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Deep Dive: Left-handed starting pitcher edition, part 1

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Taking a look into the southpaw starters in the lower levels of the White Sox system

In Konnor’s Corner: Pilkington’s abridged run with the White Sox after signing this year didn’t show much, but expect better results from this crafty southpaw in his full-season debut in 2019.
Kim Contreras (@Cu_As)/South Side Sox

“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization. Each position consists of four parts:

  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

While most of the top left-handed starting pitching prospects finished the season with Winston-Salem or higher, the lower levels featured a couple of prospects that may have solid futures in the White Sox organization. The players’ ages listed below are as of April 1, 2019.


Kannapolis Intimidators

Drew Harrington
6´2´´
225 pounds
Age: 24

Let’s flash back to June 2016. Harrington had just completed his junior year with the Louisville Cardinals, where he was selected the Atlantic Coast Conference Pitcher of the Year. He had a 12-2 record in his first year as a starter, with a nifty 1.95 ERA and 1.06 WHIP over 17 starts. During that time, he walked just 25 hitters while striking out 92. His peripherals were even better in his sophomore season, out of the bullpen: 0.29 ERA, 0.74 WHIP, 11 H, 12 BB, 42 K in 31 IP. As a result, the Atlanta Braves drafted the Kentucky native with the third pick in 2017’s third round.

Harrington’s first year with Rookie League Danville was indeed promising, as his ERA was just 2.45 in nine games — eight of which were out of the bullpen, to save his arm after a long college season. The Braves had Harrington skip Low-A ball in 2017 and promoted him to the Florida Fire Frogs, their A+ squad. He had a mediocre season there, with a 4.50 ERA and 1.51 WHIP to go along with 23 walks (7.0%), 56 strikeouts (17.6%), and 84 hits (.298 OBA) allowed during his 70 innings of work (14 GS) through July 7, when he was sidelined for the remainder of the year due to an undisclosed injury.

While not dominant in Kannapolis, Harrington’s numbers (with the exception of strikeouts) rebounded. In 14 games (12 starts), he had enjoyed a 3.89 ERA and 1.24 WHIP over 71 23 innings, while allowing 73 hits (.273 OBA) and 16 walks (5.4%); he also struck out 48 hitters (16.1%).

As evidenced by his low strikeout totals, Harrington isn’t a power pitcher. Harrington is a large pitcher with a deceptive delivery, which makes him more ideal out of the bullpen because hitters see him just once or twice a game. Harrington’s control has actually been quite good; his command, however, has been lacking because he delivers too many hittable pitches in the zone (as evidenced by his high OBA). Harrington is also extremely competitive — almost too much, at times.

With a potentially-loaded rotation (Alec Hansen, Lincoln Henzman, Blake Battenfield, Zach Lewis and Luis Martinez) and three southpaws (Andrew Perez, Bennett Sousa, and Kevin Escorcia) in the bullpen to possibly begin next year with Winston-Salem, Harrington likely will return to Kannapolis next season.

Matt Portland
6´3´´
225 pounds
Age: 25

Portland posted a decent, if unexceptional, three years for Northwestern. His best season may have been his junior year, when he posted a 4.35 ERA and 1.61 WHIP in 89 innings — allowing 108 hits and 35 walks compared to 68 strikeouts.

The Kansas City Royals saw enough potential in Portland to draft him in the 17th round in 2015, signing him to a $100,000 bonus. After a good initial season in the bullpen with the Royals Pioneer League affiliate in Idaho Falls, Portland returned with poor results in the rotation for 2016: 5.25 ERA and 1.67 WHIP in 60 innings, allowing 63 hits (.278 OBA) and 37 walks (13.3%) while striking out 57 (20.4%). Portland was released in March of last year, finding jobs with independent teams Lincoln Saltdogs and Normal CornBelters until the White Sox signed him in late June 2018.

Portland pitched credibly for Great Falls and Kannapolis over 13 appearances (11 starts). In a combined 59 23 innings, he posted a 4.83 ERA and 1.49 WHIP, allowing 65 hits (.274 OBA) and 24 walks (9.2%) compared to 65 strikeouts (24.8%). Though his strikeout rate was decent, Portland relinquished far too many hits and walks. With his age and underwhelming performance overall, he may have difficulty finding a role in the White Sox organization. If Portland does return, it may be as a swingman/long reliever out of the pen with Kannapolis.

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Great Falls Voyagers

Konnor Pilkington
6´3´´
225 pounds
Age: 21

Pilkington had been considered one of the top collegiate southpaws in the country, since the beginning of his playing days with Mississippi State. After his solid sophomore season and terrific runs in the Cape Cod League and Team USA in 2017, Pilkington’s star couldn’t have shone brighter. In that sophomore season, he posted a 3.08 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 108 innings, allowing just 76 hits (.199 OBA) and 47 walks compared to 111 strikeouts.

However, in 2018 with the Bulldogs, Pilkington compiled a 4.47 ERA and 1.35 WHIP over 102 23 innings, as he allowed 106 hits (2.69 OBA) and 33 walks compared to 107 strikeouts. As a result of his junior slump, which saw him slip from 96 to 92 mph on the radar gun, he fell to the third round of the draft, where the White Sox were happy to snap him up with a $650,000 signing bonus.

Pilkington struggled during his eight starts with AZL and Great Falls after signing. In a small sample size totaling 14 innings, he surrendered 21 hits (.344 OBA), five walks (7.4%) and 11 strikeouts (16.2%) while posting a 7.07 ERA and 1.86 WHIP.

According to MLB Pipeline, Pilkington’s delivery got off-line for much of the time this season, which caused a decline in velocity. He worked mostly at 88-91 mph and topped out at 93 this spring, but he has reached 96 mph in the past and still succeeds at lower velocities because his size and high three-quarters arm slot create a steep downhill plane. He has good feel for his advanced change, and also uses a slider that can get slurvy at times. MLB Pipeline currently ranks Pilkington 19th among White Sox prospects, and he should begin next season in pitcher-friendly Kannapolis.


Arizona League White Sox

Taylor Varnell
6´1´´
190 pounds
Age: 23

As a senior, Varnell picked a bad time to have his worst college season. After spending a year with Western Oklahoma State JC in the bullpen, he transferred to Oral Roberts, where he had 3.28 and 2.02 ERAs during his sophomore and junior seasons; while his sophomore campaign was cut short due to labrum surgery, he bounced back in 2017 with a terrific junior season out of the bullpen.

When Varnell returned to the starting rotation in 2018, his season fell apart, with a 5.95 ERA and 1.49 WHIP over 59 innings, allowing 58 hits and 30 walks while striking out 62. He had his best game against Alec Bohm, Greyson Jenista, and the Wichita State Shockers, when he allowed just two hits and two walks while striking out seven over five innings. The White Sox must have seen enough then to take a chance on the Sayre, Okla. native, drafting him in the 29th round and announcing him as a reliever.

In 10 starts for the AZL White Sox, Varnell overpowered hitters to the tune of a 1.97 ERA and 0.88 WHIP, while allowing just 30 hits (.175 BA) and 10 walks (5.4 BB%) in striking out 61 (33.2 K%) in his 45 2⁄3 innings of work.

Varnell has actually fared better against righties (.159) than lefties (.242). It is understandable why the White Sox would consider him a reliever; he had far more success out of the bullpen in college than he ever did as a starter, and there is also an injury history with him as well. But in 2018, Varnell far exceeded his career high in innings — prior to this season, his college high was 26 2⁄3 innings, and this year, he was shut down at 104 23 .

Varnell does have the arsenal to succeed as a starting pitcher going forward. His fastball has significant movement, and currently maxes out at 92-93 mph. He also features an outstanding changeup, which runs 78-80 and helps explain why right-handed hitters are batting just .175 against his offerings. However, Varnell’s best pitch may be a 12-6 curveball that has been likened to that thrown by Barry Zito. Because of his age and production, expect Varnell to skip Great Falls and begin next season with Kannapolis.

Hector Acosta
6´4´´
200 pounds
Age: 20

Hector Acosta, as a native of the Dominican Republic, signed a minor league deal with the White Sox on July 2, 2016. In 2017, in his first season with the White Sox organization, he acquitted himself quite well with the DSL White Sox in 48 innings, with a respectable 3.35 ERA and 1.34 WHIP. Along with those stats, he allowed just 43 hits (.232 OBA) and 22 walks (10.2%) while striking out 43 hitters (20.0%).

After a return with the DSL Sox in 2018 covering 17 13 innings, Acosta earned a promotion to the States on June 30. However, he struggled badly in six appearances (three starts) for the AZL White Sox. In 10 13 innings with Arizona, Acosta posted an ugly 12.19 ERA and 2.03 WHIP while relinquishing 15 hits (.349 OBA) and six walks (11.8%) compared to eight strikeouts (15.7%). Righties tattooed him with a .382 OBA, compared to .222 against lefties. Thus, if Acosta possesses a changeup, it certainly wasn’t working as well as he had hoped.

Of course, this was an extremely small sample size, and Acosta may have simply needed time to acclimate himself to the new culture. He’s got the size and stuff to succeed, and he definitely still has youth on his side. Expect Acosta to return to the AZL Sox for 2019.

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Dominican Summer League White Sox

No southpaw starting pitchers finished the season with the DSL White Sox in 2018.

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Summary

Southpaw starting depth was relatively weak in the lower levels, although there is hope that Pilkington and Varnell will perform well going forward. Acosta is still quite raw, but he could also be a factor in two or three years. Harrington has the look of an organizational swingman, while Portland’s future isn’t clear. Rest assured, however, that the southpaw starting depth is much stronger in the upper levels of the system.