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2017 Charlotte Knights preview

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MLB.com named it the “most stacked roster in the minor leagues,” and for good reason

BB&T Ballpark
Jim Margalus / South Side Sox

The Charlotte Knights started off their season with a 9-8 barnburner against Norfolk on Thursday. You can expect big scores from the White Sox’ Triple-A affiliate in the future, as BB&T Ballpark is a bandbox. However, if their top pitching prospects make expected strides, some of these evenings could be rather lopsided.

In fact, the Knights look so good on paper that MLB.com called it the most stacked roster in the minors, what with four top-100 prospects, and numerous other intriguing players in their shadows.

Starting pitchers

The White Sox’ top three pitching prospect round out the top of the rotation. Reynaldo Lopez started Opening Night, Carson Fulmer goes today and Lucas Giolito is slated for Saturday. That could be a rough order of their MLB readiness, although Fulmer’s strong finish in Charlotte season season could give him some sort of inside track. Tyler Danish is coming off knee surgery and hoping to improve on his disappointing 2016. David Holmberg was named the fifth starter on the team’s media release, which is the role he occupied last season, although the recently acquired Mike Pelfrey could meddle here.

Relief pitchers

The Opening Night roster wasn’t even released before Tommy Kahnle found his way to Chicago, taking the place of the injured Jake Petricka. He’ll probably be the guy subject to the most yo-yoing, since he still has options remaining and is acclimated to the between-level lifestyle. Zack Burdi, on the other hand, will probably be given careful consideration for his major-league debut since the Sox have big plans for him. Brad Goldberg can also pitch himself into the mix later in the season, and Chris Beck is hanging around. (Juan Minaya started the season on the White Sox’ disabled list due to an abdominal injury suffered during the spring).

From the left side, the Knights have Matt Purke and Giovanni Soto on the roster right now, while Cory Luebke and Brian Clark are on the 7-day DL. Soto was outrighted from the 40-man roster to make room for Anthony Swarzak, so it’s a fairly open competition for a potential second lefty.

Catchers

Kevan Smith is back in Charlotte for a third straight season. This time, he enters the year having been removed from the 40-man roster, and he’s been trying to hit his way back into the picture based on his work this spring and his four-hit Opening Night. Watch whether the Sox shift the playing time more toward Roberto Pena. The Sox picked him up from Houston’s system, and he’s younger and a better defender.

Infield

Yoan Moncada is the player everybody’s coming to see, and the Sox are intent on making him stick at second base, which is his preferred position. The rest of the infield isn’t shabby, either. Danny Hayes (first base) and Nicky Delmonico (third base) are left-handed hitters coming off big springs and flashes of prospect potential in the recent past. They’re anchoring the corners, and they could earn auditions since Cody Asche has a tenuous-at-best grip on the “left-handed bench bat” role. Everth Cabrera gives the Sox a veteran shortstop, but not necessarily leadership.

Outfield

From left to right, the Charlotte Knights are starting a toolbag, a toolbag and a toolbag. More specifically, Rymer Liriano, Adam Engel and Willy Garcia. Liriano had capitalized on his prospect stock enough in the past for a cup of coffee, but he’s trying to come back from a pitch to the face. Engel has the speed and defense of a starting center fielder, but his hit tool is keeping him from being a fourth outfielder. Garcia took Jason Coats’ roster spot, which was notable since Coats had handily outproduced him in the International League over an identical sample size. It was a small bet on Garcia discovering the talent that led the Pirates to sign him out of the Dominican for six figures back in 2010. Coats ended up needing Tommy John surgery, making it less of a gamble.

Who could join the party?

In a sneak preview of Birmingham’s roster, Jake Peter seems like a victim of the depth chart, as he excelled at Double-A last season. He can slide into second base once Moncada moves on. Alfredo Gonzalez posted a .358 OBP in 39 games at Birmingham last year, but Smith and Pena are blocking him from advancing further. Spencer Adams could take a first-half starting vacancy, but that assumes he shows some sort of mastery of Double-A first. Michael Kopech may be on a slower track.