2023 Kannapolis Cannon Ballers season review

The Kannapolis Cannon Ballers had the only winning record among the four White Sox full-season affiliates, finishing second in the Carolina League South Division at 67-64. Even then, they used a little bit of a cheat code to get there.

The Ballers had the oldest roster in the league on both sides of the ball, especially on the hitting side. Nobody embodies this concept better than Tim Elko. He swatted 17 homers and drove in 57 runs over 66 games, but it wasn’t particularly impressive because he was an SEC-trained 24-year-old. The White Sox then promoted him to Winston-Salem and Birmingham, where it became easier to gauge his strengths against his weaknesses.

While Elko boosted the team’s slugging stats, Mario Camiletti, generously listed at 5’9″, boosted the team’s OBP by drawing 84 walks over 97 games, good for a .432 clip. He ended the season in Winston-Salem, and High-A pitchers demanded more of his abilities to swing the bat.

It wasn’t until the 2023 draft picks joined Kannapolis that the roster actually felt invigorated, although that wasn’t reflected in the 32-34 second-half record.

At least the Ballers were able to use those shortcuts to fashion an above-average offense, because sometimes older rosters weren’t able to achieve even that.

HittersAgeR/GBB%K%AVG/OBP/SLG
Kannapolis22.54.9211.525.5.242/.340/.365
League20.94.6811.325.3.237/.334/.352

The lack of upside is a little more evident on the pitching side, which did an average job of preventing runs despite a deficit of bat-missing stuff.

PitchersAgeR/9BB%K%
Kannapolis22.14.9410.423.6
League21.64.8911.325.3

The age-for-level downgrades are a consequence of downstream supply chain issues. The struggles of the ACL White Sox showed that there weren’t a whole lot of hitters or pitchers in extended spring training who were ready for Low-A ball in April or May, so a lot of the Kannapolis roster had to bide its time until reinforcements showed up from outside.

Now, let’s talk about those reinforcements.

Hitters

Jacob Gonzalez: While many of the collegiate position players selected in the 2023 draft laid waste to low-minors pitching, Gonzalez wasn’t one of them. He hit just .207/.329/.261 over 30 games. The strike-zone numbers were fine — 23 walks, 25 strikeouts over 153 plate appearances — but the contact quality lagged behind that of his peers. Slow pro starts after long college seasons aren’t unheard of, but it does invite some early questions about whether his lack of standout tools is already manifesting itself.

Calvin Harris: Gonzalez’s Ole Miss teammate followed a similar script, hitting .241/.362/.315 over his first 30 games. It’s a little different coming from a fourth-round catcher instead of a 15th-overall shortstop, but the power that he showed in college (.579 slugging) wasn’t immediately apparent. Behind the plate, he threw out just eight of 33 runners. He had a similarly low CS rate in college, but Baseball America attributed it to the pitching staff. We’ll have to see as he works his way up whether it’s a matter of adjusting to pace-of-play rules, or whether the arm is a liability.

Rikuu Nishida: He showed why he was everybody’s favorite player with Oregon, but — wait for it — the bat-to-ball ability didn’t immediately transfer into hits. He posted a .222/.310/.278 line with nine strikeouts against eight walks over 87 plate appearances. I suppose it’s a mark of his idiosyncrasies that both of his extra-base hits were triples. Although he was listed as an infielder with the Ducks, he made all his professional defensive appearances in the outfield, divided between left field and center.

Eddie Park: Here’s a guy who produced reasonably well in his pro debut. Park, the White Sox’s eighth-round pick, hit .333/.426/.383 with four steals in four attempts. His strikeout rate jumped from 7.8 percent at Stanford to 20.2 percent in his pro debut, although he played through a minor elbow injury suffered on a slide into home.

Jordan Sprinkle: The fourth-round pick in the 2022 draft was considered an excellent value if he could figure out how to turn around his sliding offensive production, because he’s a true shortstop with a lot of speed. Alas, he hit .228/.308/.309 over 323 plate appearances in Kannapolis, which he accumulated around an injury that cost him most of June and all of July. He had big games here and there, but regression would immediately follow in the form of an 0-fer stretch with multiple-strikeout games.

White Sox prospect Noah Schultz
Noah Schultz (Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)

Pitchers

Noah Schultz: When he pitched, Schultz lived up to the first-round billing. He struck out 38 hitters against just 24 baserunners over his first 27 professional innings, all with Kannapolis, and most of them as a 19-year-old. All of his four earned runs came in one start against the Carolina Mudcats. Otherwise, he allowed just one unearned run over his other nine appearances. Carolina League hitters didn’t pose much of a challenge, but injuries have been his biggest obstacle so far. His season was delayed by a forearm strain, and then he missed the last four weeks of the season due to a shoulder impingement. Ideally, he’d have more than 27 innings on his arm by this point, so next season will be a big one for his development.

Tanner McDougal: After missing all of 2022 due to Tommy John surgery, McDougal was able to make the necessary gains in his workload with 21 starts in 2023. The White Sox brought him back on a restricted problem — he topped out at four innings and 66 pitches, he pitched every seven days as opposed to every five, and he had a couple of longer breaks built in, but he took the ball every time the White Sox gave it to him, and it was largely a success. He posted a 4.15 ERA with 80 strikeouts against 43 walks over 69 innings. His control problems are within the standard range of “guy coming back from TJS,” and he ended his season with four perfect innings.

Peyton Pallette: You can basically take the paragraph about McDougal and apply it to Pallette, because the elements are the same:

  • Missed all of 2022 with Tommy John surgery
  • Made 22 starts, threw 72 innings by throwing every seven or so days
  • Posted a 4.13 ERA
  • Had his share of strikeouts (78) and walks (41).

McDougal’s season was more of a success, because the pandemic cut short his high-school career, and then Tommy John surgery interrupted the start of his pro career, so 21 serviceable starts for a 20-year-old is all you want. Pallette is a couple years older and had some experience at Arkansas, and his control issues were a little more persistent. Still, the primary objective was to rebuild his reps while dealing with post-surgery imprecision, and he accomplished that. Performance will start mattering next year.

Shane Murphy: The 14th-round pick in 2022 led the Cannon Ballers by far with 96⅔ innings over 21 starts, which he accomplished with efficiency. He managed to complete five innings in two-third of his starts without a particularly long leash, as he never threw more than 75 pitches in an outing. The 6-foot-5-inch lefty struck out 98 against 23 walks, but his primary weakness was homers, as he surrendered 13 of them.

Seth Keener: The White Sox’s third-round pick tacked on seven appearances and 12⅓ innings to the 23 and 70⅓ he pitched for Wake Forest, so while he pitched mostly out of the bullpen in college, he’s built a nice base to work regularly as a starter next season. He got shelled for five runs in one inning in his A-ball debut, but his other six appearances were decent-to-great.

Lucas Gordon: Gordon had already cleared 100 innings for the Texas Longhorns before the White Sox drafted him in the sixth round, so that may explain why he walked more guys than you’d expect for a pitchability lefty. He issued nine walks over 11 innings, but six of his seven outings were scoreless, so he managed to work around it.

Aldrin Batista: The international pool money trade that sent Batista from the Dodgers to the White Sox also resulted in a promotion, as the White Sox immediately assigned him to Kannapolis. His first five A-ball starts were a success, as he allowed just seven runs and 26 baserunners over 23⅓ innings with the Cannon Ballers. The 20-year-old finished the season with 62⅔ innings, a 22-inning jump from his debut in the DSL the year before, so he’s on a nice trajectory thus far.

Anderson Comás: When Comás came out as the first openly gay active player in the history of the White Sox organization before the seasons, there were baseball reasons to wonder how much longer he’d remain in the system. He stalled out early as an outfielder, and the transition to pitching wasn’t going any better. He’d allowed a walk an inning and a hit an inning over 11 appearances in the ACL at age 22. A similar start might mean he’d reached the end of the line regardless of his personal courage.

Instead, Comás put together an effective season across three levels. He allowed just six runs over 39 innings split between the ACL and Kannapolis, with a brief cameo for Winston-Salem in between. He posted a 22⅔ inning scoreless streak spanning 11 appearances, and the game it came to an end was the game where he stretched out to a career-long five innings. His control improved dramatically, so he’s playable. The strikeout rate suggests another obstacle to overcome, but given the state of the bullpens around him, he’s earned the opportunity to keep going.

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ForsterFTOG

The lack of anything positive going on in this organization is truly astounding. Williams and Hahn and everyone all the way down have been just stealing from Reinsdorf for years.

As Cirensica

Yup. I even mentioned once that maybe Hahn and KW took advantage of the entire very senile White Sox Board of Directors in disguised form of elder abuse. The scheme was based on a collection of pay-stubs by doing a job they were not qualify to do, but con their way in with an elderly group that bought in for many years.

That begs the question, why haven’t the children and the children of those children intervened by now? Where are they? Do they care? Who take care of all these White Sox board members some closed to be 100 years old?

Doug

I think there is now hope with the pitching! They have added a lot of pitching lately that seems to be doing well. It looked like KW was too busy looking athletes instead of baseball players. Like the Burger trade issues, I wonder if KW walked into the draft room and said you are picking Gonzalez. The drafts were much more interesting the last 3 years or so. Hopefully some of the players make it, 20% success rate for starting pitching would be nice. Some of the rest could be relievers.

Trooper Galactus

I wasn’t sold on Gonzalez on draft night and I’m even less sold on him now. I don’t even see him making it to the majors unless the team just fails him upwards.

Trooper Galactus

Keeping a close eye on Pallette and McDougal. If they’re going to succeed in the future, they’ll need guys like them with some upside to develop into regulars. Also, great season from Elko, who I’m still skeptical of but has certainly done everything one could have asked him to do in his first full season of pro ball. He might not be great, but Andrew Vaughn isn’t exactly setting the bar at “great” if he’s going to be supplanted.