Deep Dive: Winston-Salem and Kannapolis catchers

Picky, picky: Carlos Perez struck out just 7.6% of the time for the Dash in 2019, while gunning down 39% of all would-be basestealers. (@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

Carlos Perez is the only one of these A-level players who is considered to be a plus defender. Unfortunately, while there is offensive potential in all of the A-ball players, they weren’t able to show it consistently in 2019. As a result, their defensive liabilities became even more exaggerated. As of right now, Perez seems the likeliest of the four to reach at the majors — although that is considered iffy at best.

Ages below are as of April 1, 2020

Winston-Salem Dash

Carlos Perez
160 pounds
Age: 23
Bats/Throws: R/R

Perez, whose older brother with the same first name played in the majors from 2015-18, signed with the White Sox as an international free agent prior to the 2014 season. In two seasons with the DSL club, Perez was quite the hitter (albeit without power) as he combined to slash .323/.380/.397 with 29 walks (11.3%) and just 12 strikeouts (4.7%) in 257 at-bats. The 2016 season saw Perez struggle, which is not an uncommon occurrence for someone playing Stateside for the first time. Combined with the AZL White Sox, Great Falls and Kannapolis in 34 games totaling 116 at-bats, Perez slashed just .198/.218/.259 with four doubles, a homer, 14 RBIs, three walks (2.4%) and four strikeouts (3.3%).

After a solid rebound season with Great Falls in 2017, Perez enjoyed what has been his best offensive Stateside season to date in 2018 with Kannapolis. In 78 games totaling 276 at-bats, he slashed .290/.298/.395 with 18 doubles, one triple, three homers, 32 RBIs, four walks (1.4%) and 31 strikeouts (10.8%). Perez increased his walk totals in 2019 for Winston-Salem, at the sacrifice of a few hits here and there. For the Dash, he slashed .263/.316/.327 with 14 doubles, two homers, 33 RBIs, 24 walks (7.0%) and 26 strikeouts (7.6%).

Perez’s calling card is his defense, as he has above-average skills behind the plate. While his arm strength is basically average, his quick release makes up for it. This year for the Dash, Perez thwarted 41-of-105 stolen base attempts for a nifty 39.0%. He limited his passed balls to just seven, which really isn’t bad compared to others in the system. With his lack of power but plus ability to make contact, combined with his defense (as arguably the best defensive catcher in the farm system), Perez may still have future as a backup catcher in the majors. Perez will be eligible for the upcoming Rule 5 draft, and if not selected, will likely begin the 2020 season with Birmingham.

Evan Skoug
200 pounds
Age: 24
Bats/Throws: L/R

A native of suburban Libertyville, Skoug enjoyed an impressive three-year run as the TCU backstop from 2015-17. In his junior season, he hit for much more power but at the expense of average and strikeouts. That season with the Horned Frogs, in which he shared the Big 12 Player of the Year award with Texas Tech’s Hunter Hargrove, Skoug slashed .272/.378/.544 with 11 doubles, 20 homers, 73 RBIs, 40 walks (12.8%) and 98 strikeouts (31.4%). His strikeout frequency, along with concerns about his defense, caused Skoug to fall to the seventh round of the 2017 draft.

After a terrific four games for the AZL White Sox in 2017, Skoug was promoted to Kannapolis where, in 21 games, he slashed a meager .154/.263/.308. Skoug returned to the Intimidators for the 2018 season, and continued his struggles by hitting just .192/.283/.299 in 83 games as he hit just five homers with 34 walks (10.9%) and 93 strikeouts (29.9%). In 2019, Skoug struggled equally with Kannapolis and Winston-Salem, as he combined to slash just .168/.284/.330 in 62 games while producing 10 doubles, six homers and 32 walks (14.0%); Skoug countered his impressive walk total, however, with 73 strikeouts (31.9%).

According to MLB Pipeline in 2017, Skoug works hard behind the plate and shows admirable leadership skills. However, there are concerns with his defense due to limited athleticism and quickness. He also has fringy arm strength, but makes up for it somewhat with a quick release. This year, Skoug thwarted 25.5% of all stolen base attempts against him. Ultimately, it will be Skoug’s ability to make contact and produce offensively that will dictate how far he climbs in the organization. In the meantime, he likely will return to the Dash to begin the 2020 season.

Kannapolis Intimidators

Gunnar Troutwine
230 pounds
Age: 24
Bats/Throws: R/R

Troutwine enjoyed easily his best collegiate season with Wichita Stats as a senior, when he slashed .302/.413/.505 for the Shockers with seven homers, 48 RBIs, 34 walks (15.6%) and 38 strikeouts (17.4%). Based largely on the strength of his offense, Troutwine was selected in the ninth round of the 2018 draft. He continued his offensive production with Great Falls later that year, as he slashed .316/.412/.419 with six doubles, two homers, 18 RBIs, 19 walks (13.8%) and 20 strikeouts (14.5%) in 35 games.

This year was a struggle in more ways than one for Troutwine. Offensively, his numbers slipped to .240/.341/.345 in 61 games as he hit 15 doubles, two homers, 14 walks (6.0%) and 31 strikeouts (13.3%). While he scuffled with Kannapolis offensively, his struggles were much worse behind the plate. In 2018 in 34 games for the Voyagers, he committed just two passed balls; this year in 58 games as a backstop for the Intimidators Troutwine committed a whopping 23. When you add 11 errors and just a 20.8% rate throwing out basestealers, it certainly was a year that Troutwine would like to forget. It’s certainly possible that his defensive miscues took their toll on his confidence on both sides of the ball.

Expect Troutwine to return to Kannapolis for 2019, but with a chance for promotion to Winston-Salem if he significantly reduces his defensive mistakes while improving his average. On the plus side, Troutwine’s .686 OPS was the highest of the four system catchers who finished the year in A-ball.

Michael Hickman
215 pounds
Age: 23
Bats/Throws: L/R
Other positions played: First Base

Hickman, as a native of Katy, Texas, was selected in the 13th round by the White Sox in the 2016 draft out of Chipola Junior College. Progress through the system has been slow for Hickman, as his numbers have dropped with each year while his walks and strikeouts have gone the opposite directions.

In his first season of pro ball with the AZL White Sox in 2016, Hickman slashed .286/.386/367 in just 49 at-bats. After a decent encore season with the AZL squad, he played his first full-season ball with Kannapolis in 2018. In 80 games totaling 286 at-bats, he slashed .241/.298/.339 with 17 doubles, three homers, 33 RBIs, 19 walks (6.1%) and 82 strikeouts (26.5%).

This year for the Intimidators, he slashed just .209/.266/.353 in 215 at-bats as he hit 13 doubles, six homers, 24 RBIs, and 12 walks (5.1%) with 71 strikeouts (30.3%). On the positive side, though, he threw out would-be basestealers at an impressive rate of 39.3%. His defensive skills are considered decent, but he did surrender 10 passed balls in 48 games. Hickman spent more than 15% of his defensive time at first base, and with one error there in nine games, he gives his team a little extra versatility. Hickman will be eligible for the upcoming Rule 5 draft, but likely won’t be selected.

With two seasons with Kannapolis, it’s likely Hickman won’t spend a third there in 2020; expect him to advance to Winston-Salem ahead of Troutwine because of his defense. How far Hickman will advance beyond that, however, will largely depend upon his offensive improvement.


2019 Kannapolis Intimidators season recap

Tough year: But Kannapolis ended on a pretty good note. (Tiffany Wintz/South Side Hit Pen)

The Kannapolis Intimidators finished the year at 64-74, after an abysmal first half and a decent second thanks to the addition of 2019 draft picks. However, they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2016 because the reinforcements did not come quick enough — or in Andrew Vaughn‘s case, left too quickly.

Low-A baseball is a big step for players. Maybe there is not a big talent gap between advanced rookie leagues, but Low-A is the first stop in playing a full professional season. The leagues start in April and players travel to different states, though not as frequently as a Triple-A or MLB team. It is the first taste of what a grind a baseball season is, and as such it weeds out some of the younger players.

But some players definitely rose above the rest in Kannapolis this season. Though it is best to note, as in rookie league evaluation, age and previous Low-A experience is an important factor in assessing Low-A players.

First off, the promotions and other cameo appearances (like Vaughn, who played 23 games for the I’s). Steele Walker started the year with the I’s before earning a promotion after a great 20 games, in which he had a 189 wRC+. Johan Cruz started with the I’s as well and was more of a peripheral player to start, but because of his hot bat finally earned a promotion to the Dash. Cruz left the I’s with a .296 batting average, and some surprising pop. Evan Skoug rounds out the list of player promotions, but it seems like his was more out of necessity to get another catcher to Winston-Salem than talent. Though with Skoug’s eye and power, maybe a swing change could unlock that potential.

The pitching side is a bit more fun with some much bigger names. Konnor Pilkington, Jonathan Stiever, and Kade McClure each started the year with the I’s. Pilkington had the best year of the bunch, and earned his promotion more quickly as he left with a 1.62 ERA.

Next up was McClure with a 3.09 ERA and finally, Stiever. Stiever’s ERA did not look good in Low-A, but his peripherals showed a more advanced and much improved pitcher (as you will see in the Dash recap, Stiever was, simply, awesome). Taylor Varnell became sort of a prospect-buff favorite with multiple fantastic starts in Low-A, and the 24 year-old finally got a much deserved promotion later in the year.

A few notable relievers jumped to High-A baseball as well. Vince Arobio started his season with the I’s before eventually ending the season in Birmingham. Andrew Perez and Bennett Sousa were promoted at the same time after a dominant half-season in the Kannapolis bullpen. Perez left with a 2.25 ERA, Sousa with a 2.51.

That is a lot of players on the move, but some of note stayed the entire year, or ended their seasons with the I’s and helped them to a much better second-half record.

The Hitters

Two hitters that played well and stayed the entire season shared the outfield together, Ian Dawkins and Alex Destino. They ended the season with the same batting average (.298), but got there in very different ways. Dawkins is more of a slappy hitter, with speed and not much power. He had a fantastic first half of the season, but slowed down in the second. Dawkins finished with a 124 wRC+ and 23 stolen bases in 31 attempts. He has a fine walk rate at 6.3%, and the reason it is fine is because Dawkins hit almost .300, and he also has a below-average K-rate. Destino has the bigger bat, with 17 homers and 39 total extra-base hits. He walks more than 10% of the time, but also strikes out out at a decently high rate, so he is just a typical hitter who has some power. The downside is that both guys are older. Destino is about to turn 24, and Dawkins already is 24. In Dawkins’ case, he had 37 games in Low-A in 2018, so it was familiar territory. They are outfielders to keep an eye on, but both will need to show something more with the Dash.

A few other hitters deserve attention, but for different reasons, first off, the underperformers: Gunnar Troutwine, Corey Zangari, Ramon Beltre, Bryce Bush, and Lenyn Sosa. Troutwine probably had the best season among them, but might also be less of a prospect than the other four. He had a 106 wRC+, so a fine season, but he struck out more than 30% of the time and didn’t show improved bat-to-ball skills or extra power in his first full season. His defense was also, in a word, atrocious. Zangari was finally healthy, kind of, but fell flat. He hit only .204, but showed fantastic power with a .224 ISO. He also struck out more than 30% of the time, and a big reason why his season was salvageable was his very good walk rate. Beltre played the most, but probably had the worst season of this group and was even worse in his second Low-A stint.

Finally, Bryce Bush and Lenyn Sosa, the teenagers. Bush finished the year in the AZL but will definitely be back in Kannapolis in 2020. He barely hit above the Mendoza line and showed a concerning K-rate of 31.9%. Though he is definitely the best hitting prospect of this group, is still just 19, and had an injury-riddled year. Still, he looked impressive at times:

Sosa is a smidge younger than Bush, by about a month, and did have a better year in terms of play and health, though I’m sure the organization expected better. The international signee had his first full season this year and finished with a 93 wRC+. Instead of struggling down the stretch, which would have been understandable given a personal record amount of games played, Sosa was much better after the All-Star break. His batting average rose by almost 50 points and OPS went up over 100 points. Hopefully that translates over to next season, and Sosa gets a quick promotion to Winston-Salem.

Two non-Vaughn 2019 draft picks did make their way onto the I’s roster as well. Tyler Osik, a 27th round pick, ended with a 160 wRC+ in 108 plate appearance for the I’s. Osik showed a lot of power, probably unsustainable power at a .278 ISO, but the walk and strikeout rates stayed relatively the same from his rookie league statistics. Cameron Simmons, a 20th round pick, crushed it in Great Falls and earned a promotion. He didn’t do as well in Kannapolis but was right at average production. He did seem a little overmatched, as his K-rate went up a good amount, and the walks fell.

The Pitchers

After Pilkington, McClure, and Stiever left, there was obviously huge holes to fill in the rotation, and it was mostly filled by pitchers who were relievers earlier. Jason Bilous was the most fit for the role, but Johan Dominguez and Sam Long took over and did well. Bilous was much better as a reliever than starter, with a 2.86 ERA as a reliever and 4.01 ERA as a starter. However, a lot of Bilous’ struggles came late in the season, just like his struggles after being drafted in 2018. It is tough to say whether he will stay in a starting role, but hopefully Bilous can continue his progress and be better late in seasons. Dominguez and Long are older and probably aren’t players who will make it to the bigs, but they had good seasons as a reliever and as a starter. Dominguez ended the year with a 2.98 ERA, Long with a 3.06 ERA.

One starter who stayed with the I’s all season and didn’t miss a start was Davis Martin. Martin had an abysmal April and May, with an ERA of more than 7.00. He was able to figure himself out later in the year and had a 3.87 ERA in the second half. The peripherals like him a lot more because of his above average K-rate and pretty low walk rate. Martin ended with a 3.90 FIP, which is much better than his 5.04 ERA, so 2020 will be a big year to see who he truly is.

After Perez and Sousa left on the reliever side, again there were holes to fill, but the Kannapolis bullpen was already the strongest part of the team, and they continued to be successful thanks to three outstanding performances. There isn’t much fanfare with these players because they don’t carry any prospect expectations, but as relievers in Low-A all they need to do is throw hard.

Up first is Lane Ramsey, who SSHP’s Dan Victor likes quite a bit.

Ramsey had a 2.75 ERA this season, but his K numbers are low; he probably does not have a very good or developed breaking/off-speed pitch. If he is able to get an out pitch to use with his high-90s fastball, Ramsey could be a guy to watch going forward, maybe driveline isn’t a bad idea for the kid. Wilber Perez was a bit of a surprise to land in the Kannapolis bullpen after being in the DSL in 2018. Perez fit in well, and was terrific down the stretch. He had a 2.83 ERA and was mostly used in multiple-inning scenarios. Perez did show good strikeout numbers, but he has a significant control problem. Austin Conway rounds out the bunch, and he had the best season of all. He had 13 saves to go with his 1.59 ERA and even earned a cameo showing with the Dash, but was eventually sent back down. Conway already is 24, so take his success with caution, but he was fantastic.

Kannapolis was not the most talented team in terms of prospect hype, like it had been in previous seasons, but it did have appearances and performances from good players. Most of the above players will go to Winston-Salem in 2020, but the 2019 draft and a few 2020 draft prospects will be heading to Kannapolis’ new ballpark to replace them in the spring.