The Barons endured a rough 2022 campaign, finishing last in the Southern League with a 61-77 record, 20 games behind the league-leading Rocket City Trash Pandas (Los Angeles Angels affiliate). No matter how you slice up the season, the Barons come out on the losing end. Their first-half record was 31-38, and they followed it up in the second half with a 27-40 mark and a run differential of -52 on the season.
On the player development front, the longtime Double-A affiliate became the organization’s focal point when the top prospects, led by number one-ranked Colson Montgomery, gathered in Alabama as part of “Project Birmingham.” This article focuses on five of the most prominent prospects who spent the bulk of the season at the Double-A affiliate. Project Birmingham will be covered separately.
As good as Montgomery played this season, he wasn’t the most talked about player to spend time in Birmingham. That honor went to Cuban wunderkind Oscar Colas. Highlight reel defensive plays, speed on the basepaths and a few moonshots will get videos circulating on social media at breakneck speeds.
In 51 games and 225 plate appearances, the 24-year-old left-hander slashed .306/.364/.563 with 14 home runs for Birmingham. If those statistics aren’t impressive enough, he had a respectable K rate of 24%, a whopping ISO of .257 and a wRC+ of 139. Defensively, he spent most of his time in right field, logging 277.1 innings at the corner position in addition to 36 innings in center field. These staggering numbers earned him a late-season promotion to Triple-A Charlotte, where he continued to impress. This type of production has White Sox fans salivating that he could be the long-term answer to the right field problem in Chicago.
Yoelqui Céspedes played in 119 games for Birmingham in 2022. In 512 plate appearances, the 25-year-old right-hander slashed .258/.332/.437. He smashed 17 home runs, generating a wRC+ of 103 and an ISO of .179 while striking out 30% of the time. The 5-foot-9, 205-pounder out of Cuba played 101 games in center field. Given his age and the amount of time he’s spent at Double-A, Céspedes is in line for an assignment in Charlotte next season.
The 21-year-old infielder joined the Baron’s late last season after a strong campaign in High-A Winston- Salem. His follow-up season in Birmingham did not disappoint. In 104 games, the right-hander slashed .280/.340/.430, smacked 11 home runs and stole a whopping 40 bases. Combine that with a 7.9% walk rate and an impressive 13.6% strikeout rate, and you have a top 10 prospect in the system.
The 6-foot-6 right-hander out of Maryland played at three levels this season, getting the bulk of his work in the Yellowhammer state. After dominating in Winston-Salem, Burke struggled in his first two months in Birmingham, posting a 6.75 ERA in June and a 7.71 ERA in July.
He dramatically turned things around in August. In 21 innings of work over five starts, his ERA plunged to 2.45, opponents hit .176 against him and his WHIP was an eye-popping 0.95. This performance was good enough to earn him pitcher of the month honors. In two starts in September, his ERA continued to trend downward, resulting in a promotion to Triple-A Charlotte.
Burke has electric stuff, featuring an above-average fastball, curve and slider. Striking out 99 hitters in 73 innings in Double-A proves his stuff will play in the higher levels of the minors. However, it’s the walks that stand out. In Low-A Kannapolis in 2021, Burke walked a whopping 6.43 batters per nine innings. 2022 showed significant improvement in that department as his walk rate plummeted to 4.07 during his time in Birmingham.
After being added to the 40-man roster for Rule 5 draft protection in November, big things were expected from the 6-foot-2 right-hander out of Coastal Carolina. The season did not go as planned for the 2018 13th-rounder.
Command continued to be an issue as he posted a 5.92/9 walk rate and a 1.59 WHIP in 83 innings. With a low to mid-90s fastball, a plus slider and an average curve and changeup, Bilous struck out more than a batter per inning at the Double-A level in 2022. Despite a 5.27 ERA and a 4.80 FIP, Bilous received a promotion to Triple-A Charlotte in early August, where he finished the season. He will enter his age 26 season in 2023.
In addition to these top prospects, Lenyn Sosa played 62 games in the deep south, obliterating the level with a 142 wRC+, smashing 14 home runs and driving in 48. He hit for contact, delivering an excellent 13.8% strikeout rate and power with an ISO of .218. These astounding numbers catapulted him to two stints in Chicago with the big league team and an extended run in Charlotte to close out the season.
Whether from the pitching rubber or at the dish, fans saw a season full of dynamic prospects play in Birmingham. No doubt keeping fans of the longtime Chicago White Sox minor league affiliate engaged for the duration of the campaign, particularly the last month or so. The big question of the offseason is how the White Sox will handle Project Birmingham. Will they return the top prospects to more appropriate levels, or will they keep the team that ended the season intact? Either way, there should be an abundance of talent to captivate fans and observers in 2023.