Yesterday I took a look at the A ball affiliates. Today, it's the high minors.
Birmingham Barons (AA, Southern League)
Adding to a long list of questionable player assignments, OF Jared Mitchell will be getting a promotion to Birmingham, despite a horrid .222/.304/.377 line at Winston-Salem last year. Buddy Bell laid out their decision-making process: "In some regards, he doesn't deserve to go to Birmingham. But at the same time, the way he came into camp this year, he does deserve it." The organization obviously believes that his 2011 season could be chalked up to not fully recovering from the ankle injury he suffered in March 2010 - in fact, Buddy Bell said so: "He wasn't ever 100% healthy last year." Of course, when we spoke to Bell in May 2011, Bell told us "he's 100% healthy". The White Sox were impressed with how he looked in spring training, including .370/.393/.519 in 28 plate appearances with the big league club. Bell said they wanted Mitchell to be "more aggressive", which may or may not be the way to reduce last season's 34% strikeout rate. Considering he had 10 K in those 28 PA this spring, the plan isn't off to a good start.
SS Tyler Saladino is the rare player who gets a call-up to major league camp during spring training. He made quite an impression on the White Sox coaching staff and they took a look at him defensively at 2B, 3B and SS. His future may well be as a utility player in the majors but, for now, he'll probably see most of his time at SS. The 22 year old took advantage of his power-friendly home park (as well as other friendly stadiums) to put up a .270/.363/.501 line in 2011. He won't be getting any favors like that in Birmingham's home park. With Saladino, you'll want to watch whether his walk and strikeout rates stick close to his career averages, 10% and 20%, respectively, or head too far in the wrong direction. If Saladino does what's expected of him, he may be one of the first prospects to get a promotion.
1B Andy Wilkins has a big task ahead of him. Unless you are an elite offensive performer, you aren't a prospect if you're a first baseman. But that rule doesn't apply in the thin White Sox farm system. Wilkins has one big advantage, in that he doesn't strike out too much - 16.4% is rather low for a power hitter, even at High-A . He also takes his walks machine - 10.1% last season. The 23 year old was second in the Carolina League with 23 home runs last season and he appears to have enough bat speed to continue mashing at higher levels. Like many lefties, he struggles against lefties. The not-so power-friendly Regions Park will be an interesting test for Wilkins.The Birmingham rotation will include two of the offseason's major trade acquisitions. RHP Nestor Molina is one and the 23 year old will be hard-pressed to replicate the success he had last season, in which he struck out 148 in 130.1 IP while walking just 16. His four pitch mix - fastball, splitter, slider and changeup - doesn't have a consistently plus offering but his pinpoint command plays up his overall repertoire. I think the White Sox intend on him being a fast mover so he's a good bet to go to Charlotte by mid-season and he'll be in the majors before the season is over.
RHP Simon Castro is the other major acquisition. He fell apart after being promoted to AAA in 2010 and it didn't get any better in 2011. In 36 IP in AAA, he gave up 53 hits and had a 27/24 K/BB. It's no surprise the Padres sent him back to AA after his early struggles last season. His low-mid 90s fastball is major league quality but his slider and changeup abandoned him. The White Sox think they've identified and corrected the mechanical issue Castro has been fighting. By watching his strikeout and walk rates, we'll have a pretty good idea early on whether they've been successful.
Charlotte Knights (AAA, International League)
There really aren't any particularly notable position players at Charlotte, whether of the prospect or the veteran minor league depth variety. OF Jordan Danks is starting his third consecutive season in AAA and the narrative for him is unchanged: good defense and speed, not so good hitting abilities. Greg Golson and Conor Jackson are also likely to see significant time - I already covered their attributes here and here. If Alejandro De Aza is injured, we'll probably see Danks or Golson. If it's one of the corner outfielders, we're more likely to see Jackson.
Dallas McPherson, Dan Johnson, Osvaldo Martinez and Tyler Kuhn would be the in the running for a call-up if an infielder goes down. If it's a corner infielder, McPherson, Johnson and Jackson (who will apparently be seeing some time at 3B) are the likely choices. If a middle infielder, Martinez or the versatile kind-of prospect Kuhn would be in the mix.
All of these players should be looking below them because Birmingham (or even Winston-Salem) arguably has players who, by mid-season, are liable to be passing them on the depth chart. At a minimum, the likes of Saladino, Mitchell and Wilkins have greater upside.
The pitching is a bit less bleak. RHP Dylan Axelrod will be leading the Knights rotation and, at least initially, will also be the leading candidate for a call-up should a starter, or potentially even a long reliever, be required. The 26 year old had a difficult spring and therefore lost out to Zach Stewart for a roster spot. But 20 innings in the spring are hardly indicative of ability. He relies on a decent slider and throwing strikes to make up for a somewhat below average 90 MPH fastball and a show-me changeup.
LHP Charles Leesman will be joining him in the rotation. I think we can give up on him making it as a starter but Leesman may have a chance as a reliever. The 2008 11th round pick simply walks too many guys. He's got a good changeup - nearly essential for a lefty - and his high 80s sinker gets into the 90s out of the bullpen. But neither his curveball nor his slider look like they're ever going to be good enough. As a reliever, he can hide his weaker secondary offerings and, mixing in his cut fastball against righties, the 25 year old could be an asset. In any event, it doesn't hurt to let him continue to start and get more repetitions.
While there may be other starter options with the Knights - Terry Doyle and the still rehabbing Scott Olsen - I'd expect the White Sox to dip into Birmingham's rotation if Axelrod is unavailable. Also stashed in Charlotte are a number of replacement level bullpen options, like lefties Eric Stults and Donnie Veal, as well as righties Brian Bruney, Deunte Heath and Jhan Marinez. The depth chart of minor league relievers isn't particularly set and will re-arrange itself based on who has the most recent string of good performances.
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.