They say better late than never.
Graduations have seen the depth of the Chicago White Sox system depleted from where it was at midseason 2017 (and maybe even at the start of last season, when it wasn’t that great) but the top talent remains simply superb. You’re not going to find any arguments about the top two prospects, and the top four is near-consensus, as well. After that, there’s a drop-off, though the opinion of the height of it differs a good deal. If you’re like me, and have (among other things) some serious questions about the position player drafting the last few years, the drop is bigger.
Rick Hahn didn’t make any major prospect acquisitions this offseason. Therefore, unlike last offseason (or midseason), I’m pretty comfortable with my assessments, given that these players were all in the White Sox system in 2017.
Graduating from last year’s list are three of the top four: Yoan Moncada (1), Lucas Giolito (2), and Reynaldo Lopez (4). While each struggled to various degrees, overall their 2017 seasons supported their high rankings, and expectations for their futures remain high.
Other notable but unranked graduates were Nicky Delmonico and Adam Engel. Delmonico was impressive (.262/.373/.482) and thoroughly deserves his shot as starting left fielder to prove that 2017 wasn’t luck-fueled. Engel certainly was not impressive at the plate (.166/.235/.282), but his defense and baserunning were. So he’ll be getting another, likely very short-leashed, shot at center.
Expected long-term pieces are in place already at shortstop and second base. Another in a corner outfield spot should arrive soon. But the projected strength of the White Sox rebuild thus far may well be almost fully-formed by August. Starters Giolito, Lopez, and Carlos Rodon should be joined by one or more rotation pieces. With the everpresent caveat of health, it should be an exciting season for young talent at all levels of the organization.
1. RF Eloy Jimenez
2017 MiLB line - Myrtle Beach Pelicans (A+)/Winston-Salem (A+)/Birmingham (AA): .312/.379/.568 in 369 PA. 9.5% BB, 19.5% K.
Last year’s ranking: NA Midseason: 2
You should never say a guy can’t miss. And I won’t here. But Jimenez is pretty darn close. His raw power is elite and he’s been very successful in translating that into game power, as he displayed this spring. Unlike a lot of sluggers, though, Jimenez has a good feel for hitting. The Dominican is going to strike out — it’s the rare power hitter these days who doesn’t — but he looks like the type who will be able to stay below 25%. He doesn’t walk as much as other power guys but there’s still a good chance that he’ll improve his walk rate as he matures and, perhaps, as pitchers try to avoid his bat.
Still just 21 years old, he’s not a plodding slugger, either. Jimenez is a large man with solid athleticism, and should be able to maintain that through most of his 20s, at least. While Jimenez has played left field most often in his career, after coming to the White Sox he played right field exclusively. At either corner he won’t be a liability, but don’t expect better than average defense.
It looks like the White Sox will assign him to Birmingham and, having only 18 games at that level under his belt, it’s the prudent choice. I’d expect, though, that he’ll force a promotion sooner rather than later. If things go perfectly (for him, that is; not so perfectly for those in Chicago), it wouldn’t be surprising to see Jimenez called up to the majors by midseason. But the White Sox aren’t going to bring him up to play part-time, so whether by performance or transaction a spot would need to be made available. Otherwise, it’s a late August or September arrival.
Long-term role: Star-level right fielder. ETA: Mid to late 2018.
2. RHSP Michael Kopech
2017 MiLB line - Birmingham/Charlotte (AAA): 25 G, 134 1⁄3 IP, 92 H, 65 BB, 172 K, 11.8% BB, 31.3% K.
Last year’s ranking: 4 Midseason: 4
In my midseason update, I said about Kopech: “There’s still a lot of throwing going on with him, and not enough pitching.” By the time that was published, Kopech had already begun to make the adjustment that improved his command. Prior to the Southern League’s All-Star break, in half of his starts (eight of 16) Kopech walked four or more. Afterwards (nine starts), Kopech had no such outings, only walked three in one start, and had three starts with no walks. The switch, as they say, was flipped.
I’m sure everyone reading this is aware of Kopech’s attributes and comps, so I won’t belabor. The 21-year-old (for another month) has an elite fastball, arguably one of the best in all of baseball. Kopech pairs that often triple-digit offering with a near-90 mph slider that is plus now and may still get better. Combined, those pitches are enough to be an above-average or better starter. Following the usual prospect trope, Kopech’s changeup is well behind his other pitches and, to reach his ace ceiling, he’ll need to refine it into at least an average pitch. When Kopech gets it right, it’s actually a plus pitch. But he still gets it wrong more often than not.
In that respect, Charlotte will be a decent challenge for him. In the lower minors, while there are a lot of guys who can throw about as hard as Kopech and pair that with a decent offspeed pitch, command is usually lacking and, anyway, they’re relievers. A lot of hitters simply haven’t seen anyone — let alone a starter — with Kopech’s ability. That won’t be the case at Triple-A, where plenty of ex-major leaguers reside. He’ll still be dominant but, to get deep into games, Kopech often will need to have something more than a show-me change.
Long-term role: Well above-average starter. ETA: Mid-2018.
T-3. CF Luis Robert
2017 MiLB line - DSL White Sox (R): .310/.491/.536 in 114 PA. 19.3% BB, 20.2% K. 12 for 15 in stolen bases.
Last year’s ranking: NA Midseason: 3
Naturally for a guy who hasn’t played in the States yet, there’s still a lot of uncertainly here. By, ahem, delaying my list until now, it gave me an opportunity to see Robert in some limited action. Until, in accordance with his short affiliated career, the right-handed hitter got hurt again and likely will be out until at least late May. And that’s something that concerns me.
Trying to read the tea leaves from small sample sizes is very dangerous. The sprained left thumb is Robert’s third notable injury, after the sprained right ankle (three weeks) and left meniscus (essentially a month) he suffered in the Dominican Summer League.
There are a few ways to look at it. One is to note that Robert hadn’t played in a rather long time prior to signing, and the DSL injuries were related to that. Additionally, the White Sox certainly erred on the side of caution with the length of time Robert was held out. Another is to suggest that the Cuban plays in a riskier fashion, noting how he injured his thumb. Yet another is to start slapping the “injury-prone” label on him.
That’s all still a parlor game for now. It is interesting to me that, after injuring his thumb, Robert managed to hit a grand slam later in the same game. Confirmatory bias, sure, but I was very impressed with his raw power this spring. Seeing (and hearing) him hit, I thought the 60 or 65 grades I’d seen were light. Outside of Jose Abreu and Jimenez, I’m not sure there are any White Sox who beat his raw power.
At 20 years old, and having missed substantial development time, raw is certainly both a general and specific modifier for Robert. To convert that raw power to elite game power, Robert’s hit tool will need to improve pretty dramatically. That’s a scouting assessment, but it is at least worth footnoting that he had a 20.2% strikeout rate in the DSL, which is not unusual, or even bad, for that league. However, generally speaking, even in a small sample size I’d have expected better from a guy with substantial Cuban Series Nacional experience, as well as someone who was older than most of the DSL competition. Anyway, the hit tool may keep him from being a five-tool player, but his other four are plenty to dream on.
Long-term role: Center fielder ETA: 2020.
T-3. RHSP Alec Hansen
2017 MiLB line - Kannapolis (A)/Winston-Salem: 26 G, 141 1⁄3 IP, 114 H, 51 BB, 191 K, 8.6% BB, 32.4% K.
Last year’s ranking: 5 Midseason: 5
The man was a strikeout machine in 2017. Hansen actually increased his rate as he waltzed through three levels. And he showed that the command gains he made after being drafted were real and sustainable. And the righty pitched a full season, allaying the lingering concerns about durability. Basically, this larry-favorite did everything I expected (except for that whole “make the majors” thing).
The 23-year-old has two plus pitches, a mid-to-upper 90s fastball with solid run and a classic 12-6 curve. Hansen also has a slider but it’s been leapfrogged by his curve and, while it’s an average pitch still with some projection, it will be interesting to see how he uses his slider and curve going forward. And, yes, the trope is here, too: Hansen’s change is a below-average pitch, but with more reps looks like a decent bet to be average. That’s certainly the repertoire of a starting pitcher and, with some improvements, the ceiling projection of an above-average starter.
In 2018, Hansen will need to work on sustaining his velocity deeper into starts. And, while he was able to get through 2017 without arm issues, the forearm tightness which sidelined Hansen earlier this month is a concern. Last year I said, “past elbow issues beget future elbow issues, and I fully expect them to reappear,” and they did. The clean MRI and the generally sanguine way the White Sox spoke about his forearm suggest it’s minor, but it does illustrate that the team needs to stay on top of issues around Hansen’s elbow.
Long-term role: Mid-rotation starter ETA: Late 2018 (for realz this time).
5. RHP Dylan Cease
2017 MiLB line - South Bend (A)/Kannapolis: 22 G, 93 1⁄3 IP, 74 H, 44 BB, 126 K, 11.3% BB, 32.5% K.
Last year’s ranking: NA Midseason: 9
Here’s where the list starts to get fun.
The 2017 season was a qualified success for Cease, as he started 22 games and more than doubled his previous innings high with 93 1⁄3 IP. It was a success in that, after having Tommy John surgery right after being drafted in 2014, Cease got through a regular season without any arm issues. It was qualified because he had a sprained right ankle that kept him out for more than three weeks in May and June, and shoulder fatigue/tightness that prevented him from participating in Kanny’s postseason.
Pitching coordinator Richard Dotson suggested the former begat the latter. Another way to look at it is that the 22-year-old felt the effects of a substantially-increased season workload, particularly given that in his final four starts Cease easily topped his innings pitched over any other four-game stretch of his career, including back-to-back six-inning starts.
Cease did make it back in time to throw bullpens during instructional league in October and, now that we’ve seen he’s had no issues during the spring, the shoulder issue looks more like a simple fatigue thing rather than anything more sinister. In 2018, Cease’s main task will be to get though a full season workload unscathed (including any postseason, natch), which would involve upping his innings total to somewhere in the 130+ range. The secondary task will be to improve his (trope warning!) changeup, as it’s just a show-me pitch at this point. Cease’s mid-90s fastball and hammer curve combo is still pretty scintillating, and further improvement in curveball consistency will up it to devastating.
Most likely starting in Winston-Salem, I expect the White Sox to take a cautious path with the righty. There’s a whole lot of risk here, but the upside is big and very tantalizing.
Long-term role: Starter or high leverage reliever. ETA: 2020.
OK, gotta quit for now, just as the list is getting fun.
Don’t worry; the rest of the Top 10 goes up tomorrow.