Last season, the Chicago White Sox farm system was stocked by the Charlotte Knights. This season, all eyes will be on the Birmingham Barons. At every position group, there are potential stars, and that starts with Eloy Jimenez.
Unfortunately, the injury bug will delay both Jimenez’s and Alec Hansen’s start to the season.
Jimenez strained his pectoral muscle, and thankfully, it’s not a serious injury. But along with the left knee tendinitis earlier in the spring, Jimenez will need to attend extended spring training. Hansen will also be delayed, due to forearm soreness.
Birmingham will not provide the White Sox with many players before September call-ups. Jimenez does have a chance to push the Sox to bring him up, but he must stay healthy. Ian Hamilton, Jordan Guerrero, and Jordan Stephens could be fast-tracked as well.
Guerrero and Stephens are a part of the best pitching group in the farm system. A.J. Puckett, Spencer Adams and Ian Clarkin round out the rest of the starting rotation, but one of those five will be heading up to Charlotte once Hansen returns.
Guerrero should be the pitcher that gets that first promotion. Stephens and Adams should be considered as well, but Guerrero has the most innings in AA and showed drastic improvement from 2016 to 2017. In 2016, he had a 4.70 FIP with a 7.15 K/9 and 4.83 BB/9 as a Baron. The next season, Guerrero improved to a 2.91 FIP, coupled with a 8.36 K/9 and a 2.64 BB/9. He has 282 1⁄3 innings in AA and needs the next challenge at AAA.
Hansen, Stephens and Adams could get looks in Charlotte at some point in the season due to their previous AA experience. Do not expect Clarkin or Puckett to receive a promotion, as they have not pitched at AA in their careers, and there is a considerable roadblock of starters in front of them.
The entire Birmingham pitching staff will be devastating for opposing hitters, and that includes the bullpen. It will be led by Ian Hamilton, Ryan Burr, Brian Clark and Connor Walsh. The rest of the pen should be filled out by Brad Goldberg, Brandon Brennan, Jake Johansen, Jorge Rondon and Colton Turner. However, two or three of these relievers could be released or placed elsewhere once the season starts.
Besides Zack Burdi, Ian Hamilton may be the best relief pitching prospect in the entire farm system. In 71 2⁄3 innings between high A ball and AA, Hamilton allowed only one home run. His 2017 campaign culminated in AA with a 2.06 FIP. In 2016, walks were the main issue for Hamilton in Birmingham, with a 3.79 BB/9. If the walk rate trends back towards his 1.37 BB/9 at Winston-Salem, the 22-year-old could find himself on the South Side in 2018.
When the White Sox start competing for the playoffs, starting pitching prospects will be traded, and of course, not all of them will be stars. Relievers like Hamilton will be essential pieces to the future major league team, along with Burdi.
Your 2019 and 2020 catchers will be found in Birmingham this season. Zack Collins and Seby Zavala will platoon this season at AA. Casey Schroeder is listed on their opening roster, but could be sent down to Winston-Salem when the season begins.
The catching depth in Charlotte is temporary, as it is likely that one of Collins and Zavala will be called up to AAA at some point. In the meantime, between high A and AA, Collins hit .224 with an .816 OPS. His defense is still a problem but on all accounts, it is improving. In 2017, Collins caught 47 runners on 120 stolen base attempts, with 16 passed balls.
Like Collins, Zavala is an offensive catcher. Between Winston-Salem and Kannapolis, he hit 21 home runs, helping him bat .282 with an .851 OPS. In 107 stolen base attempts, he picked off 27 runners, and allowed 13 passed balls. For Zavala and Collins, their defense is what will keep them in Birmingham — and is a reason for the Welington Castillo signing.
The bigger corner infield prospects are at the lower levels of the minors, like Gavin Sheets and Jake Burger. Sheets is in a position to make a jump to AA, but it would be a surprise if he did anytime soon. Matt Rose and Nick Basto can play both first and third for the Barons, while Keon Barnum is a first baseman and Trey Michalczewski is mainly a third baseman. Rose was impressive after he was acquired from the Cubs in last summer’s Jose Quintana trade; in 36 games in Winston-Salem, he slashed .270/.336/.475. If Sheets does make it to Birmingham, Rose could shift over to third full-time.
The middle of the diamond is a weak spot in the Sox’s farm system. Yeyson Yrizarri and Luis Curbelo are a year or two away from AA, and that leaves Bryant Flete and Denny Mendick to man the middle. Ryan Brett is listed as an outfielder on the Barons roster, but he has experience at second base. Flete was another player included in the Quintana trade. Before he was traded, Flete was having the best season of his career, batting .305 with a career-best slugging percentage of .425. However, once he to Winston-Salem, he dropped off, hitting .228 and slugging .329.
Since Jimenez will miss the start of the season, the outfielders will have to step up and fill that massive void. Jameson Fisher, Courtney Hawkins, Mason Robbins, and Tito Polo will be under the microscope.
Fisher and Polo are the two to keep an eye on before Jimenez returns. At AA last season, Polo was able to hit .323, with an OPS of .851. He also stole 14 bases on 18 attempts. Once Charlie Tilson or Ryan Cordell is called up to the big leagues, Polo should have the inside track for promotion. Meanwhile, Fisher started off his professional career hot, with a .342 batting average in rookie ball, but that average has fallen to .221 at high-A. His isolated power numbers have risen at each level, but his batting average must level out if he wants to stay in Birmingham when Jimenez returns.
The Barons will start with an abundance of talent, but most of it will be promoted during the season. The good news? Winston-Salem will send talent to replace those lost.
Thursday, April 5, at Chattanooga Lookouts (5:15 p.m. CST)