Long wait: Michael Kopech should be a key cog in next year’s White Sox starting rotation. (@KopechDad)
“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization. Each position is broken into a five-part series:
- Depth in the rookie levels (Dominican through Great Falls)
- Depth in A-ball (Kannapolis and Winston-Salem)
- Depth in the higher levels (Birmingham and Charlotte)
- Under the Radar-type detail on one of the White Sox players at that position
- Free agent options at that position
For all the hand-wringing over lack of majors-ready arms in the upper levels, there are at least a few names here you’ll be seeing on the South Side soon.
All players’ ages listed below are as of April 1, 2020.
OK, I’m cheating here! Kopech is actually on the major league roster, but since he still is rookie-eligible he’s listed here instead. Kopech, a native of Mount Pleasant, Texas, enjoyed a terrific prep career, culminating with an 0.44 ERA, 18.14 K/9, and .115 OBA in his senior season. With those results and a fastball already reaching 94 mph, Kopech was unsurprisingly ranked among the top prep prospects entering the 2014 draft. When he fell to the 33rd selection, the Boston Red Sox couldn’t resist choosing him and signing him to a $1.5 million bonus in order to pry him from his verbal commitment to the Arizona Wildcats.
In his first three years in the Red Sox system, Kopech combined to post a 2.60 ERA and 1.20 WHIP while posting 11.49 K/9, 4.60 BB/9, and .201 OBA over a combined 135 innings. Kopech made headlines in Single-A ball when one of his fastballs was clocked at 105 mph.
However, during his Red Sox tenure, he also made the wrong kind of news. On July 15, 2015, he was suspended 50 games for testing positive for oxilofrine, a banned stimulant that was hidden in many dietary supplements sold over the counter. Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse when, in early March 2016, he broke a bone in his pitching hand during an altercation with a teammate. As a result of those two incidents, the most he pitched in the minors in his first three seasons was in 2015, when he pitched just 65 innings.
Perhaps in part due to concerns regarding his maturity, the Red Sox traded Kopech, Yoán Moncada, Luis Basabe, and Victor Diaz to the White Sox on Dec. 6, 2016 for southpaw ace Chris Sale. In 2017 for Birmingham, Kopech maintained a 2.87 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 119 ⅓ innings, allowing just 77 hits (.184 OBA) but 60 walks (4.53 BB/9) while striking out 155 (11.69 K/9). Despite vastly exceeding his combining inning totals from the previous three years, Kopech got better as the season went along; In July and August, Kopech threw 44 ⅓ innings with 26 hits (.166 OBA), 11 walks (2.23 BB/9) and 58 strikeouts (11.77 K/9). As a result, he finished the season with three solid starts in Charlotte.
Struggles, primarily with control, haunted Kopech in 2018 — particularly in May and June. In those two months (totaling 58 ⅓ innings), he allowed 45 hits (.216) while striking out 76 (11.73 K/9); however, he walked a whopping 45 hitters (6.04 BB/9) which gave him an ERA of 5.25 and WHIP of 1.54 for that stretch. However, just like in 2017, Kopech kicked it into overdrive during July and August by ceding just 42 hits and eight walks over 47 innings and fanning 65 — posting a tidy 2.49 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in the process. His control paid dividends, as he finally earned a promotion to Chicago for his first career start, on August 21. Unfortunately, after doing well in three mostly rain-abbreviated starts, Kopech tore his UCL and ultimately underwent Tommy John surgery.
Kopech currently ranks second among White Sox prospects, and 18th overall, according to MLB Pipeline. MLB also grades Kopech as 80-fastball, 65-slider, 50-changeup, and 45-control; what MLB Pipeline doesn’t say is that Kopech was actually getting great results from another pitch — a curveball. The key for Kopech, other than of course staying healthy when he returns in 2020, is to maintain his command while providing a nice speed variance between his fastball and off-speed pitches. If his fastball can return to pre-surgery levels while trusting his secondary offerings and maintaining the command he showed from July to September in 2018, the White Sox will indeed have a perennial Cy Young contender on their hands.
Despaigne, after posting a 61-43 record with a 3.55 ERA and 1.75 K/BB ratio over eight seasons in Cuba before defecting, signed a $1 million pact with San Diego on May 2, 2014 as a 27-year-old. After beginning that season in Double-A San Antonio, he made his MLB debut with the Padres less than two months later. In what’s turned out to be his career year in the majors to date, Despaigne posted a 4-7 record with a 3.36 ERA and 1.22 WHIP over 16 starts. In his six-year career, which has seen him spend more time in the minors than the majors, Despaigne already has pitched for the Padres, Orioles, Marlins, Angels and White Sox with a combined 13-26 record, 5.11 ERA and 1.45 WHIP.
After signing a minor league deal with the White Sox this May after opting out of his contract with the Reds, Despaigne performed quite well for Charlotte, earning a prompt promotion due to the majors. After three disastrous starts spanning 13 1/3 innings for Chicago in June (9.45 ERA, 2.33 WHIP, .407 OBA, 10.3 BB%, 10.3 K%), he was demoted to Charlotte, where he actually finished as that team’s best right-handed starter by season’s end, and by a wide margin. In 16 appearances for the Knights this year (14 starts), Despaigne posted a decent 3.25 ERA and 1.34 WHIP over 83 innings by relinquishing 83 hits (.263 OBA), 28 walks and 84 strikeouts. Considering the weak state of the Knights rotation, combined with the knowledge that southpaw Bernardo Flores may be the only lock for promotion from Birmingham to begin the season due to injuries in the system, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Sox ink Despaigne to another minor league pact for 2020.
Roach began his college career with the University of Arizona, but transferred to the College of Southern Nevada to be closer to home. After excelling during his sophomore season, Roach was selected in the third round of the 2010 MLB draft by the Angels. After spending parts of three years in the Angels organization, Roach was traded to the Padres, where he eventually made his MLB debut in 2014. Over the years, he’s pitched for a myriad of organizations, including the Cubs and Mariners (for whom he also pitched briefly in the majors). In 21 games spanning 39 innings at the highest level, Roach has posted a 5.77 ERA and 1.77 WHIP by allowing 51 hits and 18 walks while fanning 20.
The White Sox signed Roach to a minor league pact in 2018 and he pitched quite well for the Charlotte Knights, earning a spot on the Triple-A All-Star team with a 2.65 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. In 16 outings spanning 95 innings, he relinquished just 95 hits (.262 OBA) and 21 walks (5.4%) while striking out 61 (15.6%). He then asked for his release in order to play professional ball in Japan.
Roach returned to the Knights this year, but with far worse results. In 18 appearances totaling 79 1/3 injury-marred innings, he surrendered 127 hits (.362 OBA) and 26 walks (6.8%) while fanning 53 (13.9). His results likely suffered not just to injuries but thanks to the live (MLB) baseball as well. It’s a shame for Roach that he didn’t have the 2018 season this year, because he likely would have found a spot in the back of the White Sox rotation. As it is, Roach can only hope he’ll have another opportunity to pitch for Chicago next year.
After a spectacular senior season for his varsity baseball team in the Atlanta area, the White Sox happily pounced on Adams with their second round selection in the 2014 draft. After a terrific season for the AZL Sox that year, in which he struck out 59 batters while walking just four in 41 2/3 innings, it certainly looked like the sky was the limit for Adams.
Adams continued to post solid numbers with every new stop in the organization, but his stuff seemed to back up as his strikeout rates continued to plummet. In 2017 for the Birmingham Barons, he posted a 4.42 ERA and 1.38 WHIP over 152 2/3 innings by relinquishing 171 hits (.281 OBA) and 40 walks (6.1%) while fanning just 113 (17.2%). He again posted decent overall numbers with Birmingham and Charlotte for 2018, but with concerning peripherals: 3.79 ERA and 1.38 WHIP over 159 innings allowing 162 hits (.267 OBA) and 58 walks (8.6%) while fanning 95 (14.2%).
Adams’ 2019 just never got off the ground, due to a combination of ineffectiveness and injuries. Of course, the injuries caused many of the issues, but a combination of a lack of overpowering stuff and the live Triple-A ball didn’t help matters any. In five games (three starts, with his last outing on April 28), Adams posted an 8.00 ERA and 2.39 ERA over 18 innings as he allowed 35 hits (.412 OBA) and an unusually high eight walks (8.3%) with 10 strikeouts (10.4%). A back injury is what finished Adams’ season prematurely, and it’s hoped that he could return to Charlotte in 2020.
Adams, who was a former Top 10 prospect in the White Sox organization, did have 50 grades with his low-90s fastball and changeup, while he graded a bit better according to MLB Pipeline with his control (60) prior to his injury.
Dunning had a successful three-year run with the Florida Gators, beginning as a reliever in his freshman season, transitioning to starter, and finally switching to a swing-man role for his junior season. Why a swingman, instead of an ace? It may have had something to do with the fact that A.J. Puk, Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, and Alex Faedo (all eventual first-round picks) were in the Gators rotation as well. Dunning did, however, post his best collegiate marks in his junior season, with a 2.29 ERA and 1.02 WHIP over 77 ⅔ innings. In his 33 outings (five starts), he allowed just 68 hits (.235 OBA) and 12 walks (1.39 BB/9) while striking out 88 (10.20 K/9). Due to those results and obvious potential, the Washington Nationals selected him in the first round (29th overall) of the 2016 draft.
Dunning pitched well for the Nationals short-season affiliates in 35 ⅔ innings over eight starts, posting a combined 2.02 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, and 32 strikeouts (8.07 K/9) while relinquishing just 26 hits (.198 OBA) and seven walks (1.77 BB/9). Following the season, on December 7, he was traded to the White Sox, along with Reynaldo López and Lucas Giolito, for Adam Eaton.
To say Dunning dominated Kannapolis in his four starts there in 2017 was like saying the earth is round. In 24 ⅓ innings for the Intimidators, he posted a microscopic 0.35 ERA, 0.58 WHIP, and 33 strikeouts (11.42 K/9) in 26 innings while allowing just 13 hits (.143 OBA) and two walks (0.69 BB/9). His results with Winston-Salem, while not quite as fantastic, were still top-notch. In 22 starts for the Dash totaling 118 innings, he posted a 3.51 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and 135 strikeouts (10.30 K/9) while ceding just 114 hits (.250 OBA) and 36 walks (2.75 BB/9).
Dunning started 2018 with Winston-Salem in four starts, before earning an early promotion to Birmingham. In 15 starts covering 86 ⅓ innings for both squads, he posted a nifty 2.71 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. In those innings, he allowed just 77 hits (.235 OBA) and 26 walks (2.71 BB/9) while fanning 100 hitters (10.42 K/9). Unfortunately, Dunning began suffering through elbow issues in late June that year, ultimately leading to Tommy John surgery in mid-March of this year.
As evidenced by his low walk numbers throughout college and the minors, Dunning has exceptional control, and with the relatively low number of hits allowed for a control pitcher, he has exceptional command as well. His fastball peaks at 95-96 mph, but is extremely effective due to its heavy sinking action. He also features an above-average slider, which grades slightly higher than his improving change.
Unfortunately, due to the aforementioned surgery, Dunning will be expected to miss some time in 2020. There’s a possibility he begins the season with Charlotte upon his return, but it’s much more likely Dunning starts with Birmingham. Though he ranks fifth among all White Sox prospects per MLB Pipeline, he (unlike the aforementioned Kopech) has fallen out of MLB’s Top 100 list entirely. If recovery goes well and he doesn’t miss a beat upon return, Dunning likely will earn a promotion to Charlotte if not Chicago before 2020’s end.
Lambert spent the majority of his three years for the Fresno State Bulldogs in the team’s starting rotation, and his junior season was easily his best with a 3.13 ERA and 1.20 WHIP over 97 2/3 innings, as he relinquished 98 hits and just 19 walks while striking out 78. Those results were good enough for the White Sox to select him in the 2016 draft. After the draft, he pitched well for the AZL White Sox but unsurprisingly struggled with Kannapolis to end the season.
Jimmy, older brother of Rockies hurler Peter Lambert, mastered Kannapolis in 12 starts spanning 74 innings to begin the 2017 campaign with a 2.19 ERA and 1.19 WHIP, as he surrendered 77 hits (.274 OBA) and 11 walks (3.7%) while striking out 43 (14.3%). Just like the previous year, Lambert struggled with his midseason promotion to Winston-Salem as he posted a 5.45 ERA and 1.51 WHIP over 76 innings as he ceded 86 hits (.290 OBA) and 29 walks (8.7%) while fanning 59 (17.7%). Lambert returned to the Dash in 2018 and fared much better in 13 starts, totaling 70 2/3 innings as he compiled a 3.95 ERA and 1.10 WHIP, allowing just 57 hits (.217 OBA) and 21 walks (7.3%) while striking out 80 (29.0). Lambert earned a promotion to Birmingham, and excelled with this promotion to the tune of a 2.88 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 25 innings as he relinquished just 20 hits (.217 OBA) and six walks (5.9%) while striking out 30 (29.7%).
Lambert started 2019 with Birmingham well, as he turned six quality starts in his first eight outings. However, his final three outings (May 23 to June 3) were vastly subpar — ultimately dropping his numbers to a 4.55 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in 11 starts spanning 59 1/3 innings, allowing 62 hits (.272 OBA) and 27 walks (10.4%) while striking out 70 (27.0%). It turned out Lambert needed Tommy John surgery, which was done in late June.
Lambert presently ranks 18th among White Sox prospects by MLB Pipeline, thanks in part to increasing oomph on his fastball over the past couple of years due to an arm slot change that altered his delivery to more over-the-top. The heater (which usually runs 91-94 mph and tops out at 96) and curveball are considered by MLB Pipeline as his two best offerings with grades of 55, while his slider and changeup are given a solid 50 grade. Because of his late surgery, it’s possible Lambert may not even pitch in the 2020 season. If he does, he may be given a rehab assignment in the AZL before returning to Birmingham. Lambert is eligible to be selected in the upcoming Rule 5 draft.
Battenfield, a resident of Tulsa, remained in his native state to play with the Oklahoma State Cowboys. His first three years were primarily spent in the bullpen, where Battenfield crafted a respectable 2.60 ERA and 1.35 WHIP over 97 innings. During that time, he allowed 86 hits while posting a mediocre K/BB ratio (1.47), with 45 walks and 66 strikeouts. He split time evenly with the Cowboys as a senior (2017) between the rotation and bullpen, posting middling results: 4.91 ERA and 1.49 WHIP over 69 2⁄3 innings, while walking 31 and striking out 58.
These results obviously weren’t spectacular, which explains why Battenfield slipped all the way to the 17th round of the 2017 draft. Battenfield served exclusively out of the bullpen that year for Great Falls, where he posted mediocre ERA (4.88) and WHIP numbers over 31 1⁄3 innings in the high altitude, but some of his peripherals stood out. Opposing hitters batted .271 against his offerings, but he punched out 40 hitters (28.6 K%) while walking only eight (5.7 BB%). Partly based on those numbers, the Sox decided to convert him to a starter for 2018.
Battenfield pitched outstandingly for Kannapolis in his 13 starts in 2018: 2.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 52 hits (.210 OBA), 16 walks (6.0 BB%), and 69 strikeouts (25.8 K%) over 67 innings, earning a promotion to Winston-Salem on June 21. As expected, Battenfield’s numbers declined a bit in nine starts (53 1⁄3 innings) for the Dash, but were still respectable: 4.22 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 50 hits (.248 OBA), 13 walks (6.0 BB%), and 46 strikeouts (21.1%).
After a terrific six starts to begin the season with the Dash, Battenfield earned an early promotion to Birmingham where he did struggle with his command. In 19 starts for the Barons totaling 95 2/3 innings, he posted a 4.52 ERA and 1.38 WHIP by allowing 107 hits (.287 OBA) and 25 walks (6.1%) while fanning 69 (16.9%). He especially labored against lefties (.299 OBA, 1.59 WHIP) in comparison to righties for Birmingham (.278 OBA, 1.23 WHIP). His 36.8% ground ball rate didn’t do him any favors, either.
Battenfield has an impressive repertoire that includes a natural sinking fastball, a rising four-seamer, an effective slider, a big-breaking curveball with good spin and depth, and a changeup that still needs work. He doesn’t appear to throw especially hard. I haven’t seen any projections, but we’re probably looking at the low 90s, as he was in the mid-80s as a varsity athlete according to Perfect Game and has gotten stronger since then. But the righthander’s movement and speed variations help his fastball play up. His changeup has yet to be mastered, as evidenced by the success Double-A lefties enjoyed against him this year. Success with the changeup may dictate how Battenfield will progress going forward.
Expect Battenfield to return to the Barons for the 2019 season, with an opportunity for midseason promotion if he does well.
With the exception of two starts in his freshman season, Henzman was exclusively a reliever for the Louisville Cardinals. His best season was as a junior, when he pitched in 27 games (saving 16) totaling 37 2⁄3 innings with a terrific 1.67 ERA and 0.85 WHIP — allowing just 22 hits (.169 OBA) and 10 walks (2.39 BB/9), striking out 37 (8.84 K/9). With those results, the White Sox drafted Henzman in the fourth round of the 2017 draft, with the intention of converting him into a starter. After receiving a signing bonus of $450,000, Henzman pitched for the AZL Sox and Great Falls. In 11 combined outings (seven starts), he maintained a respectable 3.86 ERA and 1.29 WHIP over 28 innings, allowing 27 hits (.262 OBA) and nine walks (2.89 BB/9) while striking out 17 (5.46 K/9).
Henzman went deeper into games in 2018 for Kannapolis, starting 13 and pitching 72 2⁄3 innings, with better-than-expected results. For the Intimidators, Henzman posted a 2.23 ERA and 1.05 WHIP, and allowed just 68 hits (.241 OBA) and eight walks (3.0%) while striking out 60 hitters (20.4%). He was promoted to Winston-Salem on June 21, but was held to pitch counts as Henzman had already far exceeded his career high in innings. In 14 outings totaling 34 2⁄3 innings for the Dash, he posted a 2.60 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, ceding 34 hits (.256 OBA) and 10 walks (6.8%) while striking out 20 (13.7%).
The 2019 season saw Henzman go through some struggles — particularly with putting hitters away. In nine starts spanning 41 innings for the Dash, he posted a 4.61 ERA and 1.37 WHIP as he relinquished 46 hits (.288 OBA) and 10 walks (5.8%) while fanning just 18 (10.4%). He did earn a promotion to Birmingham in early June, and struggled against his more advanced opponents. In 15 starts totaling 79 1/3 innings for the Barons, Henzman compiled a 5.56 ERA and 1.44 WHIP as he surrendered 96 hits (.301 OBA) and 18 walks (5.2%) while striking out 44 (12.7%). While he maintained his above-average control this year, his command was lacking as he didn’t miss many bats due to a high OBA and low strikeout rate. On the positive side, he finished his last three starts with a combined 1.76 ERA and 0.85 WHIP, so he may have figured some things out.
Henzman features a heavy sinking fastball that runs anywhere from 90-95 mph according to MLB Pipeline, and despite his struggles this year, still induced a 53% ground ball rate. He throws an upper-80s cutter, while also throwing an above-average changeup. That changeup has helped Henzman, as lefties have consistently hit him for a lower average than have righties during his young career. MLB Pipeline grades his fastball as 60, changeup at 55, and control and cutter at 50. Expect Henzman to return to Birmingham to begin the 2020 campaign.
Paulino, who turns 25 next March, is a Dominican native and started his career with the Phillies organization in 2014. His best year was with their Gulf Coast League squad in 2015, when he posted a 2.34 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in 50 innings as he relinquished just 41 hits (.223 OBA) and five walks (2.5%) while fanning 46 (23.0%). He’d actually been a useful swingman, as his career numbers have generally been good if unexceptional. On Aug. 22, 2018, he was traded to the White Sox for southpaw reliever Luis Avilán. With Birmingham, Paulino finished the year with two rocky starts as he battled through some uncharacteristic wildness — no doubt trying too hard to impress his new team.
In six outings (five starts) this year for the Barons, Paulino certainly held his own as he posted a respectable 3.86 ERA and 1.40 WHIP over 35 innings as he ceded 36 hits (.265 OBA) and 13 walks (8.4%) while striking out 30 (19.5%). In all six of his outings, he pitched at least five innings. Unfortunately, his last outing was on May 5 as he was then placed on the injured list, from which he never returned.
According to Baseball America, Paulino works 91-96 mph with his fastball and has a sinker in the lower end of that velocity band. His low- to mid-80s slider flashes plus potential but is inconsistent, and he has a firm changeup that lacks deception. Paulino shows flashes of everything working together, but hasn’t been able to put it all together yet. His ability to tighten up his control and firm up his secondaries will determine how high he climbs. Paulino is eligible for this year’s Rule 5 draft, and if healthy, would likely return to Birmingham to begin the 2020 season.
Puckett is an interesting story. He was a promising two-sport athlete in high school before a car accident left him in a medically-induced coma for two weeks to slow his blood loss. After that accident, he made a a full recovery and went to Pepperdine University, where he was the West Coast Conference pitcher of the year in 2016 after fashioning the third-longest (45 2⁄3-inning) scoreless streak in NCAA Division I history. All Puckett did in his junior season was pitch 99 innings over 14 starts, posting an incredible 1.27 ERA and 0.92 WHIP; he allowed just 65 hits and 26 walks (2.36 BB/9) while fanning 95 batters (8.61 K/9). As a result of his efforts, the Kansas City Royals selected him in the second round of the 2016 draft, signing him to a $1.2 million bonus.
For the AZL Royals and Lexington (Royals A-affiliate) immediately after the draft, Puckett held his own in 13 starts, with a combined 3.68 ERA and 1.11 WHIP and respectable .231 OBA and 2.30 BB/9, but his strikeouts were down at 6.90 K/9. For the Royals A+ team (Wilmington) in 2017, he was posting a 3.90 ERA and 1.41 WHIP through July 30 when he was traded to the White Sox for outfielder Melky Cabrera, in the Royals’ ill-fated run at the playoffs. Puckett struggled a bit at hitter-friendly Winston-Salem in his five starts, as he posted a 4.28 ERA and 1.46 WHIP over 27 1⁄3 innings. In those innings, Puckett surrendered 35 hits (.327 OBA) and five walks (1.65 BB/9) while striking out 21 (6.91 K/9).
Puckett began 2018 as the 23rd-ranked prospect in the White Sox system according to MLB Pipeline, and was slated to begin with Birmingham. However, due to an ailing elbow, he missed the entire season (just like Andre Davis, the other player acquired in the Cabrera deal).
Puckett, when healthy, is more about pitchability than power. His best assets are his tumbling changeup, a legitimate plus pitch, and his advanced command. His fastball usually ranges from 90-94 mph (according to MLB Pipeline) with some run and sink, and his curveball can be an average third offering at times, but lacks consistency.
Like fellow highly-touted righthander Dunning, Puckett arrived in Glendale this spring to try working through the elbow pain that sidelined him in 2018. And like Dunning, Puckett ultimately opted for Tommy John surgery. He missed all of 2019, and will likely miss a good part of 2020 as well. When ready to return, Puckett likely will undergo a rehab assignment before pitching for Birmingham.