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After a quiet start to the season, the past week saw three huge storylines unfold in Charlotte:
There’s the emergence of Yolbert Sanchez. Advanced hitter, great bat-to-ball skills. Solid defensively at second and third base. Average speed. No power yet, but a lot of line drives. Appears to be on a fast track to Chicago. Ten hits, 2 walks in 28 PAs this week.
Johnny Cueto is getting closer. Keep in mind, this isn’t some reclamation project: Cueto made 21 starts for the Giants last year, pitching to a 4.08 ERA. He was brilliant this week, throwing multiple pitches at multiple speeds, with pinpoint accuracy, while his fastball did just enough. He needs 1-2 more starts in Charlotte.
Yoan Moncada appears headed to Chicago soon. He is already squaring up balls in rehab games, with a home run and two singles in seven at-bats. He’s scheduled to play five more games on the road in Gwinnett. (I thought I saw him wince after a swing in Sunday’s game, but he stayed in the game for another plate appearance so I have to assume it was nothing.)
Also of Note
*Joe Kelly began his rehab in Charlotte on Sunday, tossing one inning. He’ll get the ball two more times in Gwinnett.
*The injured list grew quite a bit this week with the additions of Romy Gonzalez (hamstring), Hunter Schryver (lat) and Tyler Johnson (shoulder). None of the injuries appear severe and all are expected back soon. But we also learned this week that promising righty Johan Dominguez has undergone TJ surgery and of course is done for the season.
The Knights’ Season To Date
The Knights are slogging along, at 10-14, and that feels about right for this squad.
The starting staff has potential, and I think it will improve if it stays healthy, but the pen is a weakness. The White Sox will be sending down a pitcher as part of the MLB-mandated roster reduction from 28 to 26 on May 1, and that guy (Anderson Severino is a good guess), along with recently demoted Kyle Crick, and a healthy Schryver and Johnson, could go a long way to stabilize things.
The offense, meanwhile, could be effective if the emphasis was on putting the best nine bats in the lineup every day. But that’s not minor-league baseball — the focus is on player development and getting everyone at least semi-regular at bats. And that comes at the expense of wins.
It probably makes sense to start with the guys on the 40-man roster, because it is such a huge factor in any call-up decision. And, right now, that’s two non-pitchers, Romy Gonzalez and Adam Haseley. (A third guy on the 40-man will likely join the Knights when the May 1 roster moves are announced.)
Gonzalez is on the IL with a mild hamstring strain, not to mention his slow start to the season. Haseley didn’t light it on fire either out of the gate, but a call-up two weeks ago to Chicago seems to have revitalized him since his return to Charlotte. He’s looking much more comfortable at the plate and the results back it up, with a homer, three doubles and two singles in his last 19 at bats.
Among the non-40-man guys, Carlos Perez has been squaring up the ball since Day One, hitting .304 and leading the team with five homers and 17 RBIs. He has a major-league bat. As a catcher, is he next man up behind Yasmani Grandal and Reese McGuire?
Two guys who struggled mightily in Charlotte last year — Blake Rutherford and Zach Remilliard — look like different ballplayers this year. Yeah, we’re only 24 games into a 150-game season, but these guys are playing at a much higher level.
Batting averages don’t mean much in early May (though both are hitting at least .300), but here are some stats that suggest improved plate approaches: Remillard has 12 walks in just 78 plate appearances (versus only 27 bases on balls in all of 2021) while Rutherford has six walks so far this year versus 21 last year.
Of course, no one plays with our emotions more than Micker Adolfo, who had his first three extra-base hits on the season this week, as well as a walk-off single on Sunday. But his eight strikeouts in 20 at bats reminds us that he is a work in progress.
Just briefly, among the rest of the roster, Nick Ciuffo and Laz Rivera are swinging it well in part-time roles. Ryder Jones and Seby Zavala have big power but also a lot of swing-and-miss in their games right now.
We’ll do a deeper dive soon on the Knights’ rotation, but suffice to say the jury is still out on just how good — or consistent — these guys can be. Wes Benjamin was exceptional again this week and John Parke had a strong bounce-back at home after a tough go in Nashville. But Jimmy Lambert, Kade McClure and Emilio Vargas had mixed results.
Only Lambert, Crick and presumably the pitcher who is among the May 1 demotions are on the 40-man.
Odds and Ends
And, finally, how could we talks Knights’ baseball without mentioning pitch clocks and robo-umps?
There were just one or two pitch clock violations per game this weekend, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still disruptive. But guys are adjusting because they have no choice.
The Knights are trying to turn the faster pace of play into an advantage as they adjust. “We don’t ever want to be defensive and say that we can’t get in rhythm,” hitting coach Chris Johnson said. “We don’t care. Throw it over the plate and we’ll crush it. And we’ll get back in the box and do it again.”
As far as the automated strike zone, by dumb luck, I had a chance to talk at length to an MLB guy in the press box on Saturday. He explained the process to me in greater detail and said that the technology utilizes eight cameras around the ballpark. He gives two iPads to each dugout so that they can see where balls pass through the strike zone. He said the home plate ump can overrule the automated system but none had yet to do so.
I asked him if the robo-umps were in use in Friday’s game. That’s because I sat behind home plate for a few innings to see Jacksonville starter Max Meyer up close, and I thought the automated system missed some calls on the outer half of the plate. The MLB guy actually checked with the home plate umpire, who said that he thought the calls were accurate on the outside but he wasn’s so sure about the calls on pitches in the bottom of the zone.
So, a takeaway, I guess, is that the system is still be analyzed and tweaked.
The Week Ahead
The Knights head to Atlanta this week for a series with the Gwinnett Braves. It’ll include a third start from Cueto and more rehab games for Moncada. I imagine there will also be more hits for Sanchez — he’s had at least one in every game he’s played at Triple-A!