Strikeouts and injuries robbed the White Sox' Double-A affiliate of its true potential, but some prospects still had big breakouts
The bad kind of strikeouts has defined the Chicago White Sox this season at the major-league level, and they were also a plague in Birmingham. The Barons led the Southern League with 1,346 K’s, which is nearly 300 more than the average between the other nine Southern League teams.
Some of these strikeouts were for good reason, like a 21-year-old Luis Basabe getting challenged by a midseason promotion before getting a handle on making contact toward the of the season. Some of these strikeouts were for worrisome reasons, like Zack Collins’ performance drifting the other direction. Some of these strikeouts were due to Keon Barnum.
Between the whiffs by hitters and injuries to the pitching staff, the Barons were less than the sum of their parts. They finished with a record of 66-72 despite a compelling list of prospects throughout the year. The good news? They were age-appropriate on both sides of the ball, so there’s growth potential in here.
Here’s how the Barons compared to the league:
- Barons hitters: 23.6 years, .239/.319/.377, 9.4% BB, 26.4% K,
- Barons pitchers: 24.5 years, 4.59 RA/9, 8.8% BB, 22% K
- Southern League: 23.9/24.3 years, 4.46 RA/9, 9.2% BB, 23% K
The hope is that Birmingham gets the same collective boost Winston-Salem enjoyed as the clot of outfielders travels upstream.
*Dylan Cease had the best year of any White Sox prospect when it comes to both pure performance and surpassing expectations. Entering the season with concerns about his durability, he surpassed 100 innings for the first time in his career, and with easy. He hit 124 before the Sox shut him down with a start to go. He was excellent at Winston-Salem (2.89 ERA, 82 strikeouts to 28 walks over 71⅔ innings), and improved in all facets at Birmingham (1.72 ERA, 78 strikeouts to 22 walks over 52⅓ innings). Baseball America ranked him the top prospect in the Carolina League, and the third-best prospect in the Southern League, with “the best fastball and quickest arm.” Potential areas for improvement: Fastball command through a start, and throwing curveballs for strikes as well as a chase pitch. It’s impressive and ironic that he’s the only one of the top pitching prospects to make it through the season unscathed.
*Dane Dunning was among those who couldn’t make it through the season in full working order. After starting in the Carolina League for unclear reasons, he made the jump to Birmingham in late April and had good starts more often than not. His biggest problem from 2017 (home run rate) did not follow him into 2018 (two homers over 86⅓ innings), including none over 62 innings with Birmingham. His walk rate crept upward (8.8 percent), but he maintained an above-average strikeout rate despite it, and his control was improving as the calendar turned to June. Unfortunately, a sprained elbow ended a promising season on June 23. He’s avoided surgery for now, but until he starts throwing in games again, it’s hard to say he’s in the clear.
*Jimmy Lambert replaced Dunning on the Barons roster, a move he deserved after going six or more innings in eight of his last nine starts with Winston-Salem. He capped off the Dash segment of his season with a pair of eight-inning gems, and carried that success up to Double-A. He threw three strong outings in four tries — including a seven-inning, one-out, 10-strikeout performance on July 14 — before an oblique strain the following start ended his season. Before the injury, James Fegan described a pitcher who had added velocity while filling out physically, and also found a bread-and-butter secondary pitch. The fifth-round pick from the 2016 draft looked like a potential sleeper candidate, but ended up falling short of 100 innings.
*Bernardo Flores, on the other hand, picked a good time for a fully healthy season, as the injuries above him gave him a path to advancement. The Dash called him “Mr. Quality Start” for his dependability, and he ended up finishing second in the farm system for innings (156), which were split evenly between Birmingham and Winston-Salem without much of a difference in performance. The hang-up is that his ERA (2.65) isn’t supported by peripherals. He struck out just 105 batters, and he doesn’t get a ton of grounders (just over 50 percent). He’s more of a pitchability guy at this point, and it’s difficult to know how that will translate. His left-handedness helps, and his lanky frame gives hope that he could get stronger.
*Kodi Medeiros came over from the Brewers organization in the Joakim Soria trade as a former first-round pick on track to fall short of his ceiling as a starter. He maintained the inconsistency over his seven starts with the Barons — three good outings, three poor ones, and one abbreviated by rain. Walks clumped up on him, as he issued 22 over 34⅓ innings. I imagine the White Sox might want a little more time to work with him before deciding on a role change, especially since they’re brimming with in-house lefty relievers already.
*Zach Thompson, selected in the fifth round back in 2014 as a projectable 6-foot-7-inch starter, shifted to the bullpen in the middle of last season, and he thrived in the full-time arrangement in 2018. He posted a 1.55 ERA over 75⅓ innings, with 76 strikeouts to 29 walks and 57 hits. He got promoted to Birmingham in mid-June and fared just as well. If you’re wondering about luck, that’s a good question. Eight unearned runs shave nearly a full run off his ERA, and he stranded 89 percent of his runners in Double-A, which is unlikely to happen again. The Arizona Fall League will be a good test for him, and it could make him marketable if he survives, as he’s Rule 5 eligible.
*Ian Clarkin had a rough go of it. He had a 6.29 ERA in the Barons rotation — and that included two strong starts to open the season — before one of his frequent injuries took a month out of his season. He resurfaced in Winston-Salem’s bullpen, and the Sox limited him to relief work the rest of the year. He fared well enough in that role — .603 OPS allowed, 1.95 ERA over 13 games and 28⅔ innings — but he’s still more of a groundballer than a bat-misser. He’s on the 40-man roster, but it’s hard to see daylight with all the lefty relievers in the system.
*Luis Basabe is Cease’s equivalent among non-pitchers. After a down year with Winston-Salem that diminished his prospect stock in 2017, he restored it with a strong performance that included a promotion to Birmingham and a starring role in the Futures Game. He was biggest extra-base threat in the Dash lineup (12 doubles, five triples, nine homers in 58 games), finishing with a .266/.370/.502 performance before a promotion to Birmingham. Double-A (and Regions Field) tested him on the whole, but a strong close to the season (.317/.391/.467 over his last 16 games) hints at improvement to come. He played in 119 games and ran freely, if not effectively (16-for-28), so it appears the knee problems that hindered him a year ago are behind him.
*Zack Collins looked like he turned a corner in May. After struggling with his hit tool for most of his pro career, he finally started capitalizing on his highly touted combination of patience and power. At the end of that month, he could point to a 34-game stretch where he hit .345/.516/.575, which coincided with Collins saying he returned to his Miami approach, as well as Eloy Jimenez on the same roster. From June through the end of the season, Collins looked like his old self — .213/.331/.369, 104 strikeouts over 325 plate appearances. BA’s write-up in their Southern League review hits on all the familiar themes, calling Collins “the league’s Three True Outcomes king,” saying the hitch is still there, and saying his motions behind the plate aren’t good enough to stay there. If a move to first is in his future, the depth chart can accommodate it. Here’s a fact I don’t know what to do with: Collins was 5-for-5 stealing bases.
*Alex Call lost just about all of 2017 to a chest muscle strain, and he made up for lost time in 2018, earning a promotion to Birmingham for the last 67 games of his season. He hit .248/.345/.415 between the two levels, with an OPS 50 points higher at Winston-Salem. He swung and missed more at Double-A, which is to be expected, but he hit more homers at Birmingham than Winston-Salem (7 to 5), which isn’t easy to do even with 11 more games. It’s a well-rounded assortment of skills, but if he’s more of a corner guy who can play center in a pinch, it’s difficult to tell what could distinguish him among a bunch of outfielders with carrying tools.
*Joel Booker also escaped the Winston-Salem logjam for extended time in Birmingham after hitting .297/.389/.469 over 53 games with the Dash. It was a great performance for a 22nd rounder, but being 24 took some of the shine off it. He needed to be bested, and Birmingham tested him. He hit .266/.338/.348, with his strikeout rate jumping from 19 to 25 percent, and while he’s got speed, he doesn’t use it particularly well (26-for-43 stealing bases). He can play center, although Basabe crowded him out of it at Birmingham. The glut of outfielders could consume him again as guys like Luis Gonzalez, Blake Rutherford and Micker Adolfo make their way up.
*Danny Mendick kinda occupies the spot in my brain for “overachieving Day 3 middle infielder” that others might be devoting to Laz Rivera down in Winston-Salem. The everyday shortstop hit .247/.340/.395 with 25 doubles, 14 homers, 20 steals (in 30 attempts) and a respectable 57 walks to 90 strikeouts over 529 plate appearances. It’s really not bad for a 24-year-old drafted in the 22nd round back in 2015. He’s much better against lefties (.406 OBP, more walks than strikeouts), and that lopsidedness is either a fatal flaw or a positive trait for a bench player. He’s eligible for the Rule 5 draft, and I’m guessing he won’t be protected since Jose Rondon is younger and covers the same ground, but he’s not a bad guy to have in the system.
*Jameson Fisher spent the entire year in Double-A due to the aforementioned logjam in Winston-Salem and hit .216/.321/.321 over 97 games. He didn’t really distinguish himself as a 23-year-old in A-ball the year before, so that’s probably why he hung out to dry a level up, as counterintuitive as that may seem.
- 2018 Winston-Salem Dash
- 2018 Kannapolis Intimidators
- 2018 Great Falls Voyagers
- 2018 AZL White Sox
- 2018 DSL White Sox