Minor key: The last bullpen spot

Eighth spot to lose: Improbably, a combination of factors give Carson Fulmer the inside track on the final White Sox bullpen spot. (@Carson_Fulmer)


For some pitchers, a relief role is the path to glory and riches. For others, it’s a last stand, a last-ditch attempt to cling to the majors. The Chicago White Sox feature both extremes in their Cactus League bullpen at present, and all manner of pitchers in-between.

The former was taken care of this past weekend. Aaron Bummer’s job security wasn’t in question this spring, but the organization assured so in a big way after announcing a long-term pact with the lefty reliever on Saturday.

The White Sox are loathe to go through the arbitration process with their players, but this contract is a big win for the team beyond dodging that process with Bummer. The 26-year-old was selected in the 19th round of the 2014 draft out of Nebraska and underwent Tommy John surgery as a minor leaguer. After posting a 2.13 ERA with a 72% ground ball rate in 67 ⅔ innings in 2019, boasting a 1.3 fWAR powered by an elite sinker, Bummer has arrived as a fixture in the Pale Hose bullpen going forward.

Bullpens are fickle, and deals like this one are uncommon as a result. But the deal guarantees a payout of only $16 million, and the decision-makers likely see that as a pittance in the face of four years of arbitration under super two status for a pitcher like Bummer, who’s seen as a major spoke in the wheel. Regression could obviously occur, but Bummer’s current status and future promise is a massive scouting win for the organization, which should rightfully celebrate his arrival as a dependable big league reliever.


Judgment Day: Carson Fulmer

Carson Fulmer was the third-ranked player in the 2015  draft according to MLB Pipeline. In Doug Laumann’s final year at the helm, the White Sox used the eighth overall pick in an otherwise poor class on the righthander from Vanderbilt. Many observers praised the organization for selecting another quick-moving pitcher and nabbing the “best college starter” in the class.

Pipeline lauded Fulmer for his competitiveness and placed a 70-grade on his fastball with a 60-grade curveball. The 6´0´´ righty threw his fastball in the 93-97 mph range and had been named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. Fulmer displayed an electric arm, with a power breaking ball. Carson lacked prototypical size and possessed a tough-to-repeat, highly unorthodox delivery. Many evaluators questioned his command and control, wondering if he would end up in the bullpen down the road.

Fulmer didn’t throw enough strikes in college, and he hasn’t thrown enough strikes as a professional, either. Now hanging onto a roster spot tenuously, at risk of changing organizations, Fulmer’s future hinges on his ability to throw strikes this spring. The 26-year-old posted a 6.26 ERA in 27 big league innings last year, and that was after reworking his delivery in the offseason. He did average 13.5 K/9 with the Charlotte Knights with a 3.24 FIP — but also walked more than five hitters per nine as well.

Fulmer is the likely favorite to earn the eighth and final spot in the White Sox’s bullpen this spring. He’s out of options, and while losing him wouldn’t seem drastic, his draft status likely affords him one last shot in Chicago. He had a horrendous debut (two walks, two Ks, HBP, getting yanked mid-inning) in Sunday’s White Sox spring training opener, but Cactus League stats are a poor way to determine roster decisions; paying attention to how Fulmer looks and feels may end up being more appropriate. Fulmer’s cloudy future should be an interesting storyline to monitor, though, on a pitching staff lacking drama.


Easy decisions

With a 26-man roster taking effect in 2020, the White Sox will begin the season with eight relievers. Roster churn will bring a lot of new faces through Chicago during the course of the years, but the group likely to open the season won’t feature many surprises. The southpaw-hungry pen gives 26-year-old Jace Fry an easy spot, along with Bummer. Fry is a former third-rounder looking to bounce back in 2020, and controlling his walks will play a significant part in that quest.

Alex Colomé and Kelvin Herrera are back for another spin at the back end of the 2020 bullpen. They are both slated to make real money this year and will likely see high-leverage innings early in the season. Colomé is looking to keep thwarting his ugly peripherals, while Herrera just needs to remain healthy. Steve Cishek was signed as a free agent this offseason, and he should serve as quite an insurance policy for Rick Renteria.

Evan Marshall and Jimmy Cordero will likely receive spots as well. Marshall threw 50 ⅓ innings in 2019 and posted a 2.49 ERA. His walk rate increased, but he didn’t allow homers and kept the ball on the ground for the most part. The organization will pay the 29-year-old $1.1 million in 2020. Cordero was claimed off of waivers during the 2019 campaign and threw 37 ⅓ innings for the White Sox in 2019. The 6´4´´, 220-pounder throws very hard but doesn’t strike out many hitters. The sleeveless man posted a 2.89 ERA and is also out of minor league options, giving him an edge for  the big league roster.


Competition at camp

The White Sox released an extensive list of non-roster invites to spring training that included veteran journeymen along with pitching prospects from their own system. Zack Burdi, Matt Foster, Ian Hamilton and José Ruiz are members of the 40-man roster and the likeliest competition for the final spot on the big league roster. Ruiz has big-time power stuff, and threw 40 innings in Chicago in 2019. He’s not the front-runner for a spot breaking camp, but he’s definitely an option. The 25-year-old posted a 5.36 ERA in the majors.

Burdi was a first round pick in 2016 and is looking to finally crack into the bigs. The fireballer is healthy for the first time in awhile and could join the White Sox at some point during the 2020 season. Hamilton looked like a serious option at this time last year, but battled a facial fracture and injuries sustained in a car collision in 2019. Foster was a 20th round pick in 2016 and was added to the 40-man this offseason after posting a 3.76 ERA in Charlotte last year.

Kodi Medeiros, Drew Anderson, Bryan Mitchell, Jacob Lindgren, Caleb Frare, Brady Lail and Tayron Guerrero are some other arms who have an outside shot at a roster spot. Southpaws Medeiros, Lindgren and Frare have the benefit of being lefties, in somewhat high demand in the White Sox system. Mitchell, Anderson and Lail all have big league experience, and while they are more likely to pitch for the Knights than the White Sox, they still qualify as options. Guerrero throws extremely hard, but his peripherals leave much to be desired and is no longer a member of the 40-man.


Outside help?

Fulmer has the inside track at a roster spot due to his draft pedigree and option status, but he’s far from a lock. An outside addition via trade or waiver claim should also be considered a possibility in filling that final spot. The White Sox have added non-roster players to the roster prior to Opening Day in the past, and while it could happen again, its unlikely due to the names currently in the mix.

Fulmer’s grip on the final spot is shaky, and there’s a solid chance that his next big league game will be thrown in a different uniform. The ideal situation for the franchise would be someone like Hamilton or Burdi taking the reins and claiming a major league spot.

Who will be the eighth member of the White Sox’s bullpen to start the year? Internally, Ruiz appears to have the best shot at filling that role. From outside the organization, it’s anyone’s guess. The front office has an entire month to sort it out, and this whole exercise may seem futile once we get to March 26.

The biggest surprise would be to have a spring devoid of bullpen surprises.

 

Deep Dive: Charlotte and Birmingham right-handed relievers

Still on top: Despite an incredibly unlucky year in 2019, Ian Hamilton currently ranks highest among all White Sox right-handed bullpen prospects per MLB Pipeline. (Laura Wolff/Charlotte Knights)


“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

Many of the top organizational bullpen arms finished the season with Birmingham and Charlotte this year. Unfortunately, most were either hurt and/or ineffective. Hopefully with a little luck, some of these arms could be fixtures in the White Sox bullpen for years to come.

Ages below are as of April 1, 2020


Charlotte Knights

Ian Hamilton
6´0´´
200 pounds
Age: 24

After two stellar seasons for Washington State University out of the bullpen in which he saved 28 games, Hamilton struggled with a 4.86 ERA and 1.47 WHIP when the Cougars converted him to a starter in 2016. As a result, he was available in the 11th round when the White Sox gladly snatched him up in that year’s MLB draft. He combined later that year with the AZL White Sox and Kannapolis for a 3.58 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and eight saves in 22 relief outings.

The 2017 season saw Hamilton excel with Winston-Salem in 30 relief outings (1.71 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, .179 OBA, 4.1 BB% and 26.5 K%) although he did struggle with Birmingham (5.21 ERA, 1.79 WHIP, .317 OBA, 8.7 BB% and 23.9 K%). However, he bounced back in a big way in 2018 and performed consistently well for both Birmingham and Charlotte in 43 games totaling 51 1/3 innings. With both squads, Hamilton combined to post a 1.74 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 22 saves while allowing just 38 hits (.204 OBA) and 16 walks (7.8%) while fanning 62 hitters (30.1%). He even entered 10 games for the White Sox in 2018 and did a respectable job with a 4.50 ERA and 1.00 WHIP, as he surrendered just six hits and two walks while fanning five in his eight innings.

The 2019 season wasn’t kind for the Revolutionary Quartet of Hamilton, Ryan Burr, Spencer Adams and Jon Jay as they all missed significant time due to injury. Hamilton may well have been the unluckiest of the bunch, as he injured his shoulder in a car accident during spring training. As a result of that injury, he struggled badly and was demoted to Charlotte to begin the season. After an ugly 1 1/2 months when he posted a 9.92 ERA and 1.90 WHIP over 16 1/3 innings, Hamilton was struck in the face by a liner that made its way into the dugout. Ultimately, Hamilton needed multiple season-ending surgeries to reconstruct his fractured jaw.

Even though Hamilton got roughed up in the International League (largely because of his shoulder injury), he still threw strikes (3.8 BB%, 25.6%). He currently has the highest ranking of all White Sox right-handed bullpen prospects (16th) according to MLB Pipeline. His fastball is graded at 70 by MLB Pipeline as it typically runs mid-90s, and it has reached triple digits with heavy sinking action. His 60-grade slider runs 87-90 mph, and he also offers a 45-grade changeup which helps neutralize lefties when it’s on. Hamilton will likely remain on the 40-man roster and could find his way back onto the White Sox active roster if he has an excellent spring training.

Matt Foster
6´0´´
205 pounds
Age: 25

After starting for two seasons and performing well with Gulf Coast C.C. (Panama City, Fla.), Foster transferred to the University of Alabama and was immediately converted to reliever. In 25 innings for the Crimson Tide spanning 40 innings, he compiled a 2.93 ERA and 1.23 WHIP by allowing just 33 hits (.231 OBA) and 16 walks (9.6%) as opposed to 49 strikeouts (29.5%). Despite his gaudy stats and good stuff, Foster fell to the White Sox in the 20th round of the 2016 draft. He made an immediate impact with the AZL White Sox and Great Falls later that year, as he combined with both teams to produce a 0.61 ERA, 0.64 WHIP and 11 saves by relinquishing just 12 hits and seven walks while fanning 41 in 29 2/3 innings.

The 2017 season saw Foster dominate for Kannapolis and Winston-Salem, as he saved seven games while posting a combined 1.30 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, .168 OBA, 4.9% and 32.0% in 27 2/3 innings — all after a brief, self-imposed retirement for undisclosed reasons. Foster returned to the Dash to begin the 2018 season but struggled a bit with his promotion to Birmingham. Overall for 2018, Foster’s combined numbers were still quite good as he compiled a 3.30 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and eight saves over 60 innings by surrendering 58 hits (.258 OBA) and 20 walks (8.1%) while striking out 70 (28.2%).

After sailing through 9 2/3 innings and allowing just three hits and two walks while fanning 12 hitters with Birmingham, Foster received an early promotion to Charlotte. While his numbers weren’t up to his usual extraordinary standards, they were still quite good especially when considering the “active” Triple-A/MLB baseball he pitched with. In 37 games for the Knights encompassing 55 innings, he posted a 3.76 ERA and 1.18 WHIP by relinquishing 46 hits (.229 OBA) and 19 walks (8.5%) while striking out 62 (27.7%).

According to FutureSox, Foster’s three-pitch repertoire includes a 90-95 mph fastball, a sharp 82-85 mph slider and a changeup to help stifle lefties. He will be eligible for the upcoming Rule 5 draft, unless the White Sox add him to the 40-man roster beforehand. Because of his success, good stuff and control, Foster may have an outside chance of winning a roster spot in spring training if unselected in the draft..

Juan Minaya
6´4´´
210 pounds
Age: 29

Minaya, a native of the Dominican Republic, signed an international deal with the Houston Astros all the way back in 2009. After struggling for a couple seasons in the low minors, he was converted to reliever in 2011. After a long, slow climb up the Astros system, he finally reached Triple-A Fresno in both 2015 and 2016. When the Astros placed Minaya on waivers in June 2016, the White Sox quickly snatched him up. After pitching 17 games for Charlotte, he earned was promoted on Sept. 1, 2016 and held his own with the White Sox for 11 relief outings.

The 2017 season was a rollercoaster for Minaya, as he split time with Charlotte and the White Sox. After struggling on the South Side for the first half of the season, he closed the season strong — especially after David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle were traded to the Yankees at the July trade deadline. For the year, Minaya posted a 4.53 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and nine saves in 40 games (43 2/3 innings) as he ceded 38 hits (.239 OBA) and 20 walks (10.9%) while fanning 51 (27.7%). Minaya again split time between Charlotte and Chicago during the 2018 campaign; in 52 outings for the White Sox totaling 46 2/3 innings, he compiled a 3.28 ERA but unseemly 1.46 WHIP by allowing 39 hits (.220 OBA) and 29 walks (13.9%) while striking out 58. (27.8%).

The revolving door continued for Minaya in 2019, as after a month in Charlotte, he pitched for the White Sox for more than two months. After getting off to a good start, his control let him down, which prompted a demotion (and removal from the 40-man roster) on July 13. For the White Sox in 22 games totaling 27 2/3 innings, Minaya compiled a 3.90 ERA but 1.55 WHIP by allowing 31 hits (.277 OBA) and 12 walks (9.5%) as opposed to 27 strikeouts (21.4%). For the Knights in 24 games spanning 34 innings, he posted a 3.71 ERA and 1.38 WHIP by allowing 32 hits (.250 OBA) and 15 walks (10.1%) while striking out 41 (27.5%).

With Minaya now off the 40-man roster, he’ll have a difficult climb back to the majors — at least as a member of the White Sox. The team will likely add one or two relievers via trade or free agency, and at least some of the team’s young flamethrower prospects are due to be both good and healthy in 2020.

Zach Thompson
6´7´´
230 pounds
Age: 26

As a three-year starter for Texas-Arlington, Thompson posted adequate results, but not the ones you’d expect from someone of his size and stuff. As a junior for the Mavericks, he posted a 4.64 ERA and 1.48 WHIP over 16 starts (87 innings) as he surrendered 97 hits (.282 OBA) and 32 walks (8.2%) while striking out 62 (15.9%). However, in part because of his stuff and imposing build, Thompson was selected in the fifth round of the 2014 draft.

Over 353 innings in the White Sox system from 2014-17, in which he was primarily a starting pitcher, Thompson combined for a 4.31 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, .258 OBA, 10.1 BB% and 18.9 K%. Finally converted to full-time reliever in 2018, Thompson posted sensational results for both Winston-Salem and Birmingham. In a combined 43 games and 75 1/3 innings, he posted a shiny 1.55 ERA and 1.14 WHIP as he surrendered just 57 hits (.206 OBA) and 29 walks (9.4%) as opposed to 76 strikeouts (24.5%). Many fans were surprised he wasn’t protected prior to last year’s Rule 5 draft, but he went unselected.

After dominating in four outings for Birmingham to start the 2019 season, Thompson received an early promotion to Charlotte but wasn’t able to take advantage of the opportunity. In 41 games spanning 70 1/3 innings for the Knights, he posted a 5.50 ERA and 1.45 WHIP by relinquishing 79 hits (.277 OBA) and 23 walks (7.3%) as opposed to 78 strikeouts (24.9%). He was especially victimized by the gopher ball (15), even though his home numbers (4.75 ERA, 1.46 WHIP) actually bettered his road ones (6.59 ERA, 1.43 WHIP).

Thompson sits 92-95 mph with fastball, and he also features an above-average curveball. Like last year, he will be eligible for the upcoming Rule 5 draft. However, unlike last year, there are no expectations he’ll be selected.

Thyago Vieira
6´2´´
210 pounds
Age: 26

Vieira, a native of Brazil, always has amazed scouts with a fastball that averages 97-100 mph, with a peak of 103 mph. So it’s come as a bit of a surprise that he hasn’t enjoyed terrific success since he signed an international contract with the Seattle Mariners in 2010. After years of falling behind many hitters and walking a lot of them, it finally appeared that Vieira had a breakthrough season with Single-A+ Bakersfield in 2016. That year in 34 games spanning 44 1/3 innings, Vieira posted a solid 2.84 ERA and 1.24 WHIP by allowing 37 hits (.222 OBA) and 18 walks (9.5%) while striking out 53 (28.0%).

The 2017 season saw Vieira spend time with Double-A Arkansas and Triple-A Tacoma, as he combined to pitch 41 games (54 innings) with a 4.00 ERA and 1.30 WHIP. In those combined stints, he ceded 48 hits (.236 OBA) and 22 walks (9.6%) while fanning 46 (20.1%). He even pitched an inning of one-hit ball for the Mariners that year.

Then in November, he was traded to the White Sox for $500,000 in international bonus pool money. Vieira struggled for Charlotte in 2018 with a 5.05 ERA and 1.56 WHIP, but still earned a promotion to Chicago where he posted an unsightly 7.13 ERA and 1.70 WHIP in 16 games. During his 17 2/3 innings for the White Sox last year, he allowed 21 hits (.292 OBA) and nine walks (10.6%) while striking out 15 (17.6%).

Vieira continued to struggle for both Charlotte and the White Sox in 2019. In 37 games and 47 1/3 innings for Charlotte, he compiled a 5.70 ERA and 1.58 WHIP by ceding 53 hits (.288 OBA) and 22 walks (10.3%) while striking out 51 (23.9%). In six outings spanning seven innings for the White Sox, he posted a 9.00 ERA and 2.29 WHIP by allowing 11 hits (.344 OBA) and five walks (9.4%) while fanning eight (15.1%).

Vieira does feature a 50-55 grade curveball, but when he has trouble getting it over the plate, hitters simply gear up for the heater. As a result, he’s giving up more hits and striking out fewer batters than someone with his stuff should allow. Although he’s currently on the 40-man roster, that could change once more players are added to it for Rule 5 protection. If Vieira clears waivers (not a given, because another team surely would try to maximize his stuff), he likely would return to Charlotte for the 2020 season.

Other pitchers who finished the season with Charlotte
The only other right-handed reliever who actually finished the season with Charlotte was Connor Walsh. Walsh, who turns 27 in October, combined with Birmingham and Charlotte this year to post a 5.11 ERA and 1.59 WHIP in 44 games totaling 61 2/3 innings. In that work, he surrendered 61 hits (.256 OBA) and 37 walks (13.0%) while striking out 64 (22.5%). He is eligible for the Rule 5 draft, but likely won’t be selected.


Birmingham Barons

Tyler Johnson
6´2´´
205 pounds
Age: 24

Johnson pitched dominating baseball in his three years with the University of South Carolina. Even though his junior season wasn’t quite as good as his sophomore, it was still worthy of notice. In 19 games spanning 26 innings, Johnson saved 10 games for the SEC powerhouse with a 2.39 ERA and 1.33 WHIP. For the Gamecocks that year, he allowed just 20 hits (.204 OBA) and 15 walks (12.9%) while striking out 40 (34.5%). With stats like these, the White Sox selected him in the fifth round of the 2017 draft.

Johnson split time with Great Falls and Kannapolis in 2017, and despite struggles with control, put up reasonably solid numbers considering he was just completing a long season. In a combined 22 games totaling 25 2/3 innings, he compiled a 3.86 ERA and 1.75 WHIP by relinquishing 26 hits (.263 OBA) and 19 walks (15.7%) while fanning 37 (30.6%). He started hitting many prospect lists after a terrific 2018 with Kannapolis and Winston-Salem, as he combined to post a spectacular 14 saves, 1.40 ERA and 0.88 WHIP over 41 outings. In his 58 innings for both teams, he surrendered just 35 hits (.172 OBA) and 16 walks (7.1%) while striking out a whopping 89 (39.4%).

After missing the first 2 1/2 months of the 2019 season with a lat strain, he pitched in 10 rehab outings with the AZL White Sox and Winston-Salem before finally donning the Birmingham Barons uniform on July 22. In 12 games for the Barons spanning 18 1/3 innings, Johnson posted a respectable 3.44 ERA and 0.87 WHIP by ceding just 10 hits (.154 OBA) and six walks (8.5%) while striking out 23 (32.4%).

MLB Pipeline ranks him 16th among all White Sox prospects, thanks to a 65-grade fastball which runs 92-96 mph but topping at 98. Other pitches in Johnson’s arsenal include a 50-grade slider and 45-grade changeup. Lefties hit only .156 against him while with Birmingham, so the changeup may actually be better than the grade. His control is graded at 50, as he has walked hitters at a 9.5% clip in his three-year professional career. However, his control can be tolerated as long as he maintains his career 35.8% strikeout rate. Because he wasn’t at Birmingham all that long this year, he may return there to begin the year. However, as long as he’s healthy, he’ll have a great chance to earn a promotion to Charlotte relatively early in 2020 and perhaps even a promotion to Chicago by season’s end.

Zack Burdi
6´3´´
205 pounds
Age: 25

Burdi, a native of suburban Downers Grove, excelled in his three years with the Louisville Cardinals. In his junior season, he saved 11 games with a 3.30 ERA and 0.87 WHIP by allowing just 17 hits (.167 OBA) and nine walks (7.7%) while fanning 47 (40.2%). Upon being drafted with the 26th pick in the 2016 MLB draft, Burdi quickly rose from the AZL White Sox to Charlotte. In this whirlwind year for Burdi, he pitched 26 games totaling 38 innings and posted solid 3.32 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. It certainly looked like he’d make it to the White Sox sooner rather than later.

Burdi scuffled a bit with Charlotte in 2017, which wasn’t totally surprising with it being his first full year in professional ball. In 29 games spanning 33 1/3 innings, he compiled a 4.05 ERA and 1.41 WHIP by relinquishing 30 hits (.231 OBA) and 17 walks (11.3%) while striking out 51 (33.8%). Unfortunately for Burdi and the White Sox, he underwent Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss nearly a full season of development. He did get in some rehab action late in the 2018 campaign with the AZL White Sox, but his velocity unsurprisingly wasn’t close to what had been pre-surgery.

This year saw Burdi at Kannapolis and Birmingham, but he struggled with a 6.75 ERA and 1.85 WHIP in 20 outings totaling 22 2/3 innings. He allowed 28 hits (.292 OBA) and 14 walks (12.6%) while fanning 30 (27.0%) in those innings. If you take away a three-game stretch in late May, Burdi’s combined ERA and WHIP would’ve been just 4.50 and 1.61 WHIP. His velocity was actually in the upper-90s when he went on the shelf in late June. This time, surgery was needed to repair a torn tendon in his patella.

MLB Pipeline still ranks Burdi 23rd among White Sox prospects, thanks in part to an 80-grade fastball that typically runs 95-100 mph when he’s on. His slider is considered an out-pitch and is graded 60 by MLB Pipeline, while he also features a plus changeup. Aside from health, control and command are his biggest weaknesses, although those factors should only improve with better health and experience. Burdi is eligible for the upcoming Rule 5 draft, and provided he’s added to the 40-man roster or goes unselected, he should begin the 2020 season with Charlotte.

Codi Heuer
6´5´´
195 pounds
Age: 25

After spending his first two seasons as a reliever with Wichita State, Heuer did reasonably well for the loaded Shockers as a starter during his junior season. In 16 appearances totaling 79 innings, he compiled a 4.31 ERA and 1.36 WHIP by ceding 71 hits (.238 OBA) and 37 walks (10.7%) while striking out 82 (23.6%). The White Sox liked his potential and selected the Montana native in the sixth round of the 2018 draft. Then, in 14 starts for Great Falls to close last season, Heuer scuffled a bit with the Voyagers in posting a 4.74 ERA and 1.66 WHIP in 38 innings. In those innings, he relinquished 49 hits (.310 OBA) and 14 walks (8.0%) while fanning 35 (19.9%).

Heuer was given an aggressive assignment for 2019, as he skipped Kannapolis and began the year with Winston-Salem in a bullpen role. Not only did he do well for the Dash, he was promoted to Birmingham on June 20 and produced equally solid numbers for the Barons as well. As one of the few power righties who was healthy and effective during the entire season, Heuer combined for a 2.39 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 11 saves with both teams. In his 42 appearances totaling 67 2/3 innings, he allowed 59 hits (.234 OBA) and just 15 walks (5.5%) while striking out 65 (23.6%).

As a result of his efforts, Heuer now ranks 24th among all White Sox prospects by MLB Pipeline. His fastball was graded 60 by MLB, as it peaked at 98 mph this year with sinking action; in fact, that sinking action forced hitters to beat the ball on the ground at an incredible 65.1% rate. Other offerings include a 55-grade slider which runs 82-85 mph with some bite, and a 50-grade changeup which helps neutralize lefties. His 50-grade control and command actually could increase to 55 if he can maintain that low walk ratio for another year. Heuer should see significant time at Charlotte in 2020, with a possible chance for promotion to Chicago if he obviously does well.

Alec Hansen
6´7´´
235 pounds
Age: 25

As a member of the Oklahoma Sooners which also included future White Sox pitching farmhands J.B. Olson and Jake Elliott, Hansen was actually considered a candidate for the first overall pick in the 2016 draft. That is, until control issues got the best of him. In 14 appearances (10 starts) in his junior season, he compiled a 5.40 ERA and 1.61 WHIP by relinquishing 44 hits (.228 OBA) and 39 walks (16.2%) while striking out 75 (31.0%) in 51 2/3 innings.

The White Sox, recognizing his vast upside, selected Hansen in the second round of that year’s draft. He immediately paid dividends, as he combined with three teams (AZL, Great Falls and Kannapolis) to post an incredible 1.32 ERA and 0.80 WHIP over 54 2/3 innings by allowing just 24 hits (.133 OBA) and 20 walks (9.7%) while fanning 81 (39.3%) to finish the 2016 campaign.

Hansen enjoyed an incredible 2017 with Kannapolis, Winston-Salem and Birmingham in which he combined for a 2.80 ERA, 1.17 WHIP in 141 1/3 innings as he relinquished 114 hits (.216 OBA) and 51 walks (8.6%) while striking out an amazing 191 hitters (32.4%). Unfortunately, a 2018 spring training forearm injury led to mechanical issues which ultimately impacted his already-tenuous control and command. He lost all semblance of the plate, and walked more than a hitter per inning. He was eventually demoted to Winston-Salem but with similar disappointing results. Overall for this lost season, he posted a 6.31 ERA and 2.01 WHIP over 14 starts; in his 51 1/3 innings, Hansen allowed 44 hits (.242 OBA) and 59 walks (24.0%) while striking out 55 (22.4%).

In nine relief appearances with Winston-Salem to begin 2019, Hansen looked like his old self with a 2.13 ERA, 0.63 WHIP and 44.7 K%. However, Hansen again struggled throwing strikes once he was promoted to Birmingham on May 4. In 30 appearances for the Barons totaling 39 2/3 innings, he compiled a 5.45 ERA and 2.02 WHIP by relinquishing 43 hits (.281 OBA) and 37 walks (19.1%) while striking out 45 (23.2%). Extremely notable is that Hansen did have one start this year for Birmingham and it turned out disastrously: he allowed four earned runs with five walks and a hit while only getting one out.

Has he been battling injuries all this time? Has it been mechanical issues (not uncommon for someone his size) that’s been the culprit, and is he simply rushing his delivery? Is it a lack of confidence, or is he simply trying too hard? Perhaps some combination of all the above.

Despite his struggles, Hansen has enough upside to be ranked 27th among all White Sox prospects according to MLB Pipeline. His fastball is graded 65, thanks to a 94-99 mph fastball with running action A 55-grade curveball, as well as a slider and changeup, complete his repertoire. Hansen is eligible for selection in this year’s Rule 5 draft, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the White Sox avoid adding him to the 40-man roster. Perhaps another team may claim him, but he’d be quite the risk due to his lack of control. If not selected in the Rule 5, Hansen likely will return to Birmingham for the 2020 season.

Danny Dopico
6´2´´
210 pounds
Age: 26

Dopico was a well-traveled collegian, as he pitched his first season for Siena College, his sophomore year with Broward Junior College and his junior season with Florida International University. While he posted fairly pedestrian numbers in his first two college years, Dopico really excelled with Florida International in 27 relief appearances totaling 45 innings. That year, he posted a 1.99 ERA and 0.99 WHIP by allowing 25 hits (.160 OBA) and 20 walks (10.6%) while fanning 57 (30.2%). Upon being drafted in the 11th round by the White Sox in the 2015 draft, he held his own for Great Falls that year with a 4.37 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 37.3 K%.

The 2016-18 seasons saw Dopico pitch primarily for the A-level squads in Kannapolis and Winston-Salem. The 2018 season was the best of them, as he compiled a 2.98 ERA and 1.22 WHIP for the Dash in 32 outings (57 1/3 innings), allowing 44 hits (.211 OBA) and 26 walks (10.8%) while striking out 76 (31.7%). Dopico pitched exclusively for Birmingham this year, and provided better results despite walking more hitters by allowing fewer hits. In 43 appearances for the Barons in 2019 spanning 62 2/3 innings, he posted a 2.59 ERA and 1.13 WHIP by surrendering 36 hits (.168 OBA) and 35 walks (13.5%) as opposed to 73 strikeouts (28.2%).

2080 Baseball grades Dopico’s fastball at 55, as it typically runs 93-95 mph with terrific running action when elevated. He primarily uses a 50-grade slider against righties, while he uses his 55-grade splitter (arguably his best pitch) against lefties. The splitter worked especially well, as lefties only hit .145 against his offerings this year. Despite his splendid numbers, it’s unlikely Dopico will be added to the 40-man roster prior to this year’s Rule 5 draft. If unselected in that draft, Dopico has a good chance of beginning the 2020 season with Charlotte.

Other right-handed relievers who finished the season with Birmingham
Vince Arobio (3.80 ERA, 1.06 WHIP), Luis Martinez (4.26 ERA, 1.29 WHIP) and Mauricio Cabrera (4.50 ERA, 2.06 WHIP).


 

 

2019 Charlotte Knights season recap

Boom town: It was a successful season, with an explosive ending, in Charlotte. (Laura Wolff/Charlotte Knights)


The Knights were overall a much better team than last season, as their hitters took full advantage of the MLB ball in Triple-A. It took until the final day for the Knights to be eliminated from playoff contention, in a 75-64 season.

The International League saw 2,440 home runs this season, compared to 1,555 last year, an 885 home run difference. The Knights went from hitting 103 homers and allowing 113 in 2018 to hitting 208 and allowing 203 in 2019. This really made some hitters look fantastic all across Triple-A, but it honestly did ruin some pitchers as well. Unfortunately, some of those pitchers were on the Sox.

Since the Knights were basically the White Sox bench, I am going to stick with evaluating strictly prospects, so sorry to players like Aaron Bummer, Evan Marshall, and basically the entire Knights outfield that started in Charlotte. Also, if any players started with the Sox and were sent down, sorry, but you also miss the cut.


Started the year with the Knights

A few players started the year with the Knights but did not play that much due to injury, or in one case, a trade. Spencer Adams and Ian Hamilton both had lost seasons due to injury, and seemed to be affected by the new baseball. Adams only threw 18 innings before leaving for the season, and they weren’t good. He lost his starting spot and he pushed himself out of any prospect hype. Hamilton had just an awful year on and off the mound. He missed the beginning of the season due to a car crash. He was not very good when he was on the mound for Charlotte, and then got hurt again off the mound (hit in the face from a foul ball in the dugout, Hamilton required surgery for multiple facial fractures). Jordan Stephens was not good, got hurt, and the Sox just cut him loose, leaving Cleveland to scoop him up off of waivers. Yeah, not great for these three former top prospects.

There was positive movement for Knights prospects as well. Chief among them is Dylan Cease, though his same struggles that have been blatant in MLB were also there in Triple-A. Cease had trouble in the first inning, and usually had one big-run inning, before settling down. He only pitched 68 1/3 innings with a 4.48 ERA, but his stuff is so good that people should believe he will be better next season. Carson Fulmer can be considered in this category still, but I won’t waste much time on him. Fulmer clearly was better this season than any of his other: His strikeout rate was higher and his pitches moved more and faster, but the results aren’t there. Sadly, 2020 might be a last gasp for the former first round pick to make an MLB team (until the Houston Astros or Los Angeles Dodgers get him and turn him into an ace or a high-leverage arm in the bullpen, like they’ll do with Dylan Covey).

Zach Thompson, a reliever, also started the year with the Knights, but he also had a weird cameo in Birmingham, in my opinion, it was for no reason. Thompson struggled mightily in Charlotte, along with multiple other young arms. He had a 5.50 ERA. How? Although his strikeout and walk numbers were fine, Thompson allowed 1.92 HR/9. He is also on the older side and wasn’t selected in the Rule 5 draft last offseason, so the prospect chops on Thompson are probably off.

It was a bit better on the hitting side. There were no season-ending injuries of note, but also not a lot of prospect promotion until September call-ups. Catchers Zack Collins and Seby Zavala both earned promotions before September, but did not inspire while in Chicago. Collins was much better in Triple-A after he was demoted. He finished the MiLB year with a 170 wRC+ with a 16.1% BB-rate and just a 19.9% K-rate, which is fantastic for him. He showed his normal pop and that bump at the end of the season in Charlotte was why he found his way back to the majors in September. Collins has not been overwhelmingly good but his approach is much better. He still needs to swing more often, but that should be work done in the offseason. Zavala had a down year on all counts, and was not even called up for September. His power was good, but the bat-to-ball skills were not as impressive and his K-rate skyrocketed. He could still be in the mix as a catcher for the future, but his prospect shine has definitely decreased. What is saving him is defense, which Collins sorely lacks behind the dish. But with an automated strike zone seemingly on the way, how much will framing matter in the future?

Danny Mendick was one of the rare players on Charlotte who stayed the entire season. Weirdly enough, the MLB ball did not really have a great affect on the utility infielder. His ISO only rose from .148 in 2018 to .166 in 2019, but he put together a solid, not great, season for the Knights nonetheless. Mendick’s batting average rose significantly compared to last season, jumping by 32 points while his plate discipline was still great. The K-rate barely rose, about .2% to just 17.2%, which is a good rate for a contact hitter. Mendick’s walk rate also rose, this time about 1% to 11.8%, which is good especially because it rose from his Double-A rates. Mendick probably does not have the hitting and defensive potential to be an everyday MLB starter, which may be why he stayed in Charlotte the entire season when older players like Ryan Goins got promotions instead of him. Nevertheless, Mendick has had some success with the Sox since his September promotion. It seems to be down to him or Yolmer Sánchez for the 2020 backup infield position.


The Promoted Players

This is where the fun begins, as Anakin Skywalker would say. The prospects who were promoted to Charlotte are far and away the best of the bunch, as well as a couple notable lower prospects as well. But let’s start with the best of them, Luis Robert.

Robert is an elite talent and has prospect rankings that show it. He is the No. 3 overall prospect from Baseball America, 19th on FanGraphs, and fifth on MLB Pipeline. Across all three levels, Robert slashed .328/.376/.624 with 32 home runs and 36 stolen bases. He showed just about every single tool a player could; he even had seven outfield assists from center field and played a part in two double plays, and we have all seen videos like the one below of him flying and diving for a catch.

While we all know Robert’s strengths, and the videos and stats confirm how great he is, he does have things to work on. The ability to walk has become very important to White Sox fans lately, and it does not seem like Robert will help that much. He walked in about 5% of his plate appearances and had a K-rate around 23%. That plate discipline isn’t great, but he really wasn’t challenged much in MiLB so his approach could change. If it does not, he could be in for a very slow start for his MLB career.

The other top guy to be promoted was 2018 first round selection Nick Madrigal. Like Robert he also had two promotions this season, and slashed .311/.377/.414 among the three levels. Madrigal didn’t show much power, but he did at least hit homers this season — four in total, but power will never be a part of his game. Madrigal is a slappy hitter who does have the ability to drive the ball into the gaps. That’s why he had 27 doubles and five triples this year, but BABIP will be an important indicator of his success at the plate. Madrigal also had 35 stolen bases in 2019. But the real calling card for Madrigal is his defense, and for a team that generally doesn’t have very good infield defense, his fielding ability is important. Errors aren’t everything, especially in the infield, but Madrigal only committed four in 932 1/3 innings at second base. Outlets like MLB Pipeline have also surmised that he could be a Gold Glove second baseman once he arrives in Chicago.

The other three promoted players of note are led by fan favorite Yermín Mercedes. The MLB ball certainly agreed with his bat, as Mercedes’ ISO from Double-A at .170 rose to .337 in Triple-A. He hit better than .300 at both levels and also had a BB-rate of more than 10% as well. Mercedes strikes out at a good rate, but good things always seemed to happen when he got the barrel of the bat on the ball. His hit tool seems to be undeniable at this point, but Mercedes has no position. He has been placed at catcher for most of his career, but is not a very good one. He is not athletic enough to move to other positions, and probably is not tall enough to be a first baseman. Mercedes did not get the call for more at-bats in Chicago this season, so the organization does not seem too keen on his abilities, but his bat does seem to be legit. He just needs a chance to show he belongs on a roster somewhere.

The other two are both relievers, Matt Foster and Hunter Schryver. Foster started in Birmingham and left fairly quickly, after 9 2/3 shutout innings. With the Knights, the MLB ball did seem to take a toll on Foster because of a professional high of 1.47 HR/9, but he still had a 3.76 ERA. Foster has a mid- to high-90s fastball, and did have good strikeout numbers (27.7%) and a fine walk rate (8.5%). Schyver also started in Birmingham, and stayed a bit longer. The ball seemed to really affect him. With the Barons, Schyver went from a 2.77 ERA in Birmingham with .37 HR/9 and an 8.5% BB-rate. In his 13 1/3 innings, his walk rate rose to 17.4%, the HR/9 went up to 1.32, and he had an 8.56 ERA. It was a disaster, but the lefty is still somebody to watch; he just needs to get used to the new ball.


Triple-A has become a more important stepping-stone MiLB level because of the different baseball. It made a lot of pitchers worse, and made some hitters look fantastic. It is still too early to decide what improvements or bad performances are simply due to the ball, but the Knights did take enough of an advantage to be in a playoff hunt until the last day. And hey, Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal looked great while on the cusp of the majors, which is probably the best takeaway of the season.