Power ball: The closest player to the majors participating for the White Sox in the AFL is Gavin Sheets. (Tiffany Wintz/South Side Hit Pen)
The AFL rosters are out, sort of.
Since there is a TBA, it is not officially official yet, but the majority of the Chicago White Sox prospects have already been announced. There will be two outfielders (Rutherford and TBA/Adolfo), a first baseman (Sheets), three relievers (Johnson, Sousa, and Arobio) and finally, one starting pitcher (Bernardo Flores). These guys certainly aren’t the cream of the crop in the system, but a few of these guys could be on the South Side pretty quickly — which is why we’ll see them in the AFL this season.
Before we dive into the announced players, first, let’s go over the new rules of the AFL. First off, the early start date. The first games will be played September 18. Not many of these prospects have to worry about playing in MiLB playoffs, so they should get a couple weeks of “rest” before starting up again. The positives besides the game-play rest is that prospects won’t have as long a layoff as before. Last season they started the AFL at the end of October. The negative is that it’s still really hot in Arizona, so it won’t be overly comfortable.
Just by peering at the White Sox prospects, it seems like the new rule of allowing any minor leaguer to participate in the AFL wouldn’t have mattered much. Most of the time in the past, it was players from the upper levels of the minors. Rutherford, Sheets, Flores, Johnson, Arobio, and Adolfo are all listed under the Birmingham Barons roster. Sousa is in Winston-Salem.
Also, a question I didn’t even think of beforehand was answered by Josh Norris, an associate editor at Baseball America.
Those baseballs, man, who would have thought that question would be so important? Thankfully, this baseball is something all of the White Sox prospects going to Arizona have been using the entire year. But enough about the league — the players are what matters.
In my opinion, Blake Rutherford going to the AFL is a little bit of a surprise. I thought another player who had injury issues and missed at-bats, like a Bryce Bush or Luis Basabe, would get the spot, but of late Rutherford definitely showed he can play in the AFL.
He started out, just like a lot of other Barons, with some really terrible play. In April, he only hit .156 and was able to do better in May, but still hit just .216 with no power at all. Though since June, it has been exponentially impressive. He slashed .300/.347/.396 in 71 games for a 116 wRC+. Rutherford still didn’t show much power, but the bat-to-ball skills are back. It was not an overwhelming performance, but it seems like the Sox are using the AFL to recoup some value for Rutherford.
If you thought Gavin Sheets was on the outs because of a lack of power last season, well, he showed he had some with the Barons. Sheets currently has 16 home runs and 19 more extra-base hits in 2019. He isn’t really selling out for more power, though his strikeouts are up slightly. He is still going the other way and isn’t hitting enough fly balls like a power-hitting first baseman should. But Sheets has a wRC+ of 126, which is a personal best, and he still has a good eye at the plate, with a walk rate near 10%. With Vaughn on Sheets’ tail, this could be a showcase for trade or Sheets might see some action in Chicago next season and extending his season should help that; he should probably be in Charlotte already.
Micker Adolfo rounds out the batters, and this is a classic “get the injured player more at-bats” scenario. However, in Adolfo’s case, it could also be used to get him much-needed game reps in the outfield, because he hasn’t played in right since 2017. He only played in 36 total games this season, so there isn’t much to read into, but all Adolfo really needs to do at this point is stay healthy and just play.
Two pitchers fall into the injured category of needing to pitch more innings, Bernardo Flores and Tyler Johnson. Flores so far has pitched in 87 1/3 innings this season. That will put him far lower than the previous year’s total of 156, so the AFL is to help get him just a few more innings. If Flores had stayed healthy, he would probably be in Chicago already. He did well in his Double-A stint. He has a 3.36 ERA, with a very low walk rate and a below-average K-rate.
Johnson started the year late because of a lat injury and again, if he didn’t get injured, he would probably be in Chicago along with Flores. It is tough to read his performance this year because he didn’t have a preseason due to injury, but Johnson has struggled recently in Birmingham. He has a 4.40 ERA and hasn’t been used in any closing situations.
The other two pitchers, Bennett Sousa and Vince Arobio, seem like this AFL is a congratulations on how well they did during the year. Sousa started his season in Kannapolis and continued his great run that started in 2018. He had a 22.4% K-BB rate and when he was promoted to the Dash, it improved again, to 23.9%. He currently has a 2.60 ERA between the two levels.
Arobio had a much more exciting time in MiLB, as he was promoted twice during the season. He started in Kannapolis and ended in Birmingham. He had a 3.34 ERA among the three levels, but has struggled with the Barons. He has a 5.40 ERA in Double-A, but his successful season overall earned him a shot at some of the better hitting prospects in Arizona.