Wrangling 2022 White Sox Prospects: Big question marks

As I sat down to write about the biggest obstacles for the players I hadn’t yet covered during Prospect Week, the White Sox potentially opened another one Friday night, when Jeff Passan reported that the White Sox are mandating vaccine boosters for their minor leaguers:

Follow-up reporting from James Fegan and Ken Rosenthal elaborated on the strictness of the mandate:

The Chicago White Sox informed minor leaguers they must show proof of receiving the COVID-19 booster vaccine by the time they take their physicals on Feb. 21. Those who do not comply will be prohibited from participating in spring training and ultimately could land on the restricted list, according to sources familiar with the team’s position.

The White Sox will not honor any request by players who are less than fully vaccinated to be released, sources said. Those players will be unable to pursue an opportunity with another organization that maintains a less stringent vaccination policy. The White Sox, though, are trying to guard against their plan turning into a mechanism for players to decline boosters as a way of getting out of the organization.

They went on to say that the White Sox mandated vaccines for their minor leaguers last year and had 100 percent compliance, and that they’re requiring boosters for all White Sox employees (front office, administration, coaching staffs). It’s also worth mentioning that the White Sox have had minimal complications due to COVID-19 over the past two seasons.

Perhaps this is a case where everybody is on the same page — or enough people are on the same page to sway the skeptical — that it’s a non-issue and non-story for this particular franchise. But a lot can change in a year, especially on this topic, so I suppose we’ll learn a little bit more from the people involved when everybody starts reporting Feb. 21.

Set the potentially sticky politics aside, and we’ve reached the penultimate post of Prospect Week. It all culminates Sunday with my top White Sox prospect list, which will be exclusive to those who support Sox Machine on Patreon. Sign up now if you haven’t already.

Below are eight players who could factor into MLB plans at some point in 2022, at least if they can overcome their biggest stumbling block.

Micker Adolfo: Option situation

Ideally, Adolfo would have one more team option at the White Sox’s disposal. Everybody could be content to hope that he’d lower his strikeout rate to something more traditionally tenable in Charlotte, after which the Sox could give him auditions around Adam Engel injuries.

Problem is, Adolfo’s already had four options, so everybody has used up all the cushion and then some. It’s hard to find an ideal situation where he breaks camp with the White Sox; something like “A blazing hot spring training that gets him two weeks of starts while Michael Conforto recovers from a mild injury.” A traditional bench role doesn’t benefit him, and he’d probably be worth playing for a second-division team in search of any outfield upside, so I don’t think he’d be easy to sneak through waivers if he’s healthy and performing normally.

If he’s functioning and thoroughly blocked, I’d guess the White Sox would try to trade him for a lottery ticket, or another team’s options casualty at a different position. Adolfo is prone to injuries and drastic slumps, though, so if his spring features one or another, the White Sox might be able to defer or delay the decision for a few weeks.

Yoelqui Céspedes: Discipline

On one hand, Céspedes’ dismal Arizona Fall League performance shouldn’t impact his prospect stock that much. The problem is that it reinforced the concerns about his Double-A performance. Combine his 100 plate appearances at Birmingham with his 78 for Glendale, and he’s drawn five walks against 49 strikeouts against mid-level minor-league pitching while getting diminishing returns in contact quality.

If he never went to the AFL, you’d probably look at his .298/.340/.404 line with the Barons and say he made a successful-enough transition to stateside ball considering the complications in getting to this point. He had a shoulder problem early in the season, but when he was healthy enough to play center, he handled it well enough to stay there.

The hope is that a little bit of failure is healthy, and he refines his approach and swing over the course of more games. The fear is that he can’t shorten his swing without losing the surprising power he can generate with his smaller frame, and he comes up short of an MLB impact. Both sides have merit, which is why he’s No. 2 on Baseball America’s list, and No. 12 on Keith Law’s.

Jimmy Lambert: A second look

I’ve liked Lambert more than Jonathan Stiever the last couple years because his 94 looks different from Stiever’s 94 … at least one time through. Watching Lambert in emergency starts and occasional Charlotte appearances, that fastball/slider combo isn’t so imposing a second time around, which puts more stress on a changeup that hasn’t been there for him.

He’s talented enough to be an OK candidate for spot starts, at least in situations where three decent innings helps more than usual. But if his stuff doesn’t play up in relief, then it’s hard to see him distinguishing himself in beyond a hot mid-leverage streak unless that changeup comes along to neutralize lefties.

Carlos Pérez: Receiving

Pérez has been in the White Sox organization since 2014, but it took until 2021 for him to top three homers in the season. He ended up hitting 13 for Birmingham, giving him a .258/.313/.418 line with the Barons. That’s unremarkable, but for a catcher who throws and blocks well enough, he’s played himself into third catcher material at the age of 25.

If he were a better receiver, you might have seen the White Sox add him to the 40-man roster … or other teams claim him in the Rule 5 draft. As it stands, Baseball Prospectus’ metrics call him below-average.

That’s not to say he’s some sort of lost cause in that department. Catchers have shown the ability to improve that skill at any time, and Pérez is an ordinary sort of subpar. The complication is specific to this season, when the automatic strike zone arrives at Triple-A. I think a lot of people would be happy to no longer care about how well catchers preserve and steal strikes, but if Pérez isn’t getting immediate feedback on his receiving, then I imagine it might be harder than usual to develop a feel that umpires will recognize and reward one level up.

Kade McClure: Charlotte

McClure, who turns 26 today, had little issue with Double-A, posting a 3.82 ERA that was better than it looked because 1) it’s weighed down by one spectacularly awful start in May, 2) he allowed just one unearned run, and 3) he struck out 77 batters over 68⅓ innings. The one weakness was the gopher ball. He gave up 10 homers with Birmingham, and while those struggles were also front-loaded, it’s the sort of thing that could easily resurface in the pitching hall that is Truist Ballpark in Charlotte.

Sure enough, McClure struggled in six of his nine starts with the Knights, giving up six homers over 37 innings. He fills up the zone without overwhelming stuff, leveraging his 6-foot-7-inch frame to shorten the distance to the plate, so there might be a steeper learning curve at this final stage because hitters are better at thumping strikes. Alas, Charlotte is a terrible place to work out contact issues. The struggles have been pronounced so far, and the environment will continue to be incredibly inhospitable.

Jason Bilous: Endurance

Bilous earned one of the season’s earliest promotions, moving from Winston-Salem to Birmingham after three starts becaue he struck out 26 batters against two walks over 14⅔ innings.

The transition to Double-A appeared to be a relatively smooth one, as he posted a 3.77 ERA over his first seven starts, with three of them five-inning gems. Then he had only one such start over his final 10 outings, giving up an 8.67 ERA and a line of .316/.412/.487. On top of that, the control issues he conquered over the first half of the season resurfaced with 20 walks and five HBPs over those last 36⅓ innings.

Chris Getz chalked it up to fatigue issues stemming from missing the 2020 season. That could be the case, though you’d expect it from somebody who was heading into some sort of unprecedented workload. That wasn’t the case with Bilous. He came up one out short of 80 innings, well below what he threw in 2018 (120 innings) and 2019 (104⅔).

That could be Getz not wanting to speak poorly of a prospect, but actions speak louder than words, and the White Sox added him to the 40-man roster when McClure appeared to be more deserving based on performance. Maybe that’s because he has more bullpen upside, but Getz voiced belief in Bilous as a starter.

While we’re talking about guys like McClure and Bilous, I just want to mention Davis Martin, who pitched well enough in a late-season promotion to Birmingham after an uneven performance with the Dash. He seems like another guy Charlotte would clobber thanks to home-run rate problems at lower levels, but since the Sox’s pitching ranks are so thin, he stands a chance of standing out.

Blake Rutherford: Carrying tool

Rutherford’s lack of impact contact has dogged him for as long as he’s started underperforming his title of “first-round pick,” and he’s tried to address that. For the first time in his career, Rutherford was able to lower his ground-ball rate below 50 percent, and he cleared the bar by plenty, finishing at 45.4 percent. He set career highs in homers (11) and doubles (30), all of which should represent progress.

Alas, it ran alongside a worst-by-far walk rate (4.4 percent!) and a new career-high strikeout rate (25 percent), so a combination that actually foreshadows a chance of MLB success continues to elude him. He hit just .250/.286/.404, and that was boosted by playing half his games in Charlotte. Away from Truist Ballpark, he hit .230/.257/.343. He’s still hanging onto a 40-man spot, but if he were removed in the next wave of moves, I don’t think anybody would flinch.

Previously on Prospect Week

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Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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Adolfo’s out of options but still seems to have upside — just bad timing?


Would have been nice to seem him in the bigs this past season, even just for a bit. Decision looks pretty dumb in hindsight.