Deep Dive: Charlotte and Birmingham first basemen

Birmingham burst: Gavin Sheets hit more homers in 2019 than in his previous two years combined. (Sean Williams/South Site Hit Pen)

“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

This article delves into the first basemen who finished the year with Charlotte and Birmingham. Despite the fact that two of these first basemen actually played for the White Sox this year, the entire Charlotte crop consists of essentially AAAA players. The true prospect on this list is Gavin Sheets, who enjoyed his best power season to date this year at pitching-friendly Regions Field in Birmingham.

(age as of April 1, 2020)

Charlotte Knights

Matt Skole
220 pounds
B/T: L/R
Other positions played: Third base
Age: 30

Skole enjoyed a fantastic sophomore season with Georgia Tech in 2010, when he slashed .335/.446/.682 with 15 doubles, 20 homers, 63 RBIs, 45 walks and 34 strikeouts. While his other numbers were similar as a junior, his home run production fell by half. That, and concerns about his defense, caused him to slip to the fifth round of the 2011 draft when the Washington Nationals selected him with the 157th overall pick.

After a productive first two years in the Nationals system, where he advanced through their A+ affiliate in Potomac, Skole had difficulty hitting for a high average afterward. In fact, in his last five years in their organization, Skole’s best season-ending average was .244 in Triple-A Syracuse. When his slash line dipped to .222/.303/.453 with 11 homers in an injury-marred 2017, the Nationals let him loose via free agency.

In January 2018, the White Sox signed him to a minor league contract. When he got off to a fast start with Charlotte, and the White Sox needed help in late May last year, Skole made his major league debut and did respectably in his four-game stint. After being demoted to Charlotte in early June, he finished the season with Charlotte with his typical .237/.336/.404 line with 14 homers.

Despite a low average for the Charlotte in 2019, Skole was able to get on base via on a regular basis and mashed in the hitting-friendly BB&T Ballpark. With the Knights, Skole ended up slashing .248/.384/.497 in 92 games as he produced 15 doubles, 21 homers, 56 RBIs, 70 walks (17.9%) and 99 strikeouts (25.3%). Unfortunately, he couldn’t translate that work into major league success. In 27 games totaling 72 at-bats for the White Sox, he slashed just .208/.275/.236 with two doubles, six RBIs, seven walks (8.8%) and 31 strikeouts (38.8%).

The White Sox designated Skole for assignment this past Monday, making him a free agent after the World Series. While it’s possible that Skole could re-sign with the White Sox, it’s difficult to see any way he receives significant playing time in the White Sox organization going forward. The team will likely either use Zack Collins, or some acquisition via trade or free agency, to fill their DH spot. As for Charlotte, Gavin Sheets will likely be next year’s starter while the younger A.J. Reed would handle the DH role. If Skile does re-sign with Chicago, the likeliest scenario for Skole to return to Charlotte would be as a third baseman.

A.J. Reed
275 pounds
B/T: L/L
Age: 26

Reed was one of the best two-way college players during his career at Kentucky, where he served as the Wildcats ace and first baseman. In fact, as a junior for the Wildcats, he went 12-2 on the mound with a 2.09 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. As a first baseman that year, he also excelled as he slashed .336/.476/.735 with 18 doubles, 23 homers, 73 RBIs, 49 walks (16.9%) and 48 strikeouts (16.6%). His prolific play in both facets of the game helped him win the 2014 Golden Spikes Award as the best amateur player in the country. With success like that, it was no wonder that the Houston Astros selected him with the first pick in the second round of that year’s MLB draft.

Reed progressed rapidly through the Astros system, and did well at every stop. For example, in 2015 with Single-A+ Lancaster and Double-A Corpus Christi, he combined to slash .340/.432/.612 with 30 doubles, 34 homers, 127 RBIs, 86 walks (13.8%) and 122 strikeouts (19.6%). After performing well with Triple-A Fresno (.291/.368/.556 in 70 games with 22 doubles and 15 homers) in 2016, he was promoted to the Astros and failed miserably in 45 games (.164/.270/.262 with three homers, 18 walks and 48 strikeouts). While performing decently with Fresno the following two years, his numbers did slip a bit and he struggled with his very limited opportunities with the Astros.

After struggling with Houston’s new Triple-A squad in Round Rock this year, with a .224/.329/.469 slash line and 12 homers in 56 games, he was designated on waivers and the White Sox picked him up less than a week later, on July 8. It seemed like an opportunity to swoop in on a bargain, because as recently as 2015 Reed had been one of the top prospects in the game with 55 hit and 60 power tools according to MLB Pipeline. Unfortunately for Reed and the White Sox, he scuffled in 14 games by slashing just .136/.204/.205 with a homer, four RBIs, four walks (8.2%) and 21 strikeouts (42.9%). He was subsequently outrighted to Charlotte in August, and struggled with his demotion by slashing just .179/.238/.282 in 10 games. It seems that Reed’s bat just isn’t fast enough to catch up with the advanced heat.

As of now, it seems Reed will be penciled in the DH spot for Charlotte as Sheets will likely be its everyday first baseman. There’s always the possibility of the White Sox converting him into a reliever, much like they’re trying to do with former Tampa Bay first-rounder catcher Justin O’Conner. In the meantime, Reed is a cautionary tale that “can’t miss” prospects sometimes do.

Damek Tomscha
200 pounds
B/T: R/R
Other positions played: Left field, Third base, Right field
Age: 28

Tomscha, a native of Sioux City, Iowa, played his first two years of college ball with Iowa Western CC before transferring to Auburn for his junior and senior seasons. As a senior for the Tigers, he did quite well as their third baseman as he slashed .313/.436/.443 over 54 games with five homers, 29 RBIs, 26 walks (11.7%) and just 23 strikeouts (10.4%). Despite his lack of power, Tomscha was selected in the 17th round of the 2014 draft by the Philadelphia Phillies. Baseball Draft Report said of him at the time, “He’s a really good athlete with a pretty swing, plus arm, and good raw defensive tools.

After producing solid numbers for the Lakewood (Single-A) and Clearwater (Single-A+) in 2015 and 2016 respectively, Tomscha enjoyed a terrific 2017 split between Clearwater and Double-A Reading as he combined to slash .307/.386/.439 by producing 16 doubles, 11 homers, 52 RBIs, 38 walks (9.0%) and 57 strikeouts (13.4%) in 109 games. Last year saw Tomscha’s numbers slip a bit with Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley, as he combined to slash a still-respectable .272/.334/.443 in 119 games with 16 doubles, 17 homers, 62 RBIs, 33 walks (6.9%) and 74 strikeouts (15.5%).

After getting off to a terrible start with Lehigh Valley this year by slashing .219/.301/.399 in 53 games, the Phillies released him on June 20. The White Sox inked him eight days later and assigned him to Birmingham, where he fared much better with a .269/.333/.410 line in 42 games. Tomscha spent his final two games this year with Charlotte, and got one hit in seven at-bats. Though he played more games at first base this year, those appearances were mostly spent with Lehigh Valley as he spent more time at third and left with the Barons. With Sheets and Reed expected to handle first base/DH duties in Charlotte this year, Tomscha could be vying with Trey Michalczewski for playing time at the hot corner.

Birmingham Barons

Gavin Sheets
230 pounds
B/T: L/L
Age: 23

Gavin, the son of former Oriole slugger Larry Sheets, showed great plate discipline during his three years with Wake Forest. After hitting a combined 11 homers in his first two seasons, his junior year saw him turn it up a notch as he hit 21. That year with the Demon Deacons, Sheets slashed .317/.424/.629 in 63 games with those 21 homers, 10 doubles, 46 walks (15.6%) and just 37 strikeouts (12.5%). With numbers like that, it was no wonder that the White Sox selected him in the second round of the 2017 draft. After the draft, combined with the AZL squad and Kannapolis to slash .279/.365/.397 in 56 games with 12 doubles, four homers, 28 RBIs, 23 walks (9.8%) and 34 strikeouts (14.5%).

Against stronger competition in 2018 with Winston-Salem, Sheets produced similar numbers to the year before. In 119 games totaling 437 at-bats, Sheets slashed .293/.368/.407 with 28 doubles, two triples, six homers, 61 RBIs, 52 walks (10.5%) and 81 strikeouts (16.3%). Just like his junior season, however, Sheets turned his power up a notch in his third professional campaign. In 126 games totaling 464 at-bats, of which half were spent at pitching-friendly Regions Field, he slashed .267/.345/.414 with 18 doubles, 16 homers, 83 RBIs, 54 walks (10.2%) and 99 strikeouts (18.8%) for Birmingham. His numbers would’ve been even better, if not for a difficult April in which he slashed just .207/.286/.293.

Sheets is ranked second among White Sox first base prospects, and 13th overall, by MLB Pipeline. They give him 50 grades for his power, hit and fielding tools while giving him a 55 for his throwing arm. The site also says of him, “The White Sox believe more home runs will come as he starts incorporating his legs more in his left-handed swing and makes an adjustment to stop hooking balls foul down the right-field line. He has a smooth stroke and controls the strike zone well for a big man, so he should hit for average and draw a healthy amount of walks.”

Sheets will be expected to get the lion’s share of Charlotte’s first base duties in 2020, and his success there may well determine his role going forward. With Andrew Vaughn now also in the picture, Sheets will also be vying with players like Zack Collins and (perhaps) Yermín Mercedes for the 1B/DH role beginning in 2021. This doesn’t even include the possibility of the White Sox signing a full-time DH like J.D. Martinez during this offseason. At the very least, if Sheets should rake for the Knights, he could be an attractive trade piece during next year’s trade deadline.

White Sox Minor League Update: August 24, 2019

Unbreakable: Tomshaw has been outstanding for the Knights in the stretch run. (Laura Wolff/Charlotte Knights)

Charlotte Knights 5, Norfolk Tides 3 (Game 1)

Matt Tomshaw (SP) 6 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, BB, 11 K, W (4-1) 60-of-84 strikes (4.13 ERA)

Danny Mendick (3B) 2-for-3, R, 2 RBI (61) (.284 BA, .826 OPS)

Luis Robert (CF) 0-for-3, BB, K (.297 BA, .987 OPS)
Nick Madrigal (2B) 1-for-3, BB (.318 BA, .822 OPS)
Yermín Mercedes (C) 0-for-2, R, BB, K (.293 BA, .990 OPS)
Zack Collins (DH) 1-for-2, R, BB, K (.295 BA, .975 OPS)
Seby Zavala (1B) 0-for-2, RBI (45), BB, 2 K (.228 BA, .801 OPS)

Yet another win for the Knights here in this doubleheader opener. The offense was efficient, scoring five on the wings of just seven hits and one for extra bases (a Ryan Cordell double); seven walks against eight Ks sure helped. What didn’t help was some rough baserunning: Cordell had a steal but was also caught once, and Madrigal was thrown out at home plate to end the first inning. But the story of the game was the starter, Matt Tomshaw, who has been nothing but aces since taking the pill for Charlotte. Today Tomshaw squeezed a career-high 11 Ks into just six innings, in a masterful performance that all but ensured the Knights a win.

Norfolk Tides 8, Charlotte Knights 2 (Game 2)

Luis Robert (CF) 2-for-3, 2B (10), HR (14), R, RBI (34), K (.304 BA, 1.017 OPS)

Charlie Tilson (LF) 1-for-3, R, 2 K, outfield assist (José Rondón at second base) (.290 BA, .758 OPS)

Zack Collins (C) 0-for-3 (.292 BA, .965 OPS)
A.J. Reed (1B) 0-for-3, 2 K (.194 BA, .562 OPS)
Kyle Kubat (SP) 4.1 IP, 7 H, 6 R/5 ER, BB, 2 K, 2 HR, L (5-2), 50-of-71 strikes (5.30 ERA)

In the nightcap, which was a makeup of Friday’s postponed game, it was pretty much all Robert, who provided both extra-base hits for Charlotte in the game. Robert’s homer was his 14th with the Knights and 30th on the season. He seems a bit tired and peakish, though. The long ball was Charlotte’s 200th of the season, smashing its all-time HR record of 185. Really, nothing much else good in this one, which featured five runs late from Norfolk, sealing in the juices of a gutting loss for the postseason-desperate Knights.  

Tennessee Smokies 8, Birmingham Barons 2

Damek Tomscha (1B) 0-for-2, 2 BB (.281 BA, .770 OPS)

Blake Rutherford (RF) 1-for-4, 2B (15), R (.261 BA, .668 OPS)

Bernardo Flores (SP) 6 IP, 10 H, 4 ER, 5 K, L (3-8), 66-of-88 strikes (3.36 ERA)
Alec Hansen (RP) IP, 2 H, 2 ER, BB, HR, E (3) (6.06 ERA)
Joel Booker (LF) 0-for-5, 3 K (.244 BA, .609 OPS)

The Barons blowout leads off a number of terribly-uninspiring losses from the affiliates today. Just seven hits, offset by three errors, from Birmingham today. Flores wasn’t exactly sharp, but he’s been a hard-luck pitcher all season. I mean, the MVP today is a guy who was hitless, with two walks — that’s a crappy game. Hansen had another rough outing as well.

Potomac Nationals 1, Winston-Salem Dash 0

Jonathan Stiever (SP) 6 IP, 6 H, 1 BB, 5 K (2.22 ERA)

Carlos Perez (C) 1-for-3 (.267 BA, .655 OPS)

Jacob Lindgren (RP) 2 IP, H, ER, BB, L (1-2) (1.72 ERA)
Johan Cruz (SS) 0-for-4, 3 K, E (10) (.239 BA, .636 OPS)

Yuck. Stiever was brilliant once again, but there was no O in W-S on this day: three hits, all singles, no walks, and two errors.

Kannapolis Intimidators 2, Charleston RiverDogs 1

Sam Long (SP) 7 IP, 2 H, 6 K, WP, W (8-5) 58-of-82 strikes (3.07 ERA)

Lenyn Sosa (SS) 2-for-4, RBI (45), 3B (2) (.239 BA, .629 OPS)

Amado Nuñez (2B) 0-for-1, R, RBI (31), HBP, SB (4) (.214 BA, .600 OPS)
Ramon Beltre (3B) 1-for-3, R, 2B (23) (.215 BA, .568 OPS)

Sam Long was masterful once again, pitching Kanny to a win despite just three hits (and no walks) on the I’s offensive side. How’d Kannapolis win the game, with such a set of licorice bats? The third inning began with a Beltre double, and successive fly balls from Michael Hickman and Nuñez got Beltre home. After Nuñez was hit by a pitch in the top of the ninth, Sosa came through with a crucial, two-out triple to bring him home; the two-run cushion proved crucial because with two outs in the bottom half, Devon Perez was touched for a solo homer.

Missoula Osprey 7, Great Falls Voyagers 5

Caberea Weaver (CF) 3-for-5, 3B (4), R, RBI (16), K (.258 BA, .697 OPS)

Joshua Rivera (2B) 1-for-4, 3B (3), R, 2 RBI (11) (.202 BA, .629 OPS)

Jason Morgan (SP) 6 IP, 8 H, 4 R/2 ER, 2 BB, 2 K, HR, E (2), 57-of-90 strikes (4.91 ERA)
Kyle Abbott (1B) 2-for-4, R, 2 K (.228 BA, .776 OPS)
Kleyder Sanchez (C) 2-for-4, 2B (4), R, RBI (9), K, PB (6) (.208 BA, .508 OPS)

A plus here is that Great Falls put up some offense today; the bad is that the Voyagers blew a 5-1 lead in the second inning. Jason Morgan pitched another solid game, but the offense sputtered out after the second. No walks against 10 Ks for GFV.

AZL White Sox 6, AZL Dodgers Lasorda 5 (11)

Josue Guerrero (LF) 2-for-4, R, HR (5), 2 RBI (19), game-winning RBI bunt (.227 BA, .694 OPS)

Samil Polanco (SS) 2-for-4, R, HR (1), 2 RBI (12), SB (11), BB, K (.290 BA, .682 OPS)

Andrew Dalquist (SP) IP, H, BB, 2 K (0.00 ERA)
Mac Welsh (RP) 2 IP, H, 4 K (0.00 ERA)
Jeremiah Burke (RP) 5 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, 2 K, 2 HR (4.33 ERA)
Trey Jeans (RP) 2 IP, 2 H, R, K (1.99 ERA)
Micker Adolfo (DH) 0-for-5, 4 K (.267 BA, .876 OPS)

No truth whatsoever to the rumors that AZL L.A. Lasorda gave out late in this extra-inning game due to heavy plates of pregame, mid-game and pre-extras spaghetti, with garlic bread. But I’m not saying it didn’t happen. Dalquist was the “opener” here, pitching another pretty perfect inning, before giving way to Jeremiah Burke, who did not have it against the Dodgers Pastateers. But for once, and as has been the pattern late, the AZL Sox brought the bats, clubbing three extra-base hits in the game — all homers (Polanco, Guerrero and Bryan Ramos). That coupled with yeoman relief work from Welsh and Jeans after Burke forced the game into extras, and the L.A. stringbean youngsters back to one more run at the pasta bowl. Well, that last run paid off for our generic AZL Sox, as both clubs scored in the 10th, and the Sox clinching it in the 11th on a one-out, walk-off bunt (safety or suicide squeeze, the box score does not reveal) from MVP Josue Guerrero.

DSL Blue Jays 3, DSL White Sox 2

Daneuris Lagrange (RP) 2 IP, 3 K (4.02 ERA)

Roberth Gutierrez (CF) 1-for-3, RBI (15), 2 BB, SB (7) (.274 BA, .743 OPS)

Elijah Tatís (SS) 0-for-3, R, BB, 2 SB (5), E (7) (.187 BA, .513 OPS)
Lazaro Leal (RF) 1-for-3, R, 2 BB (.225 BA, .729 OPS)

A very typical DSL game, in that it featured seven SBs without a CS, and the White Sox scoring two runs on two hits but none for extra bases. And not the best game from the DSL affiliate, who may be coasting on the clinch of a winning season (currently 36-34). The pitching was OK, the hitting was atrocious. The Blue Jays scored two runs early, the White Sox scored two late, but after Cesar Jiménez walked to drive in the second White Sox run, the eighth-inning rally fizzled. Toronto pitcher Gerardo Santana had the distinction of walking the only three batters he faced in the game; the White Sox took 11 free passes, all told.