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Deep Dive: First Base Edition, Part 1

Several high-ceiling but low-floor first base options exist in the lower levels of the White Sox system

Break, in Emergency: Corey Zangari was arguably the most productive first base prospect in our system — until he got hurt, that is.
Great Falls Voyagers

“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the White Sox organization. Each position will be a four-part series:

  1. Depth in the lower levels (Dominican through Kannapolis)
  2. Depth in the higher levels (Winston-Salem through Charlotte)
  3. Under the Radar-type detail on one of the White Sox players at that position
  4. Free-agent options at that position, plus sneak peeks into available players in the upcoming 2019 MLB Draft.

Now, let’s focus on the first base depth in the organization by providing small bits of information on players who played first base for DSL, AZL, Great Falls and Kannapolis. Player’s age as of April 1, 2019 is listed.


Kannapolis Intimidators

Justin Yurchak
6´1´´
204 pounds
Bats: Left
Age: 22
Additional position: Third Base

Great things were expected for Justin Yurchak after a terrific campaign in 2017. Last year, he slashed .345/.448/.520 for the Great Falls Voyagers, with eight homers, 27 RBIs, 43 walks and 33 strikeouts over 223 at-bats. Terrific numbers, but how would he fare in the less-friendly hitting environment of Kannapolis?

Well, the answer to that question was not-so-hot. While not having the breakdown that former White Sox prospect Aaron Schnurbusch encountered in 2017, Yurchak really didn’t establish himself as fans had hoped. For the Intimidators in 2018, Yurchak slashed .256/.348/.326 over 313 at-bats, with just one homer and 36 RBIs. On the bright side, he struck out just 53 times while walking 45. Yurchak accumulated nearly two groundouts to every fly out, so he obviously needs to improve upon his launch angle in the upcoming season. Because Gavin Sheets is expected to be promoted from Winston-Salem to Birmingham for 2019, and because Corey Zangari will need more at-bats with Kannapolis before he’s ready for another promotion, Yurchak will likely begin 2019 with the Dash.

Defensively, saying Yurchak needs work may be a vast understatement. In 99 career games at first base, he’s committed 15 errors, and in 13 career games at the hot corner, he’s committed eight. Unless Yurchak improves defensively, his career seems relegated to DH duties. He’ll need to hit with authority, then, in order to have a future in the White Sox organization. How he does in a much more hitting-friendly environment next year may dictate his career path going forward.

Corey Zangari
6´4´´
240 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 21

Corey Zangari, built like a linebacker, was the White Sox’s sixth round pick of the 2015 MLB Draft from Midwest City, Okla. He breezed through the AZL and Great Falls, but struggled badly in a midseason promotion to Kannapolis in 2016. For Kannapolis that year, Zangari hit .166/.247/.314 in 223 at-bats, with eight homers, 24 RBIs, 20 walks and an incredible 106 strikeouts (42.7%) — a shocking number, even by White Sox standards.

Zangari missed the 2017 season due to Tommy John surgery. During his recovery, he dropped a lot of weight (he once was playing at 280 pounds) and changed his approach considerably. Due to Yurchak and Anthony Villa manning first base for Kannapolis, Zangari began 2018 with Great Falls and hit .266/.329/.734 for the Voyagers in 17 games, with nine homers, 22 RBIs, six walks and 16 strikeouts (a much more manageable 21.9%) — he even hit three homers in a July 13 game. A week later, on July 20, Zangari was promoted to Kannapolis. Of course, in typical White Sox fashion, he was hit by a pitch in just his second at-bat and fractured his wrist. Providing Zangari’s wrist is properly healed, he should be the Intimidators’ starting first baseman for 2019.

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Great Falls Voyagers

Ryan Fitzpatrick
6´3´´
225 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 24

Ryan Fitzpatrick, not to be confused with the journeyman quarterback of the same name, was the White Sox’s 22nd round pick of the 2018 MLB Draft. As a senior for the Cal-Irvine Anteaters, he hit .307/.436/.526, with eight homers, 44 RBIs, 33 walks and 38 strikeouts. Fitzpatrick enjoyed a solid but unspectacular season with Great Falls, slashing .246/.389/.444 with six homers, 15 RBIs, 16 walks and 32 strikeouts over 126 at-bats. He finished well, however; in his last 10 games he hit .333 with four homers and nine RBIs over 36 at-bats, which was pivotal in the Voyagers’ title run.

While Fitzpatrick’s stats were decent, he was about 2.5 years older than league average. Thus, Fitzpatrick has little room for error going forward. At this point, he seems more like organizational depth. With that said, he is likely to join Zangari at Kannapolis, where he could be slated as a DH/backup corner infielder.

Franklin Reyes
6´4´´
205 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 20

Franklin Reyes is yet another prospect who missed significant development time in 2018. In fact, he missed the entire season due to injury. Signed originally as an outfield prospect from the Dominican Republic for $1.5 million, Reyes primarily has played first base thus far in his career. MLB.com placed a 70 grade on his power tool, which put him at the same level of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and above another White Sox signee who shall remain nameless. He was also rated as having a 60-70 arm at the time of his signing.

Reyes is still quite raw. He did make improvements in 2017, after a rocky start in professional ball in 2016. Last year for the Voyagers, Reyes hit .249/.270/.361 with five homers, 34 RBIs, five walks and 68 strikeouts in 241 at-bats — all upgrades from the year before. I see him returning to Great Falls in 2019, splitting time with Harvin Mendoza and also getting reps at the corner outfield spots and DH. He is still extremely young, so there’s still hope that Reyes can start reaching some of his potential in 2019.


Arizona League White Sox

Harvin Mendoza
6´2´´
185 pounds
Bats: Left
Age: 20

Harvin Mendoza, who signed in the same international signing class as Reyes, was a corner outfield prospect at the time but also has converted to first base. After two good seasons for the DSL White Sox, Mendoza was promoted to the AZL squad for 2018 and acquitted himself quite well. He has gradually improved each year, last year hitting .314/.381/.409, with no homers, 23 RBI, 12 walks and 12 strikeouts over 137 at-bats. In his three-year minor league career, Mendoza actually has more walks (90) than strikeouts (88) in 578 at-bats — are we sure he’s a member of the White Sox organization?

Mendoza played errorless ball last season, and even though he’s shown virtually no power thus far (just two career homers), he does have a projectable build if he can alter his launch angle. It’s easier to work with someone who’s got great plate discipline but unproven game power than vice-versa, but in order to eventually stick as a first baseman, Mendoza will have to pick up his power game eventually. Fortunately he doesn’t turn 20 until February, and he should be promoted to hitter-friendly Great Falls to begin the 2019 season.

Sam Abbott
6´4´´
225 pounds
Bats: Left
Age: 19

Abbott, a ninth round pick from the 2017 MLB Draft, seemed to take a step back in 2018 — at least in the batting average department. For the year, Abbott hit .139/.347/.306 for the AZL White Sox over 72 at-bats, with three homers, nine RBIs, 18 walks (18.95%), and 33 strikeouts (34.74%). He is a terrific athlete (he passed on a water polo scholarship in order to sign with the Sox), but as a large man, he has a long swing which gets longer with sporadic plate appearances. This would explain his low average and high strikeout rates.

But there is good news: He hit his first career homers this year (two on August 17), and has improved his batting eye considerably. Most major leaguers would be envious of a walk rate approaching 19%. He has hit just .105 in his two-year minor league career (and just .050 this year) versus southpaws, as opposed to .213 against righties, so he could be a platoon candidate down the road. With Abbott’s power potential, youth and plate discipline, he still can be a special player. Right now, he’s a raw prospect with a medium ceiling but low floor. Expect Abbott to return to the AZL White Sox for 2019; it will be quite interesting to see how he does with additional playing time.

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Dominican Summer League White Sox

Alberto Bernal
6´1´´
215 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 16

Bernal signed with the White Sox in July, and was noted to be a high-power first baseman at the time of his $250,000 bonus. At just 16, he certainly has a projectionable frame, so expect him to begin the 2019 season as the DSL starting first baseman — partly because this guy may be just that good, but also because he doesn’t have a lot of competition. Expect some growing pains, but this Cuban may just be the real deal.

Ulises Martinez
6´1”
190 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 20
Additional position: Catcher

Martinez was actually the best DSL first baseman on last year’s roster, which doesn’t say much. With Bernal on the Roster, Martinez will be relegated to second-string first base/third-string catching duties, with the possibilities of being a regular DH. Last year, Martinez hit .231/.294/.327 with one homer, 12 RBIs, 12 walks and 39 strikeouts in 163 at-bats; his three-year career slash line is .239/.293/.332, with just that one home run. A slim possibility exists that Martinez could be promoted to the AZL White Sox, but only if a first baseman isn’t selected in next year’s MLB draft.

Jhoneiker Betancourt
6´1”
174 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 18
Additional position: Catcher

Betancourt struggled in his second season with the DSL Sox, hitting just .213/.271/.277 with no homers, 13 RBIs, 13 walks and 42 strikeouts over 202 at-bats. His versatility and youth (although he was just slightly older than league average this year) may give him another opportunity to show what he can do. He threw out 27.1% of attempted base stealers in 17 games behind the plate, while playing 23 games at first. Obviously, he’ll need to produce better numbers in order to earn advancement.

Robert Barreras
6´3´´
205 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 20

Barreras hit just .214/.214/.250 for the DSL Sox in his third season with the club, over just 27 at-bats. His career slash line is just .191/.260/.241, and he hasn’t played since June 18. Apparently he is still with the organization, so Barreras may have been injured. Injured or release may be a moot point, because there’s not much hope for a guy who’s nearly 1 12 years older than league average with no career homers, and is now merely the fourth-string first baseman on a team that finished the year with an 18-54 record.

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Summary

The talent level at first base in the White Sox is relatively good. You’ve got some potential for power with the likes of Zangari, Reyes, Fitzpatrick, Abbott and Bernal. There are also a couple of high-average, low-power guys like Yurchak and Mendoza, who with improved launch angles, could hit 15-20 home runs annually. Many of these guys actually have higher ceilings than many of the first baseman that played for Winston-Salem, Birmingham and Charlotte this year.

However, most if not all are relatively unproven, and are far closer presently to their floors than to their ceilings. Yurchak hit .345 with eight homers in 2017 with Kannapolis, Zangari had a three-homer game last year and slugged .723 with Great Falls, and Abbott had a two-homer game in August in Arizona. It’s very likely that these guys could end up looking more like Keon Barnum than Jose Abreu; with that said, it doesn’t hurt to dream that a couple of these guys could become significant assets in the next two or three years.