Where various White Sox prospects stand as minor league camp opens

Camelback Ranch, White Sox spring training home
(Ron Vesely/Chicago White Sox)

After providing fans a brief taste of spring-training-looking baseball with a mini-camp for their top prospects, the White Sox officially opened their maxi-camp for all of their minor-league players on Monday. That’s one month before Opening Day for the White Sox’s four full-season affiliates, and unlike those at the big-league level, the schedules of Charlotte, Birmingham, Winston-Salem and Kannapolis are not in any particular jeopardy.

There isn’t yet a full accounting of all the players on hand, so there isn’t much to add from my attempt to cobble together a Charlotte Knights roster last month. Dwight Smith joined the fray soon after I wrote that piece to bulk up the outfield, and Scott Merkin describes a guy who’s attempting to come back from a particularly nasty case of COVID-19 case.

“When I got it, I was in a hotel room for like 17 days,” Smith Jr. said. “I knew my body and my swing and my arm and my legs, all that, were not ready to play every day. But I’m a competitor. I was going to definitely go out there and compete every day.

“I lost my taste and smell, and then after I got some of that back and I tested negative, then I had heart trouble. My heart rate was slower than normal, so I had to wait to get cleared. That was another week before I could come back. But after all that because it was so new at the time before the vaccine, I feel pretty good and back to normal. My head is in a good place and my body feels good. I’m just ready to go play whenever that happens.”

Smith doesn’t register as a prospect, so you may be wondering why I’m leading with him rather than all of the players who were on my top 10 list (plus honorable mentions). I don’t have a good answer for that, and I’m not going to pretend I do. We’ll jog through them below.

Colson Montgomery

Montgomery spent his offseason focusing solely on baseball for the first time, rather than getting into gear during live action in high school games after basketball season. He worked out with Jake Burger in one of many crews of Nashville-based ballplayers, and now he figures to get plenty of attention from the major-league coaching staff, which doesn’t have much else to do right now.

‘‘The major-league [coaches] here, they’re kind of just talking to us all, what they see in us, what they like, what we can kind of improve on,’’ Montgomery said. ‘‘It’s kind of just good to pick their brains because they work with the big-leaguers, the best-of-the-best guys. It’s just pretty cool having that opportunity to talk to them.’’

Wes Kath

Montgomery’s best friend in baseball, Kath was supposed to be the more polished hitter between the White Sox’s top two draft picks of 2021, but he ended up struggling far more in his first taste of professional baseball, striking out 42 times over 115 plate appearances in the AZL last year. He cited the jump in average velocity as his biggest takeaway from his pro debut, and on both sides of the ball. He’s playing third base as a pro after handling shortstop in high school, and he cited the hot corner as more of a reactionary position due to the batted balls coming in hotter.

That said, the Arizona native has been able to take advantage of the Camelback Ranch facilities by reporting five days a week, what with the 40-man members being locked out. He also gets to sleep in his own bed, so he has fewer adjustments to make than most teenagers.

Oscar Colás

Had Colás signed under previous international rules, he might’ve had enough polish to find a team that would offer him a 40-man roster spot. As it stands, while signing caps limited him to an ordinary $2.7 million bonus and a minor-league contract, at least he benefits from a normal preseason, which he needs after spending the last two years in professional limbo due to a dispute with his NPB team and the timing of his defection.

It’s unclear what level he’ll start, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the absence of 40-man players changes the average ages and experience across Triple-A and Double-A, but for the time being, he’s embracing the ability to resume playing professional baseball and establishing a trajectory for himself.

“Today was the start of my professional career as a baseball player,” Colás said. “It was kind of like a dream come true. Now, it’s on me to perform and do what I really know I can do, being able to reach my dream.”

Yoelqui Céspedes

After a humbling turn in the Arizona Fall League that revealed some of the flaws underlying an up-and-down performance in Birmingham, Céspedes isn’t quite on the doorstep of the majors. But with decent production at Double-A despite his own multi-year layoff after coming over from Cuba, it’s fair to consider Céspedes on the stoop of the big leagues.

Any semblance of patience — or failing that, better pitch recognition — is required to close that last mile, and he knows it.

“That was one of the biggest things that I focused on this past offseason, just try to be more patient,” Céspedes said through Russo. “Baseball here is way different than in Cuba. You can see the level (of play) here is higher. But what is good is here I have a lot of Latino players, too, and we all help each other. And that has been a plus for me, that has been an advantage to get used to it and the level here. But definitely there was a big difference between the baseball here and the baseball in Cuba.”

José Rodríguez

Rodríguez couldn’t have done much more with his 2021. He hit .301/.338/.469 across three levels in his first full pro season at age 20, smashing 14 homers and 46 extra-base hits, then adding 30 steals on top of it. He also struck out a measly 72 times over those 111 games.

If there’s an issue, it’s a bit of an open question as to which aspect of his game will lead his way to the majors. Sometimes that broad base of decent skills poses a problem for a player in an organization with aspirations, as there are few situations that are naturally favorable. If his entire game can remain intact — and there’s reason to believe it can, given that he’s just 21 years old and hasn’t yet experienced any kind of meaningful failure — he could be a valuable up-the-middle option for any team.

Rodríguez sounds committed to inspiring confidence all around.

“I want to be a leader,” Rodríguez said through Russo. “When you bring that kind of energy to a team, you can see that the other guys get excited. They can feel that energy and they feel better and more enthusiastic about it. I remember last year when the season started, my manager (Guillermo Quiroz) told me that I am going to be hitting lead-off. He told me ‘You know what? I’m gonna put you in that position because you are kind of a leader of this team. With your energy and your enthusiasm, you can lead these guys. And it happened. That was exactly right. That’s just with the kind of personality I have, the energy that I have, I just try to motivate people and it works.”

Carlos Pérez

For a player on the fringe of 40-man roster consideration, being left unprotected is usually a bad break. In Pérez’s case, whatever extra at-bats he could receive in Charlotte while the 40-man guys might be enough to change some minds about the depth chart above him, as neither Zack Collins nor Seby Zavala have a lock on any kind of backup catcher work.

Tony La Russa praised Pérez last year, but he praised just about everybody who wore black and white during spring training, making it difficult to read. The strides he made in the power department was the result of a conscious shift

“I think I can hit 20 or 25 [home runs],” Pérez said. “I tried to be more aggressive and swing hard every time, no matter the fastball or the breaking ball. I go to home plate, and I have a plan.”

… and if he can bolster those gains without sacrificing his contact ability, the only obstacle between him and Chicago is receiving and game-calling. If he’s getting all the attention from Jerry Narron before the season, perhaps he’ll be able to shore up his framing even with an automated strike zone coming to Triple-A.

Norge Vera

The organization’s best pitching prospect will warrant a lot of early attention in A-ball, and the hope is that his more extensive professional experience will prevent the kind of hardships that Matthew Thompson, Andrew Dalquist and Jared Kelley had in making the leap to full-season ball.

Vera also possesses an advantage in the mentorship department. Besides being the son of Norge Luis Vera, who pitched 17 seasons in Serie Nacional, the younger Vera has spent a lot of time with Jose Contreras. Minor-league pitching coordinator Everett Teaford saying that the two lived together for a while.

“He’s got the personality that wants to learn and wants to get better. He went and lived with Contreras for a while, so you can tell the drive is there. When you’ve got that, it makes a coach’s life a lot easier.”

DSL hitters posed zero challenge for Vera, so there still may be an adjustment in understanding just how much work his non-fastball offerings need. His curveball is a subject of particular fascination, since the early data shows that he makes a lot of low spin.

Update: He’s dealing with a Grade 1 lat strain:

James Fegan also covered two of the other pitchers mentioned, and while Dalquist has supposedly found the velocity gains the Sox hoped he’d be able to tap into as he matured, I’m getting the feeling like the initial plans for Kelley hit a wall, and now they’re feeling around for anything that might result in progress.

After working to develop a slider pretty much since he was drafted, the White Sox want to see Kelley swing back to relying on his well-regarded changeup as his primary off-speed weapon. And while his deployment of a two-seam fastball is not the beginning of Kelley being asked to pitch to contact or anything, the success of another burly right-hander mixing up fastball shapes in Chicago is a reminder that there are ways to work around not having dominant four-seam carry like Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease or Michael Kopech.

“He’s not a huge carry/ride guy, so we think giving him more versatility and more weapons (will help),” Teaford said of Kelley. “Lance (Lynn) does some different things, but it’s kind of that big fastball mix where it’s the triangle of death (Teaford mimes the different movement patterns of three different fastballs, forming a triangle). It’s the little bit of carry, he’s got a sinker and cutter. Maybe that’s an arsenal we go with down the road. We’re trying to just increase his pitch versatility.”

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To Err is Herrmann

I am genuinely excited for many of these prospects, esp. José Rodríguez and our young pitchers. Of course, I am so starved for baseball news I can’t gauge reality anymore. Until reading this article, I had completely forgotten Tony La Russa was the White Sox manager.

soxfan

TTT (tangential to topic): I don’t remember what broadcasts did in 94-95 (nor would it be that relevant given how much the media landscape has changed), but what latitude will MLB or the regional broadcast partners have when it comes to televising minor league games. At what point would minor leaguers be considered replacement players/scabs? Only if they started to play in major league stadiums or even if they played in broadcast games from their minor league parks?

The players strongest argument for a deal is that the on-field product suffers without world-class talent, so what happens if the league starts broadcasting games starting Cespedes and Rodriguez and ratings are still pretty good?

jorgefabregas

The ratings wouldn’t be good over any sustained period of time.

jorgefabregas

The players aren’t on strike. There are no scabs. MLB can’t play MLB games with replacement players.

upwithscoots

Are these camps open to the public? I saw there was some concern about the rule 5 draft being delayed and the impact it could have on fringe prospects being scouted, but haven’t actually seen a definitive answer.

I wasn’t able to cancel my trip to AZ next week, so either I’ll see some baseball or hang out around a pool with a beer and enjoy the sunshine – either way I’m good, but I’d love to see *some* baseball.

Right Size Wrong Shape

A commenter on another site said that he had a friend try to go and he was denied access.

jorgefabregas

Colás looks trim from the couple pictures I’ve seen of him in camp.

mrridgman

Also per Fegan, Vera is now near 6’6″ tall – last year he was listed at 6’2″. This could be really good, or at least for an adjustment period, maybe not.

knoxfire30

it just moved

joewho112

The lockout affects everyone on the 40 man roster, correct? So they can’t option a guy like Andrew Vaughn and Jake Burger to Charlotte to get some reps, right?

Doesn’t this mean that 14 guys who would be in the minors can’t play for whichever minor league they would be assigned to (presumably Charlotte)?

jorgefabregas

Correct

knoxfire30

sad old friend news, pic of codi heuer on instagram in a huge arm brace post surgery… wonder if he blew his arm out or what….

jorgefabregas

Vera lat strain