Baseball is back. Pitchers and catchers have their first spring training workout today for the White Sox. Like it was at SoxFest, all the hoopla will center around Michael Kopech, Zack Collins, Alec Hansen and the other top prospects.
But let’s be honest, it’s farfetched to assume that all these top prospects will pan out and stay healthy. Reliever Zack Burdi already has fallen to the injury bug.
Take the New York Mets, for example. The Mets have a phenomenal pitching staff, but never stay healthy, and their farm system did not have the depth to weather the injury storm.
Thanks in large part to GM Rick Hahn and scouting director Nick Hostetler, the depth of the White Sox farm system is deeper than it has been this century. To wit: Spencer Adams was a top three to five prospect in the system before the rebuild started, and he’s now tumbled to the 12-15 range.
So, in the spirit of the first official workouts of the spring, let’s look at the under-the-radar pitching and catching prospects who could provide key depth for the White Sox in years to come.
The Sox drafted Zavala in 2015. Since then, the catcher has become a proven minor league hitter with power, and it blew up last season. At low A-ball Kannapolis, high A-ball Winston Salem, and in the Arizona Fall League, his slash line was .286/.359/.492.
If a normal prospect had the slash line Zavala had last season, he would be on multiple top prospect lists. The reasons why he’s not? Two big ones: He’s 24 years old, and is below average in the field. In 2017, Zavala recorded 13 passed balls.
His bat, however, is what has given him a chance to showcase himself, as he is an invitee to big league camp this spring.
Mercedes was acquired in the minor league phase of the Rule Five Draft from the Baltimore Orioles. Much like Zavala, Mercedes is more known for his skills with the bat than as a defensive catcher. However, he’s had a 40% caught stealing percentage in the minors and from 2016 to 2017, his passed balls dropped from 24 to six. On top of that, he has hit 36 home runs in the past two seasons in the minors and had a K% of 15.8%.
Mercedes will enter the 2018 season at 25 years old. To put that into perspective, Yoan Moncada is entering his age 23 season and is a full-time MLB starter. But if Mercedes’ bat continues to show promise, he can be the next Austin Barnes, a player who took until age 27 to break out at catcher.
Skoug, from good ol’ Libertyville (I went to high school with him, not to brag), was projected to be taken in the second or third round of the 2017 MLB Draft. However, the TCU catcher fell to the seventh round, where the White Sox happily picked him up.
Why did Skoug fall? Two reasons: strikeouts and defense. His 98 strikeouts last season were one away from tying the NCAA all-time single season record. And like many other White Sox catchers, Skoug lacked skill on defense.
But a short stint in the minors (25 games) after being drafted is not enough to reasonably project his professional potential. Skoug is the second youngest catcher in the Sox system, at 22, and besides Zack Collins, has the most potential.
Guerrero was drafted in 2012, in the 15th round. He has a plus fastball that runs in the low 90s, but his best pitch is his changeup, which helps him get a high percentage of ground ball outs.
In 2016, he made the jump to AA Birmingham, and suffered. His K/9 was 7.15 and his BB/9 was an abysmal 4.83. He returned to form in 2017 at AA when his K/9 jumped to 8.36 and his BB/9 plummeted to 2.64. If he wants to be considered among the Kopechs and the Hansens, Guerrero will need to continue that improvement this season. But because of his improvements in 2017, he was given an invite to big league camp this spring.
Puckett was acquired from the Kansas City Royals last year as the highlight prospect in the Melky Cabrera trade. In 2017, his second professional season, Puckett’s innings skyrocketed from 58.2 in 2016 to 135.2. Whenever a pitcher has an innings increase like this, the numbers usually drop off, and that’s just what happened for Puckett.
However, after the White Sox acquired Puckett, he regained his form as a command pitcher, and his BB/9 dropped from 3.82 to 1.65. Though his ERA did rise from his transition from the Royals to the Sox, his Fielding Independent Pitching fell 48 points. I know Don Cooper didn’t get a hold of him, but that small sample size shows how good the Sox are at developing pitchers.
Hamilton was drafted in the 11th round in 2016 and, quite frankly, has been one of the best pitchers in the White Sox system ever since. He is a reliever, and the main reason he is not highly regarded like Burdi is because his fastball does not touch 100 mph.
Hamilton does tend to walk batters, but significantly fewer than Burdi. And in 104.1 innings, Hamilton has allowed only four home runs, which has helped him get noticed by Hostetler. In fact, when Hostetler is asked about the most underrated guy in the farm system, he’s consistently pointed to Hamilton and has backed him up at every level.
The White Sox drafted Bummer in the 19th round in 2014. After that, it only took the lefty two-and-a-half years to reach the big leagues, underperforming in 30 games last season. He had a professional baseball career low K/9 rate and career high in BB/9 rate, with a 4.50 ERA, in those 30 games. However, in his last 9.1 innings in September and October, his ERA was 0.96 and the batting average against him was .129.
Bummer uses three pitches, a mid-90s plus fastball, a slider and a rarely used changeup that he improved his command of by the end of the season. He’s currently on the 40-man roster, and will be competing for a bullpen spot this spring.
Darren Black (Darren Jackson) is a Fangraphs addict who knows Mark Buerhle could still throw 80 mph strikes in 2018.