Last season, the Charlotte Knights (AAA) had all the attention from Chicago White Sox fans, maybe even more than the major league team. The team broke camp with top prospects Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Carson Fulmer and Zack Burdi. Besides Burdi, who is still recovering from Tommy John surgery, the rest are in the majors.
The last top prospect standing in Charlotte is Michael Kopech, who had short but successful stint in AAA to end last season. But do not fret, by August the team will be stacked again with the next wave of top prospects from Birmingham and Winston-Salem.
In the meantime, Charlotte is providing injury depth for the White Sox. You will see a lot of Knights up in Chicago over the course of the season. Will there be another Nicky Delmonico or Adam Engel, who can take a starting job later in the season? There are intriguing players in every position group.
Kopech is the headliner here, of course. He went 15 innings with Charlotte last season, with a 2.07 FIP and a 3.00 BB/9. The general consensus is that Kopech will be on the South Side some time this season, but after the dreadful end to his spring, his timetable should be pushed back. Tyler Danish and Dylan Covey are the remaining prospects who should begin the season as starting pitchers.
Covey pitched 70 innings with the White Sox in 2017 and accumulated a -1.4 WAR, not a particularly good way to start a career. However, before last year the highest level of minor league baseball Covey pitched in was AA, for a meager 29 1⁄3 innings. Meanwhile, Danish has appeared in a handful of games with the Sox since 2016. In 2017 with the Knights, he pitched 138 1⁄3 innings with a 5.13 FIP. If there are any short-term injuries to the Sox starting staff, one of these two pitchers should be called up, as Covey has three options left and Danish still has one.
The last spots in Charlotte’s opening rotation should go to two veteran pitchers. Chris Volstad and TJ House, at least for the time being. Alec Hansen will not open the season with Birmingham because of injury; once he comes back, one of Birmingham’s starting five should be called up to Charlotte and Volstad or House could see themselves either released or in the bullpen.
The big name out of the Knights bullpen is Burdi. However, he is rehabbing from his Tommy John surgery last July and should miss most of the season. That injury leads to more questions than answers for Charlotte’s pen.
Thyago Vieira and Jace Fry will be the prospects to watch in Burdi’s absence, and both figure to pitch in closing situations. Vieira has an upper-90s fastball that can touch 100 mph. Surprisingly, that has only led to a career 7.4 K/9, with a 4.5 BB/9. Meanwhile, Fry made the jump from AA to the South Side and did not fare well. He walked five batters while only striking out three in the majors, but at AA he was dominant: In 45 1⁄3 innings he sported a 2.76 FIP, which was why he was called up in the first place. Both of these guys have multiple options left and should accumulate innings in the majors if and when an injury occurs.
The rest of the bullpen spots should be taken by recently acquired veteran arms. Jeanmar Gomez and Bruce Rondon look to be closer candidates along with Vieira and Fry. Xavier Cedeno, Robbie Ross, Rob Scahill, and Chris Beck are all candidates to fill out the seven- or eight-man bullpen.
For all you MiLB.TVers, Charlotte’s pitching staff should be a fun one to watch live. With Kopech, Vieira and Rondon, the Knights will utilize three 100 mph fastball pitchers this summer.
With Kevan Smith on the DL and with few players that have AAA experience, the position is wide open to start the season. Alfredo Gonzalez, Brett Austin, and Yermin Mercedes are options at catcher for the Knights. Of those three, only Gonzalez had time at AAA, and that was only three plate appearances in 2016. However, the lack of legitimate catching prospects at Charlotte could be by design: Zack Collins and Seby Zavala, the top two catching prospects in the Sox system, are at AA, and one of them should earn a call-up over the course of the season.
If Sox fans are looking for the next Delmonico, the corner infield in Charlotte is the place to look. Casey Gillaspie and Danny Hayes will man first base, and Patrick Leonard and Matt Skole should field the hot corner.
Gillaspie is the most interesting prospect of the bunch, as he has a clearer path to the majors. He is a switch-hitter and a former first-round pick, and was rated as high as No. 74 on the Baseball America prospect list last season. However, 2017 was abysmal for Gillaspie. His batting average in AAA dropped from .307 in 2016 to .223. If he can raise his batting average, he should get the call-up to the South Side if Jose Abreu or Matt Davidson land on the DL. Plus, Gillaspie has three options left.
The middle of the diamond should be compromised of Jose Rondon, Jake Elmore, and Eddy Alvarez. Each of these players can play multiple positions and none of them have a true position as of yet.
Out of these three, Rondon is the only true prospect, at 24 years old. Alvarez and Elmore are 28 and 30, respectively. Rondon was acquired from the San Diego Padres and is replacing what the Sox system lost in Jake Peter. He had a momentary stay in the majors in 2016, but only collected three hits in 25 at-bats. Yolmer Sanchez is a fitting comparison for Rondon. He has less power than Sánchez, but makes up for it with his speed. He only has one option left, and with multiple players in the majors who can already play middle infield, Rondon may be on the outside looking in for 2018.
Out of all the position groups, the major league roster will field the most competition from the outfielders in Charlotte. The Knights outfield is led by Charlie Tilson and Ryan Cordell, along with Jacob May and Daniel Palka. And Eloy Jimenez looms in Birmingham, looking to take a corner outfield spot in Charlotte — but barring an injury in Charlotte, the earliest he could move up is when Tilson or Cordell is sent to the White Sox.
Tilson and Cordell were both coming off of injuries at the end of the 2017 campaign. They need regular playing time and three at-bats a day to get up to speed. In Tilson’s case, he has only had 395 plate appearances in two years. The best tool Tilson boasts is his speed; in 2015 he stole 46 bases in AA, and FanGraphs rates his speed a 70 on the 20-80 scale. Tilson’s bat has never been questioned, with a .289 batting average in his professional career. But after two serious injuries and hundreds of missed at-bats, Tilson needs to get off to a fast start to quell any concerns.
Cordell is not as polished a contact hitter, nor is he as fast as Tilson, but the big man makes that up with his power. In 68 games at AAA last season, Cordell hit 10 home runs, contributing to a .506 slugging percentage. Tilson and Cordell both have two options left, and will be the first ones called up when injuries happen. But both of these guys can also press the issue when/if Delmonico or Engel do not prove themselves at the major league level. There is little margin for error in the White Sox outfield, as Cordell and Tilson will be ready to step up.
The Knights have big-league prospects on their team, and some should have an impact on the 2018 White Sox. Unlike last season, more talented prospects are on the way, especially from Birmingham.
Thursday, April 5, 2018, at Durham Bulls (7:05 p.m. CST)