Like I wrote in ending Part One, the bottom half of the top 10 is where things start to get fun.
6. RHP Dane Dunning
2017 MiLB line: Kannapolis/Winston-Salem: 26 G, 144 IP, 127 H, 38 BB, 168 K, 6.3% BB, 27.8% K
Last year’s ranking: NR Midseason: 10
Dunning is an example of “Rick always gets his man,” which is the opposite of the Ken Williams version, because the Chicago White Sox acquired Dunning six months into the beginning of his pro career (the Washington Nationals had picked him in the draft before Hahn could grab him) instead of six months from the end. The “other guy” acquired in the Eaton trade (after Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez), Dunning quickly made a name for himself with his performance in 2017.
The 23-year-old is a sinker/slider pitcher. While you’ll frequently see them both graded as above-average pitches, I’m more sold on the sinker than the slider. The former is a low- to mid-90s offering that has very heavy sink when he’s on top of it. When he’s not, well, let’s just say it’s good that Dunning is in an organization that’s known for helping taller pitchers stay tall in their delivery.
Right now, his low- to mid-80s slider looks like an average pitch to me. While it’s a good offering to get guys to swing out of the zone, Dunning is less consistent in getting his slider to drop in the zone for strikes. That’s fine for getting guys out in the low minors, but the upper minors feature a lot more hitters able to recognize spin, and they’ll just lay off if they know Dunning can’t keep it in the zone.
I have seen Dunning use his slider effectively against both lefties and righties, which is good because I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that he has a below-average changeup. He’s already shown a willingness and ability to use both of his better pitches against any hitter and thus comparatively speaking, a bit less hinges on the development of a change. But it’s a bad pitch right now — and Dunning pitches like he knows that, because he doesn’t use it often and, when he does, it’s basically a throwaway. Birmingham is often the place where the White Sox will get serious about “forcing” a pitcher to throw a weaker pitch, so don’t be surprised if you see some bad-looking pitching lines. Dunning also hasn’t got a good curve, which has gotten some ink recently, as he says he worked on both that and his changeup during the offseason.
Even without much improvement in his sinker/slider, Dunning probably can be expected to make the back-end of a starting rotation. With improvements to both his slider and changeup, his mid-rotation ceiling should be realized.
Long-term role: Starting pitcher or higher leverage reliever. ETA: 2019.
7. RHRP Zack Burdi
2017 MiLB line: Charlotte: 29 G, 33.1 IP, 30 H, 17 BB, 51 K, 11.3% BB, 33.8% K
Last year’s ranking: 8 Midseason: NR
Obviously, due to injury, not much has changed with Burdi since my midseason list. But other players graduating, getting hurt, or simply not performing jumps him back into the Top 10. Out since early July last year after having Tommy John surgery, the 23-year-old may well miss all of the 2018 minor league season. I’d be cautiously optimistic that Burdi will get at least some “rehab” appearances in the low minors, continue throwing through fall instructs, and be ready for the Arizona Fall League.
Without the injury, Burdi certainly would’ve seen time in the majors by now, and perhaps have used up his prospect status. He’s the rare reliever with a usable three-pitch arsenal. The fastball essentially sits at 100 mph and isn’t straight. His slider is double-plus and, therefore, is essentially unhittable. His changeup sits low 90s, or essentially right between his two plus pitches, and teases hitters who sit on either of them. Essentially, he has the proverbial closer’s stuff.
One worrying thing for a guy projected to be a high-leverage reliever is that he almost never pitched on back-to-back days last season. And, the one time he did, he got lit up. That certainly suggests the White Sox were protecting him, likely due to the inability to recover sufficiently after a game. It’s unclear whether that was a leading indicator of his eventual elbow injury, or was a cause — and, of course, it could be both. It’ll be something to watch to see if that usage pattern continues after he’s fully recovered from the surgery.
Long-term role: High leverage reliever. ETA: Mid 2019.
8. RHSP Spencer Adams
2017 MiLB line — Birmingham: 26 G, 152.2 IP, 171 H, 40 BB, 113 K, 6.1% BB, 17.2% K.
Last year’s ranking: 9 Midseason: NR
If it seems like Adams has been around forever, it’s because he has. Drafted out of high school in 2014 while the White Sox were going through their half-assed rebuild, he’s now in the midst of their second rebuild. His development has been measured and slow, particularly by White Sox standards. The 2017 season was his first full campaign at Birmingham, and he did a good job bouncing back from a concerning 2016.
Last season, Adams reversed a worrying decline in his strikeout rate and got it to a more palatable 17.2%. That’s still not missing very many bats, but he does couple that K rate with a low walk rate. He doesn’t have a standout pitch, but Adams, who turns 22 next month, has been durable and reliable. The 2017 season was his second consecutive one of 150-plus innings, and he’s generally good for six-inning starts. If you’re getting back-end, innings-eating starter vibes, you’re paying attention.
To get there, Adams still has got some developing to do. He gets beat up by lefties so, you guessed it, he needs to improve his changeup to at make it at least an average pitch. His other pitches — four-seam, two-seam, and slider — are fringe-average, and any improvements would be welcomed. Adams’s improved strikeout rate came in part because he used his four-seamer more. That had a side effect of an alarming 12.3% HR/FB, which won’t work out too well in the more hitter-friendly parks in Charlotte and Chicago.
I realize this isn’t an exciting profile, but it can be a valuable one. In a best-case scenario, you end up with a guy in the Jon Garland mold. In a base-case scenario, you get a guy who can soak up innings, “keep you in the game” and pile up some 1-2 WAR seasons. The dream White Sox rotation of the future wouldn’t include Adams, but he’s useful as a stabilizer when the inevitable injuries/ineffectiveness bite the bigger names.
Long-term role: Backend starter. ETA: Sometime in 2018 but for good sometime in 2019.
9. OF Blake Rutherford
2017 MiLB line: Charleston RiverDogs (A)/Kannapolis: .260/.326/.348 in 440 PA. 8.6% BB, 17.3% K. 10-for-14 in stolen bases
Last year’s ranking: NA Midseason: 6
Rutherford is a guy I overvalued on my midseason list because he’d almost literally just been acquired when I published it. So I had to buy into the scouting reports of others, and pray. With the sobering passage of time and seeing him for myself, I need to revise downward.
Rutherford, who turns 21 in May, has been described as a five-tool player. He certainly looks like a guy who could be that. But when you really dig into it, the only visibly brilliant tool is his hit tool. And the way he accomplishes that is to the detriment to the tool everyone wants to project on him, power. Rutherford’s speed is average-ish, and likely will tick lower as he ages. His arm is fringe-average, and he’s a competent defender. Across the board average-ish tools is a fine profile, but it’s not what one thinks about when the five-tool label is tossed around.
While Rutherford plays center now, he’s most likely going to end up in a corner spot. That puts more pressure on the bat. The left-handed hitter is going to need to find a happy medium between making contact and hitting for power. Chris Getz, White Sox director of player development, suggested at SoxFest that it’s a pitch recognition and confidence issue, and that Rutherford will eventually figure out what pitches he can drive. Getz also referred to some amorphous “adjustments” he’ll need to make, too, but that’s the crux of it more than anything else. Rutherford doesn’t go to the plate looking to hit the ball in the air and his swing is line-drive oriented.
Winston-Salem is more rewarding to hitters who put the ball in the air, so hopefully Rutherford can adjust his approach to take advantage of that while still making enough contact.
Long-term role: Corner outfielder. ETA: 2020.
10. 3B Jake Burger
2017 MiLB line: AZL White Sox (R)/Kannapolis: .263/.336/.412 in 217 PA. 6.5% BB, 13.8% K
Last year’s ranking: NA Midseason: NR
Selected by the White Sox 11th overall in last year’s draft, Burger unfortunately won’t get the chance to play his first full pro season until 2019 after he blew out his left Achilles’ tendon last month. That had a bit of an effect on his ranking, more so because of the lost development time rather than any concern about his health long-term.
Burger is a large man. While he’s currently a third baseman, it’s doubtful that will be his long-term home if he makes the big leagues, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see him there for his first few seasons. Showing off some of the plus makeup he’s credited with, all indications were that Burger worked hard in the offseason to get himself into better shape. It would’ve been interesting to see if that addressed some of the mobility concerns.
It’s hard to get my approval as a right-handed hitting, probable first baseman, but Burger looked the part for me in Kannapolis. While the stat line isn’t eye-popping, Kanny’s home park suppresses home runs quite a bit and above-average power is his calling card. More importantly for me was that Burger had a very low strikeout rate. His bat-to-ball skills will allow him to tap into his power more and also help prevent him from becoming “just” a three true outcomes guy.
Like Burdi, I’d expect to see him in fall instructs and the AFL.
Long-term role: Bat-first corner infielder. ETA: 2020.
Most of you know that I eschew numeric lists in favor of groupings, which I think more accurately display the difference, or lack of difference, in value among players. If someone wants to re-order my numeric rankings while remaining within the same player grouping, I’m not going to argue with them.
- Group 1: Eloy Jimenez and Michael Kopech
- Group 2: Luis Robert and Alec Hansen (duh)
- Group 3: Dylan Cease and Dunning
- Group 4: Burdi, Adams, Rutherford, Burger, and about a half dozen others
Regarding “omissions,” I’ll try to preempt some of the queries:
Zach Collins: I’m well-known, both here and in the Twitterverse, for my long-standing skepticism about Collins. I don’t think he’s a catcher and I don’t think his bat plays in the majors.
Carson Fulmer: He’s just a mess. I’ve long had him pegged as a reliever, though a high-leverage one, but supported developing him as a starter. This spring has really illustrated that the time to regard him as a starter has passed. The White Sox still profess that he’s their Opening Day fifth starter, but we’re at the point where you’re just busting a guy’s confidence by trotting him out there.
Micker Adolfo: Sure, he made some improvements last season, but I think many people are overstating it. And, of course, the oft-injured 21-year-old has a sprained right UCL, which will limit him to DHing this season.