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Deep Dive: First Base Edition, Part 2

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the White Sox system’s upper tier of first basemen

Gavel Down: Gavin Sheets, at No. 15, is easily the highest-ranking first baseman on MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 White Sox Prospect list.
Winston-Salem Dash

“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 Winston-Salem, Birmingham and Charlotte. Be forewarned — most of this list is nothing to write home about. Player’s age as of April 1, 2019 is listed.


Charlotte Knights

Matt Skole
6´4”
220 pounds
Bats: Left
Age: 29
Additional position: Third base

Matt Skole was drafted in the fifth round by the Washington Nationals as a corner infield prospect from the 2011 MLB Draft. Aside from a terrific 2012 season for Low-A Hagerstown, in which he hit .286/.438/.574 with 27 homers, 92 RBIs, 94 walks and 116 strikeouts, Skole’s career has been relatively nondescript. In seven seasons with the Nationals’ organization, Skole hit 102 homers but had never hit better than .244 in any of his last five years in the organization.

The White Sox signed him as a minor league free agent in January of this year, and after a relatively hot start, Skole eventually reverted to form. As a corner infielder for Charlotte, he hit .237/.336/.404 with 14 homers, 44 RBIs, 61 walks and 125 strikeouts. The numbers were a bit worse than his career minor league averages, and Skole didn’t really insert himself into the White Sox picture afterward — even with Abreu’s injuries late in the season. With that said, Skole did earn a long-awaited first stint to the majors in late May, where he acquitted himself respectably with three hits in 11 at-bats, including a homer. Because the White Sox probably will go with some catcher/first base/DH tandem with Zack Collins, Seby Zavala, and perhaps Yermin Mercedes this year in Charlotte, to ensure they all get reasonable amounts of playing time, it’s hard to see Skole returning to the Sox organization. If I’m wrong, however, it’s possible he could again return as a corner infielder with the Knights for 2019.

Casey Gillaspie
6´4´´
240 pounds
Bats: Both
Age: 26

Casey, the brother of former Sox third baseman Conor, was actually the better prospect of the two when he signed with the Tampa Bay Rays as their first round pick (20th overall) in the 2014 MLB Draft. He certainly seemed like the real deal at Wichita State, where he hit .389/.520/.682 over 211 at-bats with 15 homers, 50 RBIs, 58 walks and just 28 strikeouts. After sailing through Rays system, all the way to AAA Durham, it appeared that Gillaspie would soon join Conor in the MLB brotherhood. However, due to injuries and/or lack of confidence, Gillaspie hit the wall in 2017. For Durham last year, he hit just .227/.296/.357, with nine homers in 353 at-bats, prompting the Rays to trade him to the White Sox on July 27 for lefty reliever Dan Jennings. In 105 at-bats with Charlotte after the trade, Gillaspie hit just .210/.300/.429 with six homers.

This year was even worse for Gillaspie. In 255 at-bats with Charlotte, he hit a paltry .220/.285/.325, with just three homers, 22 RBIs, 24 walks and 91 strikeouts, which obviously didn’t get the job done at a premier offensive position. Even if Skole were to leave the organization via minor league free agency, I’m not convinced Gillaspie would man the position for Charlotte next year — even considering that Birmingham’s first basemen had just as much trouble putting the bat on the ball. The Sox may have better options available at this position at Charlotte for 2019, provided they think a bit outside the box.


Birmingham Barons

Matt Rose
6´4”
195 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 24
Additional positions: Third base, Shortstop

Matt Rose was selected in the 11th round of the 2015 MLB Draft by the Chicago Cubs out of Georgia State, after hitting .289/.391/.613 with 16 homers, 31 walks and 43 strikeouts in 204 at-bats in his junior season. In three seasons in the Cubs organization, Rose got as high as A+ Myrtle Beach in 2017, where he was hitting .227/.281/.481 with 14 homers in 233 at-bats as of July 13. On that day, he was traded to the White Sox along with Bryant Flete, Dylan Cease, and some guy named Eloy for one of my favorite pitchers, Jose Quintana. Rose subsequently attempted to insert himself into the White Sox prospect picture by hitting .270/.336/.475 with four homers and 23 RBIs in 122 at-bats after moving from north side to South.

Unfortunately in 2018, Rose attained a serious case of Keonbarnumitis, which caused him to swing and miss regularly while falling below the Mendoza Line. In fact, Rose even out-Barnumed Keon Barnum himself. It took Rose a while for the disease to enter his system in Charlotte, because he hit a solid .282/.330/.494, with five homers and 14 RBIs over his first 85 at-bats. However, in Rose’s final 341 at-bats, he hit a combined .158/.232/.299, with 11 homers and 40 RBIs. Overall for 2018, he hit .183/.245/.338, with 16 homers, 54 RBIs, 35 walks (7.5%) and 146 strikeouts (31.3%) in 426 at-bats. Rose did play three innings at short this year, but is really best suited as a corner infielder. Because of his age and ability to play the hot corner, I rank him ahead of Barnum. That aside, I don’t see him having much of a role (if any) with either Charlotte or Birmingham going forward.

Keon Barnum
6´5”
225 pounds
Bats: Left
Age: 26

Keon Barnum was the White Sox’s first round compensation pack in the 2012 MLB Draft, a pick treceived as compensation for losing Mark Buehrle to the Florida Marlins via free agency. Barnum was actually the second selection in the first round of that draft for the White Sox, following Courtney Hawkins. While unexceptional in his first four years in the Sox organization, Barnum actually hit better than .250 in each season, but failed to surpass nine homers in any. His biggest concern was strikeouts, culminating with 164 of them in a full season at Winston-Salem in 2014.

However, things have gone from bad to worse for Barnum over the past three years in Winston-Salem and Birmingham. He has increased his power during those years (with a career high of 18 in 2017), but at a significant decrease in batting average. Last year, he hit just .202/.236/.404 with 15 homers, 44 RBIs, 10 walks (3.5%) and 96 strikeouts (33.8%). His numbers actually were marginally better than Rose’s were in 2018, but because Barnum is two years older and Rose has more defensive versatility (Barnum hasn’t played any other position than DH or first base in his entire seven-year minor league career), I don’t see any way for Barnum to return to the White Sox organization in 2019.

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Winston-Salem Dash

Gavin Sheets
6´4”
230 pounds
Bats: Left
Age: 22

After a terrific junior season with Wake Forest (in which he hit .317/.424/.629, with 21 homers, 84 RBIs, 46 walks and just 37 strikeouts), the son of former Baltimore Oriole outfielder Larry Sheets was drafted in the second round by the White Sox in last year’s MLB Draft. With the AZL White Sox and Kannapolis last year, he combined to hit .279/.365/.397, with four homers, 28 RBIs, 23 walks (9.8%) and 34 strikeouts (14.4%) in 204 at-bats. While the numbers were unexceptional, they were still respectable considering the fatigue he may have been playing through after the long collegiate season.

However, while Sheets continued to maintain his rock-solid plate discipline, his game power still didn’t feature prominently in 2018, despite playing in hitting-friendly Winston-Salem. In 437 at-bats for the Dash, he hit .293/.368/.407, with six homers, 61 RBIs, 52 walks (10.5%) and 87 strikeouts (16.3%). While the game power still has yet to show, Sheets easily has put up the best numbers at first base in the upper levels of the system. In 641 at-bats (basically the equivalent of a full major league season) over two years in the White Sox system, Sheets has hit .289/.367/.404 with 40 doubles, 10 homers, 85 RBIs, 75 walks (10.3%) and 115 strikeouts (15.7%). Sheets hit .280 against southpaws and .296 against righties last year, so a platoon situation doesn’t appear imminent.

Of course, it’d be nice to see him start hitting some dingers, as his career ISO is only .115 thus far. Perhaps some of those doubles can evolve into homers? Aside from his power, all other parts of his game has been above average, aside from his grade-35 speed. However, as a second round pick at a power position, it’s hoped that Sheets could begin turning on the ball and start hitting homers at a 25-30 yearly clip going forward. He’s certainly got the projectionable build and relative youth to make that happen. Expect Sheets to start at first base in what looks to be a quite powerful Birmingham Barons squad for 2019.

Mikey Duarte
5´11”
160 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 24
Additional position: Third base

Mikey Duarte, who will turn 25 in early April, hasn’t played played much in the White Sox organization. Some of that may have been attributable to injuries or the middle-infield depth from Great Falls to Winston-Salem over the past couple years. However, much more than that, the grief of losing his sister in the senseless Las Vegas shooting last October may be the ultimate reason Duarte has played so little with Great Falls and Winston-Salem in his career. Baseball just doesn’t mean as much under those most trying of circumstances.

Duarte had solid junior and senior seasons with Cal-Irvine, hitting a combined .333/.408/.438, prior to being selected in the 23rd round in last year’s MLB Draft. With few collegiate homers and stolen bases, along with a relatively diminutive build, Duarte profiles best as a utility middle infielder. He played five games at first base this year, and just one at third. He’s only hit .125/.222/.125 in an extremely small career sample size (16 at-bats), and was just 1-for-9 for the Dash in 2018. He’s probably too old to begin the season with Kannapolis, but hasn’t proven himself enough yet to be in the mix for Birmingham. Instead, if he returns to play ball next year, I’d expect him to be a versatile back up middle infielder, corner infielder, and outfielder for Winston-Salem. At best, Duarte appears to be an organizational depth player.

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Summary

The overall depth at first base is weaker than any other position in the White Sox organization, with the possible exception of third base; that in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While Sheets has been good but not great, the rest of the upper-level minor league first basemen have been quite bad. Of course, having first base the system’s weakest position isn’t in itself a bad thing. For one thing, free agent first basemen come cheap. Secondly, the most consistent player on the White Sox major league roster is José Abreu. Third, the White Sox can easily move players from more challenging positions either because they can’t hack it defensively (Zack Collins, Seby Zavala, Yermin Mercedes, Jake Burger) or to make room for other players in the organization who might be getting crowded out in a talent-rich scenario (Eloy Jimenez, in the outfield). I’ll go over the possibilities regarding Abreu in the next article. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see who the White Sox will play at first when their window of contention finally arrives.