Farm Fortnight: Bumpy or not, any start welcome

Regions Field in Birmingham (Jim Margalus)
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No matter whether you’re a season-ticket holder of the 9-3 Birmingham Barons or the 1-11 Kannapolis Cannon Ballers, it’s great to have minor league baseball back. The idea of “bad baseball is better than no baseball” was put to the test in 2020, and “no baseball” needed a catcher to pitch the ninth.

That said, these are still paid professionals who are held to a certain standard, and as you’ve seen from a 13-walk game here and a no-hitter there, the standards are out of whack after a long layoff. Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper wrote a story about the state of play, and some sources pulled no punches.

Scouts watching games at all levels of the minors were quickly taken aback by the quality of play, especially when it came to defense, quality of at-bats and pitcher’s command and control. Unprompted, a number of them reached out over the first week of the season just to note how subpar the standard of play has been, whether they were watching Class A, Double-A or Triple-A.

“It’s god awful,” said one pro scout. “Tons of strikeouts, bad at-bats, bad defense. Sloppy play in general and lots of plodding games. It’s hard to watch.”

And as somebody who sat through said 13-walk inning, I don’t think this is overkill. But while some games might generate heartburn, it’s ultimately heartening in the sense that it reaffirms the value of minor league games. There was some concern that between the alternate training sites and the consolidation of rookie leagues, teams might discover that players can do a lot of their development in controlled, laboratory-like settings. So far, that does not seem to be the case.

With that in mind, it’s probably worth setting aside the extreme performances and thinking of the first month of minor league baseball as a form of extended spring training that isn’t actual extended spring training, where you mostly hope guys can get up to speed without getting hurt, and the performance arrives in due time.

Through two weeks, there are a number of White Sox prospects at the upper levels who are hoping that their first two weeks will accurately foreshadow the rest of the season. At the lower levels, it’s purely about survival. Let’s go through what we saw over the first 12 games.

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Charlotte Knights

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Overview

  • Last two series: 2-4 vs. Gwinnett; 4-2 vs. Norfolk
  • Record: 6-6
  • Next two series: @Durham, @Norfolk
  • Individual stats

When we last saw the Charlotte Knights, they played in BB&T Ballpark, the friendliest park for hitters in the International League. The park is now Truist Field, and the league is now the Triple-A East, but the environment appears to remain the same.

The Knights are scoring a cool 5.67 runs per game, good for the fifth-highest total out of 20 teams … but they’re allowing 6.92 runs per game. Only Syracuse is worse.

The Knights are the only White Sox affiliate to play both of their first two series at home, but they’ll finish out the month on the road. After series in Durham and Norfolk, the numbers should balance out somewhat and give us a better idea of whether anybody is uniquely benefiting from or punished by the circumstances.

Position Player Prospects

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Considering Jake Burger’s only experience at a White Sox affiliate was 200 unremarkable plate appearances at Kannapolis in 2017, starting the season in Charlotte after three dormant seasons and two Achilles ruptures seemed like the White Sox were setting the difficulty meter two notches too high. He appears to be holding his own so far, homering in three straight games and making contact when he’s not leaving the yard, and his lateral movement looks like it’s improved, as he’s compensated for the Achilles blowouts by losing a lot of weight. He’s a guy I’m expecting to have some uneven home/road splits, so the areas like plate discipline and defense will loom larger than pure production.

After spending the 2020 season off the 40-man roster and alternate training site due to being thoroughly blocked, Gavin Sheets looks like he’s cutting to an inside lane. He’s spent the first fortnight raking while playing half of his games in right field, which is perhaps the first place the White Sox would need somebody like him. The guy whose all-fields approach undercut his natural strength is tapping into that power and launching some majestic bombs.

Thanks to Sheets, a strong start from Blake Rutherford is going a little underappreciated, although not playing on Saturday or Sunday has something to do with it. An early 0-for-11, five-strikeout slump threatened to put him on course for a relapse of his disappointing 2019 season in Birmingham, but he responded with a five-game hitting streak.

Rutherford isn’t on the injured list, whereas Luis González just came off it due to a minor back issue. He’s played one game for Charlotte, and he homered. This might be a theme.

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Others of Note

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Seby Zavala always seemed like he was better than the high-strikeout, sub-.300 OBP form he showed in his first two attempts at conquering Charlotte, so maybe it shouldn’t be a complete surprise if the third time’s a charm. It’s also hard to shake the idea that a guy with a 1.039 OPS also has a 43.2 percent strikeout rate. Is Truist Field going to play this ridiculous all season?

In this context, Brian Goodwin should probably pick it up if he wants to take advantage of Adam Engel’s absence. It seemed like you could pencil him into the 26-man roster when the White Sox signed him, but he’s the one guy not hitting. Marco Hernández is there because he was named the Triple-A East’s Player of the Week, which is a good career move for a 28-year-old who’s seeking to build on 122 games of MLB experience somewhere.

Starting Pitching Prospects

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You look at the walk rate of Jonathan Stiever and think, “Hey, that’s pretty high for a guy who is supposed to have above-average control.” Then you look at the rest of the pitching performances in Charlotte and you understand why caution might be a winning strategy. Home starts might be all about thriving by surviving. Jimmy Lambert, who went from spring training to extended spring training while most of his other Camelback Ranch peers reported to the alternate training site in Schaumburg, has been roughed up in each of his three brief outings. Reynaldo López made an encouraging return from eye surgery.

Relief Prospects

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We’ve seen Zack Burdi in Chicago, where his stuff looked lively when it wasn’t drifting middle-middle. Charlotte’s not going to help him with the homer issue, so maybe just pay attention to the other columns.

The White Sox reworked Tyler Johnson‘s mechanics after he lost most of a year to a lat strain. It’s resulted in some ugly numbers since, and now he’s on the injured list again, so that’s not great.

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Birmingham Barons

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Overview

  • Last two series: 5-1 vs. Biloxi; 4-2 at Pensacola
  • Record: 9-3
  • Next two series: vs. Montgomery, @Rocket City
  • Individual stats

There are drawbacks from having the oldest team in a league, like needing any and all prospects of note to get off to decent starts, lest they run the risk of being written off. There are also benefits, in that one might expect a more experienced team to have fewer issues finding cohesion after a 20-month layoff.

As far as the Barons go, both things are true. They have the oldest lineup (25.5 years old) and second-oldest pitching staff (25 years) in the Double-A South, but outside of the aberration of the 13-walk inning, Birmingham’s played some respectable team baseball, and it’s resulted in the system’s best record over the first two series.

The roster would stand to benefit from the addition of Yoelqui Céspedes. The story from both James Fegan and Jim Callis is that Céspedes is biding his time in extended spring training while he gets visa issues worked out, and he’ll report to Birmingham afterward. It’s been more than a fortnight since those reports and Céspedes is still reportedly in Arizona, so who knows. I guess it wouldn’t surprise me if the Sox thought an extended run in extended spring training might benefit him, since he doesn’t have much in the way of even Cuban League experience over the last few years. Birmingham seems ambitious, especially when you see how less experienced players have dealt with the layoff.

Position Player Prospects

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Congratulations to Micker Adolfo, who is off to the most Micker Adolfo start possible. He’s missed a lot of breaking balls by a large margin, but he’s also hit a few impressive homers. Maybe he needs to work his way into the groove of a full season, but in his only good full season with Winston-Salem in 2018, he hit the ground hitting. When he’s off, he tends to stay that way. At least he’s playing more right field now.

Carlos Pérez also looks like Carlos Pérez, in the sense that his OPS starts with a “6.” He doesn’t look the same because his strikeout rate, which barely topped 10 percent in his worst full season, is currently at 20.8 percent. It wouldn’t surprise me if he were trying to tap into a little more power in order to give him some kind of offensive skill besides a contact-oriented bat that can be knocked out of his hands, but it could also be a dead end. Catchers don’t necessarily have to hit with impact to advance.

There are a couple of early successes underneath the higher-profile slumps. Ti’Quan Forbes only hit three homers over 116 games for Birmingham in 2019, so seeing two over the first two weeks jumps off the page. Romy Gonzalez fell off the map after a disappointing 2019 season in Kannapolis, but somehow a guy who never played shortstop at any previous professional level booted Laz Rivera off the position in Birmingham and is living his best life. He’s only 24, so he’s young enough to be a guy if this performance is more than an aberration.

Others of Note

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Craig Dedelow is also doing all he can in the corners of the Birmingham outfield, but he’s 26 and striking out 31.6 percent of the time, so there are more fluke markers on this one.

Starting Pitching Prospects

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Birmingham’s starting rotation has constantly kept the Barons in games. Kade McClure is competing within the strike zone, although he had to battle when I saw him. James Fegan said Konnor Pilkington showed invigorated velocity during spring training, which is what the Sox were hoping for when they drafted him in the third round in 2019. Blake Battenfield has neither the helium of McClure or the pedigree of Pilkington, but he’s 3-for-3 in starts, which most minor leaguers can’t say after such a long layoff. Ofreidy Gomez, signed away from the Kansas City Royals organization on a minor league deal, has the best strikeout stuff going thus far.

Relief Prospects

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Will Kincanon has been a steady presence in the White Sox’s A-ball bullpens since he was selected in the 11th round of the 2017 draft, including 71 strikeouts over 58 innings in 2019. He’s opened the season by turning in the least dramatic innings of any Barons reliever thus far.

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Winston-Salem Dash

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Overview

  • Last two series: 2-4 vs. Rome; 4-2 at Hickory
  • Record: 6-6
  • Next two series: @Jersey Shore, vs. Hickory
  • Individual stats

Along the lines of experience, the Winston-Salem Dash’s roster blends collegiate pitching with prep and international talent, some of whom skipped low-A while getting their first taste of full-season baseball. Sure enough, the High-A East’s oldest pitching staff is buying time for the lineup, which is league’s fifth-youngest.

A .220/.309/.361 team line might sound disappointing, but it’s lingering just below league average. For some context, the Dash just took five of six against Hickory, a team that’s batting .172. They’ll now head to Jersey Shore to play the BlueClaws, who are barely out of the cellar with a .174 team average, and bringing up the rear in the OPS column at .551, or 120 points lower than the Dash.

Also, while the pitching may be on the older side, the arms aren’t simply beating up on a level they’ve seen. The Dash staff is loaded with third-day picks who received bonuses of $125,000 and higher, and two of them hadn’t thrown a pitch in professional ball. The collegiate experience still might give them an edge if other lineups are in the same position as the Dash, comprised of players who are being pushed either by design or necessity, but it’s better than not performing.

Position Player Prospects

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There’s always been a sizable gap between hitter-friendly Winston-Salem and pitcher-friendly Birmingham that White Sox prospects have struggled to bridge, and this year will probably be no exception, because you can apply the label of “work in progress” to most of the bats the rest of the way. Luis Curbelo is off to an exciting start thanks to his power surge. The 37-percent strikeout rate is a cause for pause, but when he tried his hand at A-ball two years ago, he struck out 41 percent of the time while slugging below .300, so appreciate the progress.

Lenyn Sosa treaded water during an aggressive assignment as a 19-year-old in Kannapolis in 2019 before putting it all together over the last month. He’s off to a similar start at a new level. He’ll need to get a handle on his plate discipline, but at least showing a little power. Yolbert Sanchez has the better concept of the strike zone, but he should since he’s 24. He’s still looking for his first stateside extra-base hit.

Luis Mieses has an early jump on last year’s paltry extra-base hit total (14 over 59 games). Considering we last saw him scuffling at 2019 in Great Falls, any improvement is welcome, especially when you see Harvin Mendoza struggling despite a more polished track record in rookie ball.

Then there’s Bryce Bush, whose biggest problem in 2019 was staying on the field. He’s not on the injured list, but he also hasn’t played since Wednesday.

Starting Pitching Prospects

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None of these are names you know, but all three of them received signing bonuses over the third-day max. Jason Bilous ($185,000 in the 13th round) was tagged for a future in relief due to control problems, but he’s come back from the year away with a strong start in that department. Davis Martin ($130,000 in the 14th round) is the more polished strike thrower, and after getting roughed up in his Winston-Salem debut, he’s settled down to throw nine quality innings.

Isaiah Carranza is especially anonymous as a $175,000 12th-round pick in 2018 who hadn’t thrown his first professional pitch until this season thanks to Tommy John surgery and the pandemic wiping out the years in between. Chris Getz talked him up during instructional league as a guy with an easy mid-90s fastball and a repeatable delivery for other pitches, and he isn’t disappointing early.

Relief Prospects

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After Carranza, Bilous and Martin, Luke Shilling completed a four-pick run of six-figure pitchers, signing out of the University of Illinois for $125,000 in the 15th round. Like Carranza, he had yet to throw a pitch due to the same combation of personal and public health issues. Like Carranza, he’s knocking down every short appearance thus far.

Caleb Freeman, a teammate of Martin’s at Texas Tech, is a polished reliever who is throwing harder than he was with the Red Raiders, and he’s getting the save opportunities for the Dash early.

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Kannapolis Cannon Ballers

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Overview

  • Last two series: 0-6 vs. Down East; 1-5 at Fayetteville
  • Record: 1-11
  • Next two series: vs. Columbia, @Carolina
  • Individual stats

And then there are the Cannon Ballers, who opened brand-new Atrium Health Ballpark by getting swept in a six-game series, then needed a 1-0 victory to avoid the same fate when they hit the road. The logo is a winner, but the on-field product is finding victories hard to come by thus far.

But one could see such struggles coming, because this roster is younger than the league average on both sides of the ball, and it looks the part. Prior to the minor league realignment, many of these players would be waiting for short-season ball to start in Arizona or Great Falls, where they could be gently introduced to their first regular professional baseball experience.

Instead, many of them are being thrown into the deep end, and there’s a lot of thrashing and gurgling, especially on offense. The Ballers are scoring just 2.67 runs per game, which is the worst in the league, even behind still-winless Fredericksburg. The pitching is allowing 6.92 runs per game, which is the second-worst behind Fredericksburg. There’s a reason why those teams are a combined 1-23 this season. Unfortunately, they won’t face each other until July, so they’re going to have to find wins elsewhere in the interim.

One thing I’m wondering is whether the shape of the schedule affects a team as green as Kannapolis, especially on the hitting side. Opponents might be able to build a book against a lineup with swing-and-miss tendencies pretty quickly when they get to see it for six straight games. There’s at least a little evidence, in that the Ballers have scored 21 runs over the first three games of the two series, and 11 runs over the combined back halves.

Position Player Prospects

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Preserve José Rodriguez at all costs. After impressing in Arizona by creating a lot of action from the batter’s box, he’s doing the same thing in Kannapolis, pairing his hit tool with his speed to create some offense at the top of the lineup.

Unfortunately, the top of the Kannapolis lineup is the only part it has, especially since Chase Krogman was lifted after an HBP three games in and placed on the injured list. (Cabera Weaver is also hurt.)

Everybody in between is battling the same problem, starting with contact. Guys like DJ Gladney and Sam Abbott are walking an enviable amount, but when you see the decent walk totals elsewhere on this page, you get the sense that it might be more a product of scattershot Low-A control after such a prolonged layoff. The hope is that improvement is just around the corner for some of these guys, because there’s nowhere else for them to go until complex ball returns midsummer.

Pitching Prospects

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With a roster this young and inexperienced, the phrase “mixed bag” is something to shoot for. Kannapolis’ pitching staff is meeting that goal 2½ turns through. Andrew Dalquist had a control lapse in his second outing and Yoelvin Silven’s been hit around his strikeout total, but they’ve had innings of getting it. Matthew Thompson had five of those innings, posting zeroes against Fayetteville his last time out before the bullpen and defense blew a 6-0 lead. Fifth-round pick Bailey Horn has yet to allow a professional hit, although that’s because he’s on the injured list.

Jared Kelley is the only one where it looks like the White Sox bit off more than he could chew. He’s allowed more runs than innings pitched every time out, and he’s also walked more than one batter an inning each time out. He’d normally start the season in extended spring training, and that might still be an option if he doesn’t figure much out over the next few weeks.

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GrinnellSteve

I really appreciate this deep dive. It’s helpful to get appropriate context to what these guys are doing.

Buck Weaver

“…there’s a lot of thrashing and gurgling” is such a great line, lol. Nicely done.

Last edited 3 years ago by Buck Weaver
burning-phoneix

This is really great even if I constantly follow the Minor Keys every week. Kade McClure is a guy I had written off as the butt of many Troy McClure jokes but he’s looking like an ace down in Birmingham

As Cirensica

What a fantastic compilation Jim. Thanks a lot. This summary makes me panic as I see very few names that could maybe reach the Majors and contribute. Bailey’s numbers are disheartening, but lie you say, this is an atypical minor league season, and it might take a while before normality reaches its full gears.

Joliet Orange Sox

I enjoyed this article. You should think of doing something like this every couple weeks.

Just John

Adolfo’s lines continue to remind me of Cerrano’s.

Jim, If you snuck down into the clubhouse at Regions a few weeks ago, I bet you’d have witnessed Ledo and Severino strealing Joboo’s rum.

(With Hansen pitching normally, there’s no reason to expect he was in on the job)

Last edited 3 years ago by Just John
asinwreck

Adding my voice to the chorus singing the praises of this fine new feature.

what

I’ve always loved reading about day 3 draft picks so its good to hear that bilous, carranza, etc. are looking good early. Hopefully Pilkington continues to look impressive as well.

dwjm3

Did Pineda get scratched for tonight?

Now seeing Ober listed for the Twins

Last edited 3 years ago by dwjm3
GrinnellSteve

Non-pitching ailment. This Ober has been really good every stop along the way. I hope his stuff just doesn’t play in the majors.