We’ve reached the middle of Prospect Week, which means it’s time to survey the White Sox prospects who did just about all they could with the task at hand in 2023.
This territory covers players who experienced young-for-level success and growth, and those who posted old-for-level performances that forced the White Sox to reconsider their place in the organization. Third-day draft picks still might have confront their limitations or flaws against the most advanced competition, but when it comes to the grind of the minor leagues, delaying that reckoning for a year is a victory in and of itself, because nobody can say what the next season brings.
Burke is pulling double duty in filling the Romy Gonzalez-shaped hole in your heart for ascendant, third-day-of-the-draft University of Miami products, and continuing the White Sox surprising string of supermarket tabloid appearances. Like any third-day pick, Burke attracted notice with capital-P performance, because it just feels relevant if the regular center fielder slashes a combined .294/.392/.439 across two levels of A-ball.
And like most third day picks, he would have been picked sooner if the tools suggested this performance was sustainable. Despite handling center well, Burke does not have game-changing speed, his game is not built on power (nine homers in 499 pro trips to the plate), and his AFL stint underscored that his hit tool does not seem suited to carry the profile either. Stardom is rare, and Burke lacks a specialty other than he’s gotten on base a lot. He will need to keep doing so, but he’s earned the chance to prove he can.
Like eating your vegetables, it’s very hard for a non-superstar catcher to come off as exciting, but at this point we should all be familiar with how things can grind to a halt without it. Quero gets lauded for a willingness to learn and communicate rather than superlative athleticism behind the plate or an exceptional throwing arm. The switch-hitter’s power production falling apart as a 20-year-old aggressively assigned to Double-A last year should not drive panic. But combined with his flat, contact-oriented right-handed swing and the way the catching grind fatigued his overall game near the end of last season, signs are that his .530 slugging as 19-year-old in the Cal League wasn’t quite a preview of his big league production either.
Quero’s superpower being zone awareness (.380 OBP last season) at a defensive position usually too demanding to select for it, creates the distinct possibility of him becoming someone it’s impossible to argue is a star without taking out your phone first. But that seems like a minor quibble since the White Sox haven’t had a catching prospect of this caliber since … um … (takes out phone).
Back when the draft was 40 rounds, it was a little easier to tell when a team had a special interest in a Day 3 pick because you’d see a six-figure bonus amid a sea of five-figure signings. With the draft shortened to 20 rounds, just about every pick gets $100,000 now.
One of those guys is Baldwin, whom the Sox selected in the 12th round of the 2022 draft. They signed him for $125,000, which means they had some competition. But he signed for $100,000 less than Burke, and the same amount as Nick Altermatt and Drake Logan, neither of whom have distinguished themselves.
Granted, Baldwin did nothing to distinguish himself in his pro debut either, hitting .219/.294/.254 over 27 games between the ACL and Kannapolis. He played just about everywhere besides shortstop.
A year later, the switch-hitting Baldwin hit .269/.349/.460 with 15 homers, 15 doubles and 22 stolen bases between Kannapolis and Winston-Salem, ending his season with an impressive first 26 games at High-A (.327/.375/.495). He played four whole innings of shortstop at Kannapolis, but after the promotion, every defensive inning he played for the Dash came at short, where he handled the position OK.
It’s a series of events designed to confuse, because while the general profile from a Day 3 pick – some pop, some speed, decent swing decisions – brings Danny Mendick’s long minor-league climb to mind, Mendick played more shortstop than anywhere else both in college and the pros. Meanwhile, Baldwin played more outfield than infield over his college career at UNC Wilmington, and when he played infield, he played mostly second base. There’s a decent chance that Double-A exposes his lack of a standout attribute, but the twists and turns to this point have been something.
Wilfred Veras continues being the best Wilfred Veras he can be. He was one of the few too-young members of Project Birmingham who didn’t look overmatched in his Double-A cameo at the end of 2022, and when he returned there in early August after solving Sally League pitching, he mashed the rest of the way. A .309/.346/.533 line for a 20-year-old in the Southern League should generate a lot of excitement…
… except his two chief shortcomings remain hot on his trail. He drew just 28 walks against 145 strikeouts over 130 games. That’s the kind of free swinging that almost always gets exploited at the highest levels, especially since Veras also hits his share of grounders. He also doesn’t provide any real defensive value, which is why his aggression is regarded as a ticking time bomb.
What’s weird about watching Veras is that when you see him on the basepaths, he moves surprisingly well. He took advantage of the runner-friendly rules to steal 24 bases in 31 attempts, including a 6-for-6 performance with the Barons. But the speed, or more specifically the swiftness, hasn’t yet translated to the outfield, where the actions are far less certain and athletic. As long as his legs remain what they are, he probably could fare well enough to make the conversation entirely about his bat.
So, about that: Veras is a career .283/.335/.474 hitter despite spending no time in the DSL and being years younger than the competition at every level he’s played. He generates a lot of action, loud contact and extra-base hits. It’s almost like watching a version of Micker Adolfo’s career where he stays perfectly healthy. The catch with a guy who strikes out five times for every walk is that when he fails, he’s probably going to fail hard, but Veras probably needs sustained failure as a catalyst toward change, because the way he’s done things so far looks pretty fun.
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If your pitching development program only consisted of clicking on a banner ad promising to give a relief prospect One Weird Trick that MAKES HITTERS HATE HIM, you would sure hope that ill-advised click-through led to an upper-90s fastball out of a unique arm slot (high, low, what does it matter these days) for extra barrel-missing properties.
Leasure has a “never made a start as a professional” type of delivery, leading to an inconsistent albeit lively slider/cutter and a healthy amount of walk issues. His work on a curveball makes sense given how uniquely vertical his arm slot is, but like much of his profile, needs refinement to work in concert with his electric heater as much as it one day could. It’s a wonky operation at this point, where Leasure walking a batter per inning in Cactus League and being reassigned by early March wouldn’t surprise. But a very hard, very nasty fastball is a very strong base to dream on for late-inning dominance … eventually.
The young brother of the highest-drafted quarterback in over 40 years to never play a single NFL game, Hackenberg has forged a path to the doorstep of the majors with sweat equity. With plus athleticism, a good throwing arm and repeatedly demonstrated willingness to sell out his body to block and frame, Hackenberg seemed well on his way to carving out a Nate Nolan existence of shepherding Sox prospects up the system and earning a few big league camp invites for his troubles.
Then, Hackenberg randomly posted a .384 OBP in 66 games at Double-A Birmingham last season. The approach maturation does not significantly alter the assessment that he’s lacking the bat speed and swing fluidity to hold up against major league pitching, and his success proportionately leveled off upon a promotion to Charlotte. But “defensive-minded third catcher” is a pay grade above “beloved Triple-A caddy,” and is a better goal to set up for Hackengberg now.
Adams, the rare third-day pick who didn’t sign for six figures ($75,000), started the 2023 season as a 23-year-old long reliever/bulk boy in Kannapolis. He finished the year making starts for Birmingham, throwing 109 innings across three levels with a 3.14 ERA and peripherals to match. He piled up most of those numbers with the Cannon Ballers, but after carving up the opposition in three starts at Winston-Salem, the White Sox pushed him to Double-A to finish the season.
Southern League hitters were the first to coax walks from him, and since Adams only works 90-93 with his fastball, more advanced competition could give him problems. What makes Adams noteworthy is his high-80s slider, which could give him a future in relief should he lose the ability to face hitters multiple times in a game.
Pour one out: Cristian Mena
Despite lacking premium fastball velocity and movement, Mena’s consistently precocious feel for spinning the baseball and missing bats, combined with glowing makeup reports, made him an intriguing development project to follow.
But now that he’s been dealt to Arizona, we regret to inform you that he was doomed for failure all along and we just didn’t want to say anything. Chris Getz couldn’t even bring himself to say it himself during his Zoom with media, telling us that Mena is “going to have a successful major league career.” Grief takes many forms.