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Deep Dive: center field edition, part 1

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Headlined by 2018 draft choice Steele Walker, the lower ranks of Chicago’s center field corps are nothing to sniff at

Hit the Ground Running: Steele Walker, seen here on the day of his pro debut with the White Sox, is the most promising CF in Chicago’s low minors.
Kim Contreras (@Cu_As)/South Side Sox

“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.

Center field is the most athletic outfield position on the diamond. Many of the best White Sox hitting prospects have spent a significant amount of the time there, if not the majority of it. While most of the top outfield prospects finished the season with Winston-Salem or higher, the lower levels also had their fair share of center field prospects as well. Players’ ages listed below are as of April 1, 2019.


Kannapolis Intimidators

Steele Walker
5´11´´
190 pounds
Bats: Left
Age: 22
Additional position: right field

Walker improved during each of this three seasons with the Oklahoma Sooners: his slash line was .290/.352/.414 in his first season, .333/.413/.541 for his second, and .352/.441/.606 to wind up his career. In his senior season, Walker also hit 14 doubles, one triple, 13 homers, and 53 RBIs, and had 31 walks (12.20) and 48 strikeouts (18.90%) over 216 at-bats. Walker was projected to be a borderline first-round pick, so when he fell to the fourth pick in the second round, the Sox happily selected him and inked him to an over-slot, $2 million signing bonus.

Sooner (pun intended) or later, you knew with the year the White Sox had, Walker was doomed to have an injury. In his case, a strained oblique muscle caused Walker to miss some time, and may have hampered his overall results for 2018. For the season (split among the AZL Sox, Great Falls Voyagers and Kannapolis), he managed to slash just .209/.271/.342 in 158 at-bats, with a combined six doubles, five homers, 21 RBIs, six stolen bases, 10 walks (5.65%) and 37 strikeouts (20.90%).

Walker ranks 12th among White Sox prospects according to MLB Pipeline. He’s considered slightly above average in all tools, with the exception of his arm, which is a bit below average. He’s an exciting player, and is quite excitable himself when giving interviews. Expect him to return to Kannapolis to begin 2019 because of last year’s struggles, but if he gets off to a good start, don’t be surprised to see him promoted to Winston-Salem before the end of May.

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Great Falls Voyagers

Romy Gonzalez
6´1´´
210 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 22

Gonzalez, a native of Hialeah, Fla., had an interesting career at the University of Miami. He struggled badly in his freshman year, where he slashed .173/.215/.280, with just one homer in 75 at bats. Gonzalez improved mightily the next year, to the tune of .265/.344/.462 while hitting 11 homers and stealing 13 bases; many preseason scouting reports projected him going in the top five rounds in the MLB draft. However, in his junior season for the Hurricanes, Gonzalez’s power went south. Although successful in 22-of-26 stolen base attempts, he hit just four homers in nearly 200 at-bats, with a slash line of .273/.358/.394 — not exactly the marks of a high-round draft pick. The White Sox opted to buy low and drafted him in the 18th round, reeling him with a signing bonus of $125,000. Shortly after the draft, GM Rick Hahn was asked who may be the sleeper pick of 2018, and he immediately referred to Gonzalez.

Although Gonzalez’s power numbers fell in his junior season with Miami, they rebounded in the higher altitude of the Pioneer League. He slashed .254/.323/.498 with Great Falls in his first minor league campaign, hitting 10 homers, 15 doubles, and two triples in 201 at-bats. He also continued to efficiently swipe bases (successful in 10-of-11 attempts). Gonzalez especially improved his power numbers as the year progressed; of his 26 hits since August 1, 17 took the extra-base route: nine doubles, one triple, and seven homers. His bugaboo, as in his collegiate career, was strikeouts. Gonzalez walked 18 times for the Voyagers but struck out 65, constituting a nearly 30% punchout rate.

Gonzalez spent the majority of the season as the Voyagers DH due to elbow soreness, but played center field exclusively at the end of the year. He played 14 games of errorless ball there, but didn’t have any assists. It’s possible that he either didn’t have many opportunities to throw out baserunners, or he was simply not overexerting himself on long throws due to his injury. All previous scouting reports, from Perfect Game to 2080 Baseball, indicate that Gonzalez’s arm is plus to double-plus. He primarily played second and third base with Miami, but his arm strength and size indicate he’d be a better fit at the hot corner if he had to play an infield position. Romy, of course, could also play first base, but that would underutilize his speed (he ran a 6.83 60-yard-dash in the 2015 World Showcase) and range. Provided his arm is healthy, Gonzalez profiles best as a right fielder, where he can show off his cannon arm; with that said, he does have the athletic ability to play all three outfield positions — at least until his range declines due to age and/or increased bulk. Expect Gonzalez to begin the 2019 season with Kannapolis.

Jay Estes
5´10´´
170 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 23
Additional positions: left field, right field

Estes spent his first two years of college ball with Chipola CC (Fla.) before transferring to SEC powerhouse Auburn for his junior and senior seasons. While he primarily played shortstop in his prep and junior college days, Estes split his time with Auburn in the outfield as well. He did well for the Tigers in his junior and senior seasons; Estes’ senior season was stellar, as he slashed .329/.401/.409 in 237 at-bats with 19 doubles, no homers, 33 RBIs, 13 stolen bases, 21 walks (7.72%) and 33 strikeouts (12.13%).

The White Sox signed Estes as an undrafted free agent, primarily due to the terrific outfield defense he displayed with the Tigers.

The 2018 season with Great Falls didn’t turn out as well as Estes had hoped. In the friendly hitting environment of the Pioneer League, Estes slashed just .155/.191/.245 in 110 at-bats, with seven doubles, one homer, five RBIs, five walks and 23 strikeouts. Despite his reputation for defense, Estes committed four errors in 38 games, with one assist. While it’s possible he could return to Great Falls for 2019, Estes looked completely overmatched, and with Chicago’s stack of outfield prospects, he may be on the outside looking in.


Arizona League White Sox

Cabera Weaver
6´3´´
180 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 19
Additional positions: left field, right field

PerfectGame had Weaver ranked 62nd among prep prospects in the 2018 MLB Draft. After the 2017 Under Armour Showcase, Baseball Factory said Weaver “continues to show as a prospect on the diamond [and] continues to shine with pro level hitting/power potential.” The site clocked Weaver’s exit velocity at 88 mph and tabbed him “a special type player.” Weaver ran a 60-yard-dash in 6.44, and was given 60 grades in hitting, power, and fielding with a 58 in throwing.

While some of those grades may have been a wee bit high, especially the hitting tool, Weaver showed enough to be drafted by the White Sox in the seventh round. He accepted the signing bonus of $226,200, and bypassed his strong verbal commitment with Georgia.

Weaver struggled a bit with the AZL White Sox last year, which is certainly understandable. For the season, he slashed .248/.367/.342 in 112 at-bats, with five doubles, three triples, one homer, 11 RBIs, eight stolen bases, 10 HBP, 18 walks (10.0%) and 52 strikeouts (28.9%). He committed just one error in 45 games in the outfield, mostly playing in center.

Aside from strikeouts, Weaver really did quite well. If he can cut down those whiffs, his natural speed alone should help him become a .300 hitter, not to mention that with his build, one can easily project a 20-20 hitter. If he simply cut down his strikeouts by a third while maintaining his .375 BABIP, Weaver would’ve hit .289 for the year. With a bit more refinement, and becoming more acclimated to the speed of the game, he could certainly find his path to the majors some day. As of now, expect him to gain additional development with the AZL Sox in 2019 — with a possibility of early promotion to Great Falls if things go well.

Luis Mieses
6´3´´
180 pounds
Bats: Left
Age: 18
Additional positions: right field, left field

A native of Santiago, D.R., Mieses received a signing bonus of $428,000 and was part of a vast international contingent that signed with the White Sox on July 2, 2016 — including fellow outfielders Josue Guerrero and Anderson Comas. Marco Paddy said, at the time of his signing, “Luis is a very good, very athletic power outfielder who can really swing the bat. He is a natural hitter with a plus arm.”

In 2017 with the DSL Sox, Mieses slashed .263/.302/.320 with eight doubles, three triples, no homers, 25 RBIs, three stolen bases, 10 walks (3.80%) and 42 strikeouts (15.97%) in 247 at-bats.

In 2018, Mieses spent the entire season with the AZL White Sox, and his numbers declined a bit. Mieses slashed just .226/.236/.328, with 10 doubles, two triples, two homers, 26 RBIs, three stolen bases, four walks (1.96%) and 35 strikeouts (17.16%) in 195 at-bats. Like the aforementioned Weaver, Mieses has the build to develop more power. However, he doesn’t have the same speed component and his plate discipline isn’t as advanced — walking less than 2% of the time just doesn’t get the job done. With that said, Mieses is still extremely young and will be given every opportunity to succeed. A return to the AZL Sox should be expected for 2019.

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Dominican Summer League White Sox

Johnabiell Laureano
6´0´´
180 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 18
Additional positions: right field, left field

A native of the Dominican Republic’s hotbed of baseball, San Pedro de Macoris, Rosario signed a minor league deal with the White Sox this February. He wasn’t a deeply-coveted prospect, but for what it’s worth, Laureano may have been the best outfielder on a very bad DSL squad in 2018.

For the year, Laureano slashed .220/.329/.262 in 214 at-bats with no homers, 13 RBIs, four stolen bases, 31 walks (12.30%) and 54 strikeouts (21.43%). Obviously, that’s not a lot to write home about. Like most teenagers, Laureano needs more refinement on the basepaths (33% stolen base efficiency), needs to cut down on his strikeouts, and will need to get more lift when he does hit the ball. He showed enough plate discipline to walk regularly, and played a respectable center field defensively, with more assists than errors. He will turn 18 in November, so we should expect to see improvement in most phases of his game in 2019. Expect him to return to the DSL White Sox for 2019.

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Summary

Even in the lower levels, Chicago’s center field depth is exceptionally strong. While Walker and Gonzalez are the best of this group presently, there’s enough talent oozing from guys like Weaver and Mieses to really get excited about. Sure, most of the center fielders higher up the food chain get more publicity (Luis Robert, Luis Basabe, and Luis Gonzalez, among others), and deservedly so. That doesn’t mean we should forget about the top talents from Kannapolis on down.