2010 was an eventful season for White Sox prospects. Injuries slowed Trayce Thompson and Josh Phegley, and halted 2009 top pick Jared Mitchell. AAA proved to be a difficult hurdle for catcher heir apparent Tyler Flowers and completely derailed C.J. Retherford. But not all the eventful was negative. Sergio Santos completed a transformation from infielder to legitimate major league reliever in less than a calendar year. And 2010 top pick Chris Sale completed a transformation from collegiate starter to high leverage major league reliever in less than four months.
And then there was the more mundane progress that is the bedrock of player development. Daniel Hudson continued his progress towards a potential #2 starter - and was treated to the inevitable Kenny Williams trade out of the organization. Dayan Viciedo put a subpar year at AA behind him and put up a more acceptable line between AAA and the majors. And Brent Morel went from AA to starting third baseman for the White Sox.
The White Sox minor league system is still quite poor. The lack of depth is alarming, particularly in pitching. Their prospects have more question marks, earlier on the list than probably any other organization. After #5, you can toss a dozen players in a bowl and randomly pick them and have a perfectly defensible list. On that happy note, let's get to the list.
1. Chris Sale, LHP. 2010 MLB line: 23.1 IP, 15 H, 10 BB, 32 K. If Williams had his way, this would be how every draft pick progressed. Gordon Beckham set a pretty high bar with his year to the majors. Sale smashed through that with two months to the majors. The question now for the instant gratification GM is whether he will stick to his avowed plan of returning the lanky lefty to a starting role - in which most observers see a potential #2 starter - and the return to the minors that comes with it, or if the allure of a potential closer (and the fan and media pressure that comes with that) will prove to be too much. Sale certainly has the makings of a very good starter. His fastball is obviously a plus pitch and both his slider and changeup are good, as well. And he's shown that he can be effective against both righties and lefties. ETA: Already arrived, but will he stay? There currently isn't a MLB rotation spot available and, anyway, it's unlikely that he'd be ready to step into that role immediately. An arm like his certainly has a place in the bullpen. While it's probably the wrong answer long-term - pitchers with his potential are far more valuable as starters - I think it's more likely the win-now White Sox lack the patience to develop him as a starter.
2. Brent Morel, 3B. 2010 MiLB line: Birmingham/Charlotte: .322/.359/.480; MLB line: .231/.271/.415. If I was certain Sale would be a reliever, the value hit commensurate with that role may well have elevated Morel to the top spot. Setting aside the rhetorical necessity of a 1-10 ranking, Morel projects to be an average to slightly above third baseman. His defense, as I think most have realized by now, is his plus tool and from where much of his value will be derived. He hasn't shown much ability to draw a walk so his contact skills will drive much of his offensive value. While some think he'll develop more power - and his 3 home runs after his call-up lends support to that position - others still think he's more of a 15 home run per season guy. ETA: Also already arrived and here to stay. Your 2011 opening day third baseman.
3. Jared Mitchell, OF. 2010 MiLB line: injured. At this point, most prospect mavens would dock Mitchell for missing almost an entire year of development. That argument rests largely on two things: he's a raw player who very much needs repetitions to reach his potential and the ankle injury may result in a loss of speed, one of his primary tools. My opinion of Mitchell remains unchanged from last year largely because I don't know what effect the injury will have. Sure, he's lost a season but, at his age (22), that really doesn't concern me all that much. And I'll wait to actually see if he has indeed lost a step. He's healthy now, played regularly in the Instructional League and is currently playing in the Arizona Fall League. That should answer a lot of the questions. But I think the upside of an elite CF with good power, plus speed, plus plate discipline and plus defense hasn't changed. ETA: Late 2012. The injury likely does push back his expected arrival. Birmingham is a possibility to start 2011 but a couple months in Winston-Salem is by no means out of the question.
4. Dayan Viciedo, 1B/DH. MiLB line: Charlotte: .274/.308/.493. MLB line: .308/.321/.519. After getting a mulligan from me for 2009, he began to show some of the skills the White Sox saw in him when they signed him. While he still simply does not take walks - infamously going 82 at-bats before getting one in the majors - his bat speed is tremendous and his batting practice power in 2009 translated into game power in 2010. He also has pretty good contact skills and, when he does make contact, it's often hard contact. He particularly punishes lefties. Without some plate discipline, however, it's hard to see him becoming an above average player, especially if he's limited defensively to 1B. A rumored move to the outfield could prove interesting. But whether - and how much - he refines his offensive approach will dictate his ceiling. ETA: Already here, but may be headed back to Charlotte for a bit. Morel's performance/Viciedo's ineptitude has closed off 3B and offseason moves will determine what is happening with 1B and DH. The White Sox appear to recognize that he needs regular at-bats to improve so I wouldn't expect to see him opening day unless he's been handed a starting role.
5. Tyler Flowers, C. 2010 MiLB line: Charlotte: .220/.334/.434. We come to the mystery. First, what happened to his offense? The simple answer is lack of contact. A 35% strikeout rate isn't a good thing. But getting at the root cause is the key. Early in the season, there was discussion that an enforced change to his swing mechanics was the problem. Supposedly that was resolved by June - and he continued to not hit well. From watching video, his swing now looks longer than it did with Birmingham, potentially resulting in a greater susceptibility to fastballs. The second question is, what happened to his defense? After last season, Flowers received rave reviews for his improvements on defense. This season, all we heard was how his defense had regressed. It seems more likely to me that his defense hasn't really changed much but its perception was colored by his offensive output in each season. ETA: Mid 2011. It's hard to get a read on the thoughts of the organization on him. His lack of playing time in September makes one think they're down on him and it's certainly hard to hand a roster spot to an offense-first catcher with his line in AAA. He's probably going back to Charlotte for at least a few months, where he'll need to show more than he did in 2010.
6. Trayce Thompson, OF. 2010 MiLB line: Kannapolis: .229/.302/.433. And now we come to the morass. After Flowers, it's really pick your marginal prospect. So, lottery ticket anyone? Thompson has just about all the tools, resulting in arguably the highest upside of anyone in the organization but, as such things go, he's also the furthest from it. The 19 year old's stat line looks pretty ugly but, even allowing for the broken right thumb which limited him to just 58 games, it counts as progress. He cut his strikeout rate from Rookie Ball from 38.5% down to 33%, suggesting he's made progress in strike zone recognition and perhaps in shortening his long swing. He also showed signs of developing his raw power. All that said, he needs to make big improvements in every aspect of his game. ETA: 2014. He's going back to Kannapolis to start the year and, assuming some progress, will see Winston-Salem before it's over.
7. Gregory Infante, RHP. 2010 MiLB line: Winston-Salem/Birmingham: 60 IP, 55 H, 27 BB, 69 K. After pitching as a starter for his entire career, the 23 year old Venezuelan moved to the bullpen this season and the results were very good. A classic Kenny Williams hard-thrower, it wasn't a big surprise when the White Sox rewarded him with a September call-up. The righty has late inning potential with a very nice fastball that gets into the upper 90s. His second pitch is a curve that is a plus pitch when he's on. With the Dash and Barons he struck out 10.5 per 9 but also walked 4 per 9. He obviously needs to improve his control a bit and becoming more consistent with his breaking ball would be the best way to do that. ETA: Already here and will be given strong consideration for the opening day bullpen.
8. Eduardo Escobar, SS. 2010 MiLB line: Winston-Salem/Birmingham: .277/.316./.393. Escobar is a 21 year old switch-hitting shortstop out of Venezuela. His glove is fantastic - some argue close to the best at his position in the minors - and it's almost totally based on that skill that he ranks this high. His bat continues to be a work in progress, but progress was indeed made in 2010. His slight frame (probably 170 lbs) shows little projection in the way of power but what little is there he began to develop by increasing his doubles, resulting in a robust .116 ISO for the year. There are still concerns about his strikeouts - guys who don't hit for power should strive to at least make the defense work for outs - but he managed to keep them below the 20% he put up at Kannapolis in 2009 while playing at two higher levels. He's got a high floor - his glove will probably carry him to the majors, at least in a utility role - and a bit more progress with the bat and he could be a glove-first starter. ETA: Late 2012. He'll go back to Birmingham and, depending upon his offensive progress, may see Charlotte later in the season.
9. Jordan Danks, OF. 2010 MiLB line: Charlotte: .245/.312/.373. Over-matched at Charlotte and quickly becoming a non-prospect. He simply has not shown much of anything in 832 plate appearances in the upper minors and his placement on this list is a nod to him being curiously pushed to AAA for 2010, apparently (in another cautionary tale) on the basis of his Arizona Fall League campaign. Danks simply strikes out too much. You can probably count on one hand the players who can get away with a 34% strikeout rate and the powerless Danks isn't one of them. The defensive reports have been very favorable and it's possible that another season in AAA will result in some improvement. But it's difficult to see much more than a utility outfielder at this point. ETA: Late 2011. A return engagement in Charlotte.
10. Andre Rienzo, RHP. 2010 MiLB line: 101 IP, 95 H, 32 BB, 125 K. The 22 year old Brazilian was impressive in his full season debut. A personal favorite who I've followed since his days in the Dominican Summer League, he's always maintained strong strikeout rates and he's developed solid control, as well. The righty has a good fastball that gets into the mid 90s. He'll need to improve his secondary offerings - change and curve - but it's hard to argue with the results so far. ETA: 2014. A long way off, he'll begin 2011 with Winston-Salem.
11. Charlie Leesman, LHP. 2010 MiLB line: 148.1 IP, 145 H, 64 BB, 90K . The 23 year old lefty was pretty bad for Winston-Salem (84.2 IP, 98 H, 44 BB, 39 K). But obviously this was an instance where the numbers didn't tell the story. Upon his promotion to Birmingham, his numbers improved across the board (63.2 IP, 47 H, 20 BB, 51 K). He's got a 90 MPH fastball with some nice sink and, in a relief role during spring training, he got into the mid-90s. He predictably beats up on lefties and if he continues to make progress with his changeup, he has a chance to be a starter. ETA: Late 2011. Was a spring training invitee last year and will probably get a courtesy look as a bullpen arm this year. But expect a return to the minors, probably Birmingham, to continue development as a starter.
Others: Jose Martinez, Addison Reed, Jacob Petricka, Brandon Short