Alexander Basabe (22, AA Birmingham): is the forgotten piece of the Chris Sale deal. He had a fantastic 2018 campaign and has all the tools to be a future CF/leadoff hitter.

Blake Rutherford (21, A+ Winston-Salem): is a contact-oriented hitter who is capable of playing all three outfield spots. He also works out with 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich during the offseason.

Micker Adolfo (21, A+ Winston-Salem): is a RF with some of the loudest tools in the organization. He combines 70 grade raw power with an 80 grade arm (and now has the Tommy John surgery which was hanging over his head behind him).

Luis Gonzalez (23, A+ Winston-Salem): is a fan-favorite who can play all-3 outfield spots, but is probably best in CF. He found another gear in 2018 when he hit 14 HR, 5 3B, and 40 2B, as noted in this excellent article by Dan Victor.

Steele Walker (22, A-Full Kannapolis): is a 2018 draft pick out of Oklahoma. I think Steele is most likely a LF, but he can fill either corner OF spot and has a sweet swing at the plate.

So even with Eloy rotating out of LF at some point in the future, our system boasts at least 6 more players with starting MLB OF upside. It’s a great problem to have!

Position of Weakness: Injuries

The 2018 season was marred by prospect injuries. It started with 2017’s 1st round pick Jake Burger blowing out his Achilles hustling to beat out an infield grounder during spring training and just did not let up:

Player Ailment Missed Time
Jake Burger L Achilles Tear 12 months
Eloy Jimenez L Knee Tendinitis 2 weeks
Eloy Jimenez L Pectoral Strain 2 weeks
Eloy Jimenez L Hip Adductor Strain 2 weeks
Luis Robert L Thumb Sprain 2 months
Luis Robert L Thumb Re-Sprain 2 months
Luis Robert Hamstring 1 week
Alec Hansen R Forearm Strain 10 weeks
Dane Dunning R Elbow Sprain 2 months
Micker Adolfo Tommy John Surgery 6-9 months
Michael Kopech Tommy John Surgery All of 2019
Seby Zavala R Wrist Sprain 2 weeks
Jimmy Lambert L Oblique Strain 6 weeks
Kade McClure Knee Surgery 3 months
Steele Walker Oblique Issue None
Zack Burdi TJS Recovery Most of 2018

While it might not seem unreasonable to place some blame on the development staff here simply because of the volume of injuries, when I drill into the list I see a lot of strange and/or unpreventable stuff. Burger, Robert, and McClure essentially injured themselves on hustle plays (Robert on a couple occasions). Micker’s elbow issue was well-known heading into the season. The organization did a great job planning things out with him and giving him a 1/2 season of hitting development and having him ready for another full season of work in 2019. Eloy just seems prone to soft tissue stuff at this point. Steele and Seby were dealing with stuff that’s just part of the baseball grind. All in all, these particular injuries don’t strike me as a big deal.

I’d be more worried about the injuries on the pitching side if it weren’t for the White Sox historically great track record at managing pitcher health. Still, I have to wonder a little bit with on some of the decisions, specifically with regards to Alec Hansen. Hansen had forearm discomfort in the spring. The team checked it out and didn’t find any structural damage. They then brought him back slowly, and he didn’t make his first start for AA Birmingham until June 16. He continued pitching for Birmingham for the next 6 weeks, but it’s pretty clear from looking at the game logs that something wasn’t right. On July 23, he walked nine batters in a 4-inning appearance. On July 29, he walked seven in a 1 1/3 inning appearance, giving up three earned runs. All of a sudden, a guy who posted a solid 3.25 BB/9 across all levels in 2017 couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.

The team shut him down briefly to let the forearm quiet down. He then got shuttled down to A+ Winston-Salem where he made five more starts. They lasted: 2 innings, 3 innings, 4 innings, 3 innings, and 3 2/3 innings. When I look back at everything, it seems pretty clear that whatever was bothering Alec’s forearm created a lost season for him in 2018. I honestly wonder why he pitched competitively at all. He’s a big, long-levered pitcher that has to have his delivery stay in sync to stay in control. Obviously, if he’s guarding his forearm while he’s pitching, it’s not surprising that mechanical woes will follow.

The team did shut down both Dane Dunning (elbow) and Jimmy Lambert (oblique) when they started feeling discomfort in the second half. I’m obviously in full support of both of these moves. I anticipate both will be ready to try a full season workload again in 2019. At the end of the day, you just can’t have enough pitching prospects.

Farm Grades

Our “Farm Grades” compare each organization’s entire statistical performance relative to all other MLB farm systems. We then give each organization a letter grade based on the overall strength of that statistical performance. Here is how the White Sox organization fared in our 2018 “Farm Grades”:

The organizational pitching performance earned an A-“ grade overall. This is despite several top arms missing time (as noted above). You can really see the organization’s starting pitching depth coming through here, with the White Sox organization racking up 151 pitching wins. The White Sox are right in the thick of what I’d consider the best pitching organizations in the MiLB the past couple years: the Yankees, Astros, Phillies, and Rays. Things are looking bright on the pitching front.

The organizational hitting performance earned a C” grade overall. Bearing in mind that this is capturing the hitting record of the entire organization, I don’t think that the C grade is terrible here. However, the top tier of these statistical rankings are dominated by some of what I’d consider the best hitting organizations in the minors: The Dodgers, Rockies, Rays (an “A” level organization in both hitting and pitching), and Blue Jays. The White Sox organization as a whole hits the ball hard (above average HRs and Slugging Average), but lags behind in batting average and speed. Maybe a full season from 2018’s first round pick Nick Madrigal will help address those areas of weakness.

Statistical Breakouts: Hitters

We’ve created an age-weighted hitter ranking for the site. It takes a number of statistical categories and weights each category based on the hitter’s age relative to the level of competition he’s playing against. We then create an ordinal ranking of every MiLB hitting performance from the prior season. Here are the Top-20 overall hitters in the White Sox organization from 2018 using that metric:

As noted above, Eloy was dominant. Luis Gonzalez and Luis Alexander Basabe enjoyed breakout statistical seasons in 2018. Micker Adolfo consolidated his skills well last year, pointing to a future that looks more like his ceiling than his floor.

Laz Rivera is a player we shouldn’t forget about. He played excellent at the “6” splitting the season in half between Kannapolis and Winston-Salem. He hit for power at both stops (15 2B, 6 HR at Kannapolis, 15 2B, 7 HR at Winston-Salem) and flashed some speed as well (4 3B and 17 total SB on the season). He’s probably going to be Birmingham’s shortstop to start 2019, but I’d expect him to see time at Charlotte as well.

Zack Collins’s excellent plate approach always keeps him floating around our lists. If he can stick at catcher and give us this line, then I’m really fine with him slugging in the low .400 range. However, if he’s going to be a 1B/DH, then he needs to hit for more power.

Amado Nunez is a swiss-army knife utility infielder who saw most of his action for Great Falls of the Pioneer League last season. Nunez has made 63 career appearances at SS, 46 at 2B, 34 at 3B, and 8 at 1B. He was a 2014 J2 signing for $900,000 out of the Dominican Republic and just turned 21 this fall. Sometimes, it just takes these really young international prospects some time to find their way in stateside ball. His OPS jumped from .515 in 2017 to .962 in 2018. He’s going to get a Full Season placement in 2019, and I’m cautiously optimistic that his 2018 gains will stick around.

Statistical Breakouts: Pitchers

Dylan Cease was named MLB Pipeline’s Pitcher of the Year for a reason. His fantastic season placed him #18 overall among all qualified pitchers on our list. Jimmy Lambert, who was noted in our scouting reports above, showed us this season why he can be a future rotation piece for the White Sox.

Lincoln Henzman was the White Sox 4th round selection out of Louisville in the 2017 draft. Henzman was a closer in college, but the White Sox have successfully stretched him out to a starting role so far in his professional career. It is hard to argue with the results. He’s now started 29 games for the organization, posting a 2.66 ERA and 1.15 WHIP over 135.1 innings of work.

Zach Lewis is a local kid, hailing from southwest suburban Palos Heights. He’s a solidly built (6’3″, 205) righty who was signed as a Minor League free agent back in June of 2017 after no one called his name during the Rule 4 draft. He’s a grinder, but his production thus far in professional baseball is making every club who passed on him in the draft look foolish.

Blake Battenfield is a former Oklahoma State Cowboy who did some great work for Kannapolis last summer. Unfortunately he was kicked around a bit upon his promotion to Winston-Salem (4.22 ERA in 9 starts). He’s another converted reliever project, so I think between the great line and the promotion to the A+ Carolina League, he has to be considered a success so far. He really has a starter’s repetoire, throwing a 5-pitch mix.

Bernardo Flores is going to be a contributor at the big league level. I can’t tell you why exactly, I just feel it. Loved the value of getting him as a 7th round pick out of USC in 2016. He’s got to figure out how to keep the fastball velocity up. But he’s had stretches where he’s shown a mid-90s fastball combined with a fringe-plus changeup and curve. And he’s a lefty. I’m betting on him putting it all together and becoming a viable back-end rotation piece for the team.

Kodi Medeiros came over from the Brewers in another one of Rick Hahn’s “reliever salvage projects for prospect” swaps (this time it was Joakim Soria). Prospect fatigue is a real thing, but remember that Medeiros was the #12 overall pick in the 2014 draft out of Hilo, Hawaii. He’s always had strikeout stuff, but the control has been a real work in progress. If he can reign in the walks in 2019 he’s going to be ready for the Show by 2020.

Fresh Produce: 2018’s new additions

A final reason for optimism heading into 2019 was the team’s 2018 draft approach. The White Sox were generally conservative in the early rounds, eschewing the prior administration’s affinity for raw “tool shed” hitters who simply struggled to make contact.

Nick Madrigal was the team’s first-round choice. He’d go on to lead the Oregon State Beavers to the 2018 National Championship after being selected by the Sox. I’m not going to lie, he’s divisive. Many evaluators see a utility-type contributor whose speed and hit tool might not play up to the MLB level.

I think these evaluators are wrong. Madrigal might not ever hit for a ton of power or post eye-popping exit velocities. I just don’t think that matters. He was the most advanced college bat in the draft class. He’s great on the infield dirt and capable of playing either 2B or SS depending on where the team needs him. His speed has been graded as a double-plus 70 by several outlets, and he stole a base in around 5% of his professional ABs last summer (a 25+ SB pace over a full MLB season). And his hit tool is special. His hand-eye coordination and pitch recognition are “carrying tools” for him, giving him a special ability that he can use to his advantage at the MLB level. I see a future #1/2 hitter playing a solid defensive middle infield, hitting .300+, and stealing 25-30 bags a year.

And the best part about Madrigal? He’s an advanced college bat, so we could see him on the South Side in 2019.

In the second round the team selected Steele Walker out of the University of Oklahoma. Another safe choice. Steele is a relatively advanced college bat with a sweet-looking swing from the left hand side. His character and work ethic are excellent as well.

Konnor Pilkington was the team’s 3rd round selection out of Mississippi State. Reports are that his fastball velocity was down to the upper-80s during his Junior season, causing him to drop to the 3rd round. Still, he has the potential to be an MLB contributor for the club, maybe as a 4th or 5th starter, innings eater type of role.

The White Sox landed the coup of the draft when they shocked everyone and selected Bryce Bush in the 33rd round. Most teams were out on Bush as they assumed he wasn’t going to break his college commitment to play for Mississippi State. However, the team had cultivated a relationship with Bush during his prep career and let him know that they were planning on drafting him. A $290k signing bonus sealed the deal.

Bush then turned in a scalding professional debut as an 18-year-old in the AZL and Pioneer League. His bat speed from the right-hand side makes him a potential day one draft talent, and the scouting reports thus far suggest that he can stick at third base as well. A phenomenal job all the way around by the club’s draft and player development teams.

Jonathan Stiever was an intriguing pick in the fifth round. He was an All-State WR/DB playing high school football in Wisconsin. He then went to college and played baseball for Indiana University. He’s very athletic and throws a sinker/curveball combo that should induce plenty of groundballs. Both grade out as potential future 60s, and he throws a changeup as well. Look for him to make a major leap in his second professional season.

Conclusion

Things have really changed a lot on the South Side. An organizational tear down was probably overdue. And now, the organization has produced a healthy farm system which should add some young talent to the MLB roster capable of pushing the club to regular playoff contention in the not too distant future.

Still, despite trading away generational talents like Chris Sale, a successful rebuild is far from a slam dunk at this point. 2018’s growing pains were tough to watch. We might not experience 2005-level ecstasy ever again. But the great thing about Sox fans is that it won’t matter. We will support, root for, and complain about our squad no matter what. The beauty is that, with all these young players working their way into the fold, supporting, rooting for, and complaining about our Sox will just be a little more exciting very soon.

Don’t stop believing (in 2020)!

 

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