The most exciting White Sox farm team, both before and after key promotions
The White Sox were in the middle of a long road trip at the time Nick Madrigal signed his contract, so the organization couldn’t give him the usual first-round fanfare during the summer.
Madrigal’s introduction had to wait until Monday, when he talked to reporters in person, met potential future teammates and threw out the first pitch before the Sox’ 4-0 loss to the Indians. On the field, the Sox invited Madrigal to hurry it the hell up by striking out 15 times.
When Our Man in North Carolina talked to Madrigal at Winston-Salem in late July, he showed an unerring discipline with his words, avoiding saying anything that could be construed as self-serving. The same could be said of his performance with the media at Guaranteed Rate Field:
Discussing unseating anyone would require Madrigal to talk about himself over the team, which is something he doesn’t even do when asked about his own season.
“It would have been a lot better if we had won some games there at the end,” Madrigal said, bemoaning the Dash’s short playoff run. “We got bounced in the first three games. I was only with Winston-Salem half a year, for the guys there for full-season, it was tough for them. I wish we had done better for those guys.”
As for the 2018 Winston-Salem Dash, indeed, their magical season came to a crashing halt in September. They won both halves in the Carolina League’s Southern Division, finishing with a record of 84-54. They beat out the Buies Creek Astros both times, but the Astros got their revenge by unceremoniously sweeping the Dash out of the semifinals.
The Dash had a lot of fun under the direction of first-year manager Omar Vizquel. Offensively, they led the league in runs per game (5.15), average (.273), doubles (263), triples (44), slugging percentage (.414) and OPS (.756), which was plenty enough support for a pitching staff that lost some its star power in the second half and still finished in the top half of the league in runs allowed (4.17 per game). Dylan Cease, Bernardo Flores and Jimmy Lambert all earned promotions to Birmingham.
Of course, the Dash also lost their share of hitters, with Luis Basabe, Joel Booker and Alex Call all heading to Double-A. The Sox had replacements ready, giving all of that production a league-average age. This is what a strong farm system looks like.
Here’s how the Dash compared to the league:
- Dash hitters: 22.3 years, .273/.341/.414, 8.2% BB, 20.5% K
- Dash pitchers: 23.5 years, 4.31 RA/9, 8.4% BB, 22.0% K
- Carolina League: 22.4/.23.1 years, 4.49 RA/9, .249/.328/.371, 9.3% BB, 21.5% K
The Dash were also aggressive-to-reckless in the basestealing department under Vizquel, succeeding on just 121 of their 199 attempts (60.8 percent). However, a good chunk of the league ran like the dickens. Wilmington swiped 184 bags at a 75 percent clip. Buies Creek also beat the Dash in total steals (155), but with a more Winston-like success rate (62 percent).
*Alec Hansen spent the first half of the season battling a forearm issue he’d previously weathered in high school, and the second half of the season battling massive control problems and delivery issues that surfaced during his junior year in Oklahoma. He walked 59 batters over 51⅓ innings between Birmingham and Winston-Salem, returning to the lower level at the end of the season to try to regain his mojo. Aside from a few more strikeouts in High-A, it turned out to be a lost year all around. The hope is that 1) he stays healthy, which 2) will allow him to undergo a normal throwing program and schedule to maintain his progress, should he recover it
*Lincoln Henzman converted to the rotation after closing for Louisville, and it went well. Perhaps a little too well. The Sox had to slow down the workload of their fourth-round pick from the 2017 draft. Henzman was on pace for a 150-inning season while spending the first half of the season at Kannapolis. His performance there (2.23 ERA, 60 strikeouts to eight walks over 72⅔ innings) warranted a promotion to Winston-Salem, where the Sox limited him to three innings per start until a slight ramp-up to four and five innings during his two September outings. James Fegan wrote a good summary of Henzman’s season, after which maintaining leverage from the stretch and “killing” his changeup are priorities for improvement after so-so peripherals in the Carolina League.
*Tyler Johnson, a closer at South Carolina who remained a closer in pro ball after the Sox selected him a round after Henzman, was too good for A-ball. He posted a 1.40 ERA with 89 strikeouts to 16 walks over 58 innings split between Kannapolis and Winston-Salem. The fastball and changeup are terrific. His slider can use more depth, but he should be playing trial-and-error with it against the Southern League.
*Blake Battenfield, a 17th-round pick out of Oklahoma State, also spent the first half of the season punching below his weight class at Kannapolis. Winston-Salem gave him more of a test, as his strikeout rate dropped and his home run rate surged, allowing 10 of them over 53⅓ innings. That might be a byproduct of living up in the zone with fastball carry, which is a harder line to manage when topping out in the low-90s, especially in a ballpark that affords home-run opportunities.
*Luis Robert was supposed to start the year in Winston-Salem, but a thumb injury knocked his Dash debut back to late-June. Then he aggravated his thumb injury in early July and didn’t get done rehabbing until the first week of August. The result was an underwhelming season at Winston-Salem — .244/.317/.309 over 140 plate appearances with no homers, not even during any of his 68 rehab PAs. It’s easy to trace the lack of power to a hand injury, and it’s logical to trace overaggression in the batter’s box to all of the idle time. The rest of the tools held up. He’ll get a chance to catch up on reps in the Arizona Fall League.
*Nick Madrigal had no problems putting bat to ball at the professional levels. He struck out just five times over 173 plate appearances. If you disregard what he did at lower levels, then he hit .306/.355/.347 with seven doubles, seven walks and all five of those strikeouts over 107 PAs at Winston-Salem. The lack of power doesn’t quite rise to a level of “concern” during a long season that included a wrist fracture, but it’s something to pay attention to come May. He only played second base at Kannapolis and Winston-Salem, but it sounds like they’re still keeping shortstop open as a possibility.
*Micker Adolfo managed his torn UCL remarkably well. Limited to DH duties after injuring his right elbow in spring training, he hit .282/.369/.464 with 11 homers, 18 doubles and big improvements in his walk (10.1 percent) and strikeout (27.4 percent) rates over 79 games. Adolfo probably could’ve lasted the whole season like that, but the White Sox put him on a throwing program in July to see whether he could avoid the operating table, and the answer was “no.” He underwent Tommy John surgery in mid-July, and the White Sox hope he’ll be back in affiliated ball by the start of May.
*Blake Rutherford made strides in his first year at High-A, batting .293/.345/.436 with 34 walks to 90 strikeouts over 115 games. He hit more homers with the Dash (7) than he did in his entire professional career to date entering the season (5), and tacked on 25 doubles and nine triples as well. He probably hasn’t done enough to reclaim top-100 status, especially since his stolen-base output (15-for-23) is a reflection of Vizquel’s style than any notable skill, and he slugged 100 points better at home, .488 to .388. The Sox have maintained that Rutherford’s quality of contact isn’t the problem, but it’s how he directs it. That remains to be seen, but at least he’s going in the right direction overall after a tough 2017.
*Luis Gonzalez was the biggest victim of the outfield logjam at Winston-Salem, having to bide his time at Kannapolis for 55 games despite being too good for the level. Credit him for not letting up, as he hit .300/.358/.491 at the top of the Intimidators order. Also credit him for improving in just about every facet once he finally got promoted to Winston-Salem. he hit .313/.376/.504 over 62 games, even though Robert bumped him out of center field. More importantly, he cut his strikeout six points after the promotion (22.4 to 16 percent) while nudging his walk rate (8.2 to 9.4 percent). He also hit a whopping 40 doubles over 117 games between the two levels. Entering the season, I felt better about his prospects than those of the two players picked ahead of him, and maybe that gut reaction was more than corner-bat fatigue.
*Gavin Sheets was one of those players selected ahead of Gonzalez in the 2017 draft, and he struggled to distinguish himself. Remember our concerns about Rutherford’s power? Rutherford outhomered Sheets during the regular season, although Sheets tied him with one in the playoffs. The rest of Sheets’ approach is fine. He hit .293/.367/.407 with 52 walks to just 81 strikeouts over 119 games, and he led the team in doubles with 28 (although Gonzalez would’ve blown away the field had he played more of the year with the Dash). Maybe that doubles power will turn into home run power, but that’s a pressing uncertainty for a big guy who can only play first. Birmingham isn’t any easier in that regard.
*Laz Rivera opened the season looking like a third-day collegiate pick beating up on less experienced competition. Then the 28th-round pick from 2017 kept looking like that. After 63 games of .346/.395/.502 hitting at Kannapolis, he forced his way into Winston-Salem’s infield, where he kicked Yeyson Yrizarri off shortstop. He held his own with the Dash, outhomering Sheets 7-6 (and 8-7 when including the postseason) despite the partial season and hitting .280/.325/.458. The walk-to-strikeout gap is Rivera’s biggest obstacle, as he drew just 13 walks to 92 strikeouts over 515 plate appearances. The 23 HBPs buoyed his OBP, but it’s something upper-level pitchers could easily exploit without improvement. Like Robert, he’ll also get a good test in the AFL.
*Ti’Quan Forbes, a second-round pick of the Rangers back in 2014 based on pure projection, finally turned a tool into production in his fifth pro season. Forbes hit .273/.313/.391 in his first full go-around in the Sox organization, which acquired him in the Miguel Gonzalez trade. The batting average was a career high, fueled by an 11-point drop in his strikeout rate. There isn’t a whole lot else going for him right now — he was 4-for-13 stealing bases, had an .898 fielding percentage at third base and drew just 21 walks over 462 plate appearances, but at least he brings something to the table now. He’ll have to find another trick in 2019 to maintain the mild intrigue. Also, he matched Sheets in homers during the regular season.