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AFL White Sox Preview

Chicago sends six players to the AFL this year, for a variety of reasons

Fall Back: Luis Robert headlines White Sox prospects in Arizona this fall.

The Chicago White Sox are sending six players and two staff members to the Glendale Desert Dogs to the Arizona Fall League. The core four are Luis Robert, Luis Basabe, Zack Burdi and Laz Rivera, with cameos from Tanner Banks and Zach Thompson. The Sox will also send Winston-Salem hitting coach Charles Poe. Scott Takao is the Minor League Medical/Rehabilitation Coordinator for the player development staff, and will be in Glendale. So Robert has some friends coming with him.

Robert, Basabe, Burdi, and Rivera are all notable prospects, but they are there for separate reasons. Robert and Burdi both missed ample playing time with injury, and they need the extra live game action. Rivera and Basabe both had breakout seasons, earning their way to a prestigious AFL roster spot. Banks and Thompson also had great seasons, but the White Sox appear to be showcasing the two pitchers for possible trades, as both are Rule-5 draft eligible.

Luis Robert

And Rowand seems to be right.

Robert is probably the toolsiest prospect the White Sox have, but also the most unproven. Since his signing last year, the outfielder has been hampered by injuries, only playing 78 games. Because of that, we simply do not know who Robert is as a player yet. He clearly has speed, and Rowand believes he is already a good fielder in center. For what it is worth, Robert has more outfield assists (six) than errors (four) so far in his professional career.

The power has not shown yet as Robert’s three home runs came in the Dominican last season. The hit tool showed itself in the lower minors, but he was exposed in Winston-Salem. He had a very high K rate, with a low walk rate, so his approach at the plate needs more seasoning, which will come over time. Time is really the most important thing for Robert; he has missed too many games, and that is why he is in Arizona. He needs at-bats, time in center, and to stay healthy. Those things have been hard to come by these last two years, so we have to hope for the best.

Zack Burdi

Like Robert, Zack Burdi also just needs to stay healthy. After recovering from Tommy John surgery, Burdi only pitched in 6 13 innings this season, in the Arizona Rookie League. Burdi’s stat line was bad, but is was a small sample size — basically a rehab assignment. By the start of the AFL, Burdi should be closer to 100%, and reports on his velocity will be taken much more seriously. Hopefully Burdi regains his velocity from spring training 2017.

But high 90s and rave reviews about his slider should calm any nerves. When right, Burdi is the best bullpen option in the White Sox organization.

Luis Basabe

Basabe started out hot, with a 146 wRC+ with Winston-Salem, but eventually cooled late with the Barons, as he ended AA with a 111 wRC+. But Basabe still outperformed any expectation of him in 2018. His wRC+ increased more than 60 points from 2017 High-A to 2018 High-A. His 15 total home runs were the most he has had in a season, and he was also getting on base at his highest rate since rookie ball in 2014.

Basabe broke out in 2018. He also hit more balls in the air than he had since his rookie ball days. The only aspect of Basabe’s game that did suffer was his K rate, and that can be blamed on his desire to show more power. The 28.1% K-rate with the Barons is the most for Basabe in his career, but he still countered that with a walk rate of better than 10%. The AFL is Basabe’s reward, and though he does have an outside chance to see the South Side next year, keeping in mind the Eloy Jimenez precedent do not expect anything.

Laz Rivera

Rivera, not the biggest surprise of the minor league season, is definitely in the discussion. The 2017 28th round pick was good last year, but many people saw his success in rookie ball as a product more of age than talent. This season, he squashed those concerns with an even better year. The result: Rivera skyrocketed in the White Sox prospect rankings, and has cracked the Top 30 per MLB Pipeline.

Rivera showed more power, with career highs ISO and home runs at both Kannapolis and Winston-Salem. Rivera also showed more speed, as he swiped 17 bases and was caught 10 times in 2018 compared to three steals and four caught in 2017. Surprisingly, Rivera kept the ball in the air at a similar rate to his 2017 numbers. What changed is that Rivera was pulling the ball more, which usually means better contact. He is primarily a shortstop and the jury is still out on his ability there, but organizational depth for the White Sox in the middle infield is increasing.

Tanner Banks

Banks is the oldest of the AFL group at 26, so he’s not exactly a prospect. However, he put together a great season this year after a suspect tenure in AA last season. With the Barons in 2017, Banks had a career high in BABIP and HR/FB that led to a 6.18 ERA, although his FIP was better (4.49).

In 2018, Banks was demoted to the Dash and was much better, with a 3.13 FIP. He was promoted to Birmingham and fared much better, with a 3.87 FIP. He seems to be an “old school” pitcher: He’s only had a K/9 of more than seven once in his career, and his BB/9 is usually in the 1.80-2.20 range. Though there was not much difference in batted ball data from 2017 to 2018, Banks’s HR/FB rate dropped heavily.

The real value in Banks is his stuff against lefties. With the Barons, he had a 2.31 ERA with a .214 batting average against them. Maybe another team will take a flier on him in the Rule 5 draft, but my guess is he is left off the 40-man and stays with the Sox in 2019.

Zach Thompson

From 2014 to halfway through 2017, Thompson was a starting pitcher, and not a very good one. Starting 2017 in the rotation, Thompson had a 5.56 FIP, with a strikeout per walk at a low 2.7%. Thompson did improve his numbers as a reliever in 2017, but even more so in 2018.

With the Dash again, Thompson almost matched his career high in K/9, and had a career low BB/9. That led to a 2.71 FIP, Thompson’s best as a pro, earning him a promotion to AA. Thompson regressed in Birmingham, as his BB/9 went back to his career norm, but the FIP was still good (3.77). He does not throw hard like most relievers, but a possible long-man role is something that is plausible especially since the righthander is just as good (even better this past season) against lefties. He had a 1.35 ERA with a .180 batting average against left-handed hitters in AA. Thompson’s name is one to watch, as the 40-man roster deadline is approaching fast.