Deep Dive: Winston-Salem and Kannapolis left-handed starters

Solid gold: Konnor Pilkington, who finished the season well for Winston-Salem, is currently the 16th-ranked White Sox prospect per MLB Pipeline. (@WSDashBaseball)

“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization. Each position is broken into a five-part series:

  1. Depth in the rookie levels (Dominican through Great Falls)
  2. Depth in A-ball (Kannapolis and Winston-Salem)
  3. Depth in the higher levels (Birmingham and Charlotte)
  4. Under the Radar-type detail on one of the White Sox players at that position
  5. Free agent options at that position

While the highest-ranked southpaw in the system is on this list (Konnor Pilkington), there are several other interesting left-handed arms that finished the season at Winston-Salem and Kannapolis who are worth watching.

Ages below are as of April 1, 2020

Winston-Salem Dash

Konnor Pilkington
225 pounds
Age: 22

Pilkington, who had a great first two seasons with Mississippi State, had a down year as a junior that caused him to fall from first to second round consideration, in part because his fastball had lost a couple of ticks. His college stats are listed below:

2016: 2.08 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 43 IP, 38 H, 15 BB, 42 K
2017: 3.08 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 108 IP, 76 H, 47 BB, 111 K
2018: 4.47 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 102.2 IP, 106 H, 33 BB, 107 K

On the positive side, Pilkington continued to strike out hitters and reduce his walk ratio. Unfortunately, he became much more hittable so an apparent lack of command may have been the issue. With that said, when Pilkington slipped to the third round, the White Sox felt it was a no-brainer to select him. He pitched for the AZL White Sox and Great Falls and his numbers weren’t good, but a low number of innings (14) made it too small a sample size to judge.

Pilkington started the 2019 season with Kannapolis, and pitched terrific ball in his six starts. He posted a 1.62 ERA and 0.78 WHIP in 33 1/3 innings, allowing just 15 hits (.132 OBA) and 11 walks (8.5%) while fanning 42 (32.6%). On May 11, Pilkington was promoted to Winston-Salem, where he struggled for most of the year. In 19 starts for the Dash spanning 95 2/3 innings, Pilkington compiled a 4.99 ERA and 1.44 WHIP by allowing 99 hits (.270 OBA) and 39 walks (9.4%) while striking out 96 (23.2%). While those numbers certainly weren’t pretty, he did show significant improvement over his final six outings: 2.90 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 31 IP, 25 H, 9 BB, 32 K. Another important thing to note is that Pilkington was mre than two years younger than the average Carolina League player.

MLB Pipeline ranks Pilkington 16th among all White Sox prospect, though he doesn’t have any exceptional tools. MLB grades his changeup as 55, which fades against righthanders, while his slurvy curveball and slider are both graded at 50. MLB also stated that Pilkington’s fastball has run up to 96 mph in the past, but now tops out at 94 while generally running 87-93. His control is graded at 50 but perhaps could be better, as Pilkington sometimes rushes through his delivery and finishes stiff and upright. That could be a factor in his lack of command and velocity. Since Pilkington finished relatively strong last year, there’s a possibility he could begin 2020 with Birmingham. However, it seems likelier that Pilkington returns to Winston-Salem with a shot for an early promotion if he starts the season well.

Taylor Varnell
190 pounds
Age: 24

Varnell pitched one year for Western Oklahoma C.C. before transferring to Oral Roberts. While his first two seasons for the Golden Eagles were quite good, Varnell’s senior season was a bit of a disappointment as he produced a 5.95 ERA and 1.49 WHIP in 16 outings (11 starts) spanning 59 innings. In those innings, Varnell relinquished 58 hits and 30 walks while striking out 62. His stock fell as a result of his struggles, but the White Sox selected him in the 29th round of the 2018 draft.

Varnell pitched exclusively for the AZL White Sox in 2018, and put up superb numbers. In 10 starts spanning 45 2/3 innings, he compiled a microscopic 1.97 ERA and 0.88 WHIP as he allowed 30 hits (.175 OBA) and 10 walks (5.7%) while fanning 61 (35.1%). This year, Varnell pitched the vast majority of the season for Kannapolis and acquitted himself nicely, with a 3.23 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 106 innings and just 86 hits (.221 OBA) and 34 walks (7.8%) while striking out 115 (26.3%). After a surprisingly late promotion, Varnell did nicely for the Winston-Salem Dash in four starts with a 3.38 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in 21 1/3 innings, as he ceded 20 hits (.263 OBA) and 10 walks (11.1%) while striking out 21 (23.3%).

Varnell’s fastball typically runs upper-80s to low-90s, but has run as high as 94 mph according to Baseball America. Other pitches in his arsenal include an above-average changeup and an outstanding Barry Zito-esque 12-6 curveball. Varnell’s fourth pitch is a slider, which is especially effective against lefties. He’s a little long-in-the tooth for someone in High-A ball, so if Varnell gets off to a good start with Winston-Salem next year, he should be earning a promotion to Birmingham by midseason.

Cristian Castillo
190 pounds
Age: 25

Castillo, a native of Mexico, signed an international minor-league contract with the Kansas City Royals on Dec. 15, 2014 as a 20-year-old and pitched in their organization through the 2018 season. Castillo’s first season was spent with the Royals DSL squad in 2015, while his second season was spent with their Appalachian League team at Burlington — he pitched quite well for both teams and his future looked pretty bright. Castillo was promoted from rookie league ball in 2017, going straight to A+ Wilmington where he started 26 games with middling results (4.13 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, .277 OBA, 7.7 BB%, 16.8 K%, 31.1 GB%) while achieving his career-high total to date of 141 2/3 innings. After Castillo’s numbers regressed in 2018 with Wilmington and Double-A Northwest Arkansas, in part due to injury-related issues, he was traded to the White Sox for cash considerations on March 20, 2019.

Castillo started 11 games for Winston-Salem and actually performed quite well. In 56 2/3 innings for the Dash, he posted a 3.49 ERA and 1.38 WHIP by surrendering 65 hits (.286 OBA) and 13 walks (5.3%) while fanning 54 (22.0%). He did improve his ground ball rate as well to a career-best 45.6%. As has been the case for Castillo throughout his career, lefties hit him a bit less this year (.270) than righties (.290). Unfortunately, he went on the injured list on June 8 and never returned.

According to Royals Farm Report in 2018, Castillo possesses a low-90s fastball, which obviously isn’t overpowering but gets the job done with his change of speeds. His arsenal also includes a curveball with downward movement, a back-door slider, and a plus-change which terrific sinking action which helps neutralize righties. Because of injuries, Castillo has only pitched a combined 137 2/3 innings over the past two seasons. As a result, expect him to return to Winston-Salem for 2020 but in a different role: middle reliever who can be a spot starter when needed.

Andre Davis
230 pounds
Age: 26

After a successful junior season with Arkansas-Pine Bluff in 2015, in which he posted a 2.28 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in 27 23 innings allowing 19 hits and nine walks while striking out 35 hitters, the Kansas City Royals signed Davis to a $25,000 bonus after drafting him in the eighth round. Davis began his professional career shortly afterward, but struggled with the Royals Appalachian squad in Burlington, where posted a 7.26 ERA and 1.99 WHIP. Davis did improve upon his return to Burlington in 2016, where he posted a 4.76 ERA but nifty 1.13 WHIP over six starts, thanks in large part to a 33-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 28 13 innings.

Davis posted similar numbers in 2017 with the Royals A-squad in Lexington, as he posted a 4.83 ERA but a higher 1.39 WHIP in 85 23 innings, allowing 96 hits (.280 OBA) and 23 walks (6.1%) but striking out 87 (23.1%). Because the Royals were interested in a postseason run in 2017, they traded Davis and right-handed starter A.J. Puckett to the White Sox for outfielder Melky Cabrera on July 30. After the trade, Davis made four appearances with Kannapolis (two starts) and did quite well, with a 2.84 ERA and 1.34 WHIP.

Davis has shown good command of all his pitches, and his funky delivery helps an otherwise-fringe slider play up against left-handed hitters. Davis sits 92-94 mph with some movement, and there’s a lot to like with his sturdy build. His strikeout rate has been a solid 23.3% throughout his career, while his walk rate has been a manageable 7.7% despite his large size. Like Puckett, Davis has been on the injured list in both of the last two seasons.

With a combination of injury history, age, limited repertoire and funky delivery, Davis is best suited as a reliever. He’s been equally adept at getting righties out as much as lefties throughout his career, so it’s conceivable Davis could be a one-inning guy. To ask for more than that at this point really wouldn’t make much sense. With his age, time’s of the essence for him to move up the proverbial ladder. With such a long layoff, Davis likely will begin the season with the Dash but could move extremely quickly if he can stay healthy and efficiently get hitters out.

Kannapolis Intimidators

Sam Long
185 pounds
Age: 24

Sam Long enjoyed a consistently solid three years for the Sacramento State Hornets as a starting pitcher, concluding what was arguably his weakest season with a 3.99 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 85 2/3 innings as he relinquished 81 hits and 35 walks while fanning 68. The Tampa Bay Rays selected Long in the 18th round of the 2016 draft, and used him primarily in relief for their Gulf Coast and Appalachian League rookie squads, where he pitched quite well.

Combined with Hudson Valley (NY-Penn League) and Low-A team Bowling Green, Long had a terrific 2017 campaign despite some control issues. In a combined 20 games totaling 31 2/3 innings, he posted a 2.27 ERA with a 1.42 WHIP by allowing 27 hits (.233 OBA) and 18 walks (12.6%) while striking out 29 (20.3%). He missed the entire 2018 season, however, due to a back injury. Long was ultimately released by the Rays in March, and was quickly snatched up by the White Sox.

This season was actually a tale of two cities, so to speak, for Long. His first 15 outings for Kannapolis this year were spent in the bullpen, with the latter half spent in the rotation. In both roles, he actually performed quite well. As a reliever in 26 innings, he posted a 2.77 ERA and 0.96 WHIP ceding just 20 hits and five walks while striking out 35. As a starter in 71 innings, Long had a 3.17 ERA and 1.07 WHIP by surrendering just 53 hits and 23 walks while fanning 77. Thus for the whole year for the Intimidators, he combined to post a 3.06 ERA and 1.04 WHIP over 97 innings — allowing just 73 hits (.205 OBA) and 28 walks (7.2%) while fanning 112 (28.7%). He seemed to get stronger by year’s end, as he provided a 0.61 ERA and 0.68 WHIP in August in 29 1/3 innings by relinquishing just 15 hits and five walks while striking out 30.

Baseball America described Long in 2016 as having an 86-92 mph fastball, an inconsistent curveball and an above-average changeup. Based on the numbers, his curveball may have improved during this past season and his changeup was indeed excellent — impelling righties to hit just .183 against his offerings. He’s been able to consistently maintain a 40% or better ground ball rate throughout his career, which should hold him in good stead for a likely promotion to Winston-Salem for 2020.