Yesterday we took a look at the A ball affiliates. Today, it's the high minors.
Birmingham Barons (AA, Southern League)
The jump from High A to AA is traditionally considered the most difficult transition in the minors. Last season, LHP Charlie Leesman turned that adage on its head, at least statistically. At Winston-Salem, he had a line of 84.2 IP, 98 H, 44 BB, 39 K - clearly meriting a promotion to Birmingham, where his numbers improved across the board to 63.2 IP, 47 H, 20 BB, 51 K. As the top (only?) lefty prospect in the organization, the White Sox will hope to see more of the latter in his return to the Barons.
The White Sox added RHP Nate Jones to their 40 man roster in the offseason. While Jones has always had a very nice fastball, his development as a pitcher has been slow. After resolving control issues that hampered him early in his pro career, he converted back to starting last season with the Dash and the 25 year old will only now be reaching AA. The club obviously still sees the potential and Birmingham will be the proving ground for whether he's going to continue to progress.
RHP Gregory Infante, who got a taste of the majors last September, returns to the Barons bullpen. He'll be taking over the closer spot. Infante has good raw stuff but lacks control RHP Dan Remenowsky is the opposite - his stuff isn't overwhelming but he knows how to throw strikes. After suffering a season-ending injury to his right knee midseason while playing for the Dash, the jump to AA may be aggressive. However, it's hard to argue with his results: 3 walks per 9, coupled with almost 14 strikeouts per 9.
C Josh Phegley is a "C" only in name. He's just awful behind the plate. While he certainly deserves a pass for last season after struggling with ITP, a blood syndrome that resulted in the removal of his spleen, it's hard to see Phegley ever panning out. His offense would be good if he were a catcher. But he isn't. And his offense doesn't play at another position.
A player to watch: OF Brandon Short put himself on the radar after a very nice 2010 season for the Dash - .316/.365/.491 and he can steal a base. He can't play CF, so he's going to have to continue to hit. He's drawn comparisons to John Shelby III, so Short's transition to AA will certainly be watched, as that is where Shelby stalled. While he's a hacker, too, Short, unlike Shelby, has quick hands. I think he'll do better than Shelby did; not sure if that will ever get him to the majors, though.
Charlotte Knights (AAA, International League)
Like many AAA teams, the Knights roster will see the return of many players from last year. Two formerly well-regarded prospects, C Tyler Flowers (follow him on Twitter) and CF Jordan Danks, will hope that their careers won't end up like other AAA lifers Alejandro De Aza, Gookie Dawkins and Dallas McPherson. Flowers experienced the most dramatic drop in status after an awful .220/.334/.434 season, with a 35% strikeout rate for good measure. After finding himself on numerous top 100 prospect lists going into 2010, he found himself well outside the top ten on White Sox prospect lists going into 2011 (though SSS retains more hope, ranking #5 on my list and #6 on Jim's list). I don't think he's as bad as 2010 suggested - and I'm also more in the Sickels camp than the Goldstein camp in that his defense looks good enough to me - and an excellent spring has seen a change in the tenor of discussion about Flowers. Of course, what amounts to about a week's worth of plate appearances doesn't mean much. He'll need to continue it at Charlotte, where his strikeout rate will be the thing to watch.
Danks fell completely off some White Sox lists, though he continues to get favorable press from the White Sox despite not doing much of anything (Jim, of course, has his theory about why). He's just never translated his tools into skills and he strikes out way, way too much for a guy with no power. Like De Aza, he appears destined for AAAA status.
Dayan Viciedo, on the other hand, passed the test of both AAA and (arguably) the majors in 2010. He's back in AAA most immediately because of a broken finger but mostly because he's learning a new position, right field. While the White Sox likely will be hesitant to use up his final option when he completes his rehab assignment, it's difficult to find a place on the 25 man roster at this point. The White Sox already sacrificed a 12th pitcher to keep Brent Lillibridge, so expect them to keep Viciedo in Charlotte for a couple months (barring injury on the major league club). Despite his famously hacktastic offensive approach, though, he doesn't have much left to prove on offense and with his prior Cuban experience in the outfield the defensive transition shouldn't take long, either.
Like most of the rest of the system, the pitching for Charlotte leaves a lot to be desired. Most notably, the only lefty is retread Wes Whisler, so it's pretty obvious why the White Sox spent on Will Ohman. After that, you've got some amusing righty relievers like Jhonny Nunez and Anthony Carter. Carter has command but lacks good raw stuff. Nunez continued to get strikeouts at a good clip last season for Charlotte but was a bit too hittable. Neither projects as much more than bullpen filler at this point.
A player to watch: SS Eduardo Escobar is getting the now standard aggressive treatment after an impressive Arizona Fall League. With only 216 PA for the Barons after a midseason promotion, AAA is going to be quite a test for Escobar. There's no question about his defense, which is superb, but his .262/.294/.376 for the Barons certainly calls into question whether his offense is ready for the International League. Supporters will point to the .300/.353/.536 he hit during the AFL but, with the middle infield of the White Sox set, there's really no need to be this aggressive with Escobar.
The White Sox Minor League Update fanpost will be on the right rail all season long and provides daily updates of minor league games as well as news. The weekly post will appear on the weekends and summarizes the week that was in the White Sox minor leagues. Follow me on Twitter if you want even more coverage: http://twitter.com/SouthSidelarry.