Last season, the Winston-Salem Dash were without many top prospects to begin the season, with only Zack Collins and Dane Dunning the headliners. Collins is now at AA, and Dunning does not figure to be with the Dash for long. However, this season the team features six of the top 15 prospects in the farm system, including the best outfield grouping in the minors.
Omar Vizquel will head a very young but extremely talented Dash team. Unfortunately, the Dash will miss two players for an extended period of time in Jake Burger and Luis Robert, and Micker Adolfo will primarily be a DH because of injury.
Burger ruptured his Achilles early in spring training and will forgo an entire season of development. It would have been his first full professional season, after 51 games last year. Robert will miss multiple weeks, but could be back in May or June. This season will be Robert’s first stateside and Vizquel will serve as an important mentor. Adolfo’s throwing elbow has a sprained UCL and strained flexor tendon, but he will continue to be a DH in Winston-Salem for the majority of the season, if not all of it.
The rotation is led by Opening Day starter Dunning, and Dylan Cease. Newly acquired Ricardo Pinto, along with Jimmy Lambert and Bernardo Flores, should round out the rest of the starting five to start the season. Pinto is not expected to be in Winston-Salem long, and former starters Luis Martinez or Blake Hickman should slot into a starting role once Pinto is promoted.
Dunning was brilliant on Opening Day on Thursday, pitching five innings and yielding just three hits, an earned run and eight strikeouts against two walks, for a 65 game score. He was in line for the victory, if not for a ninth-inning rally off of Zach Thompson that snatched away a Dash victory.
Dunning is coming off a season in Winston-Salem where he pitched to a 3.98 FIP, along with a 10.3 K/9 rate. His FIP increased between low A and high, and not just because he was pitching against better hitters: BB/9 increased from 0.69 in Kannapolis to 2.75 as a member of the Dash, and he allowed just one home run in 61 2⁄3 innings with the Intimidators and gave up 15 homers in 118 innings at Winston-Salem. Dunning will need to improve his command in his second go-around as a Dash, and will be promoted if he does.
The major bullpen prospects like Zack Burdi and Ian Hamilton have already dashed through Winston-Salem, and there is not much else in the rest of the system for now. Since Martinez and Hickman are now relievers, they could draw previously barren attention as prospects. Along with Martinez and Hickman, Matt Foster, Kyle Kubat, and Jose Ruiz add intrigue to Dash bullpen.
Foster has the best track record of the relievers. In 57 1⁄3 minor league innings, he has only allowed one home run. In high A ball, Foster has a FIP of 1.97, with a 9.45 K/9 in a small sample size of 13 1⁄3 innings. If that continues, Foster should see himself in Birmingham when Hamilton is called up to Charlotte.
Like the Knights, the catching position with the Dash is bereft of talent. The 25-year-old Yermin Mercedes is the best of the group. Last season his batting average was .276, with 16 home runs — but he’s 25. Nate Nolan is a career .186 hitter, with a 41% strikeout rate, but is much better with the glove than Mercedes. Daniel Gonzalez will start on the DL and has shown more promise with the bat than Nolan, but with little power. There isn’t a real prospect among these three, and they are mere placeholders for Evan Skoug and Jose Colina.
Burger would be the prospect to watch on the hot corner, but with his season-ending injury there is a void that needs filling. Ti’Quan Forbes will man third base in Burger’s absence, along with Zach Remillard. Gavin Sheets will be the primary first baseman, and Mercedes can field first base when Sheets needs a day off.
Sheets is the clear headliner of the healthy corner infielders. He came into draft day with high praise for his power, but that was not on display in his first professional stint. In Kannapolis, he posted just .099 isolated power (ISO) but did offer some positives. He drew a walk in 9.2% of his plate appearances and struck out only 15.6% of the time. The power will come along for Sheets, but a high walk and low strikeout rate bodes well for the second round pick.
Since Forbes can back up shortstop and Remillard can field second, Winston-Salem will deploy just two primary middle infielders on the roster, Yeyson Yrizarri at short and Mitch Roman at second base.
Yrizarri became a fringe top 30 prospect for the Sox after he was acquired from the Texas Rangers. His bat provided an immediate impact, and his defense improved as well last year in Winston-Salem. Yrizarri hit .295, but rarely walks and does not have much pop in his bat (a 1.7% walk rate, with a .036 ISO). His fielding percentage at shortstop was much higher with the Sox farm than with the Rangers, with a career .958 fielding percentage as a shortstop that jumped to .981 with Winston-Salem. Since Yrizarri is a contact hitter who doesn’t walk, he will need his fielding and versatility to carry him to the majors.
What may be the best outfield position group in all of minor league baseball is here in Winston-Salem.
First, the injuries: Adolfo is listed as an outfielder, but he will primarily be a DH. Robert is on the DL for another month or two.
It falls to Blake Rutherford, Luis Alexander Basabe, Alex Call, and Joel Booker to man the outfield in Adolfo’s and Robert’s absences. There is enough outfield talent in Birmingham to keep most of these guys in high A sans injuries, but if Robert is the five-tool prospect some scouts expect, he can be promoted quickly upon returning.
In the meantime, Basabe (who went 2-for-5 on Opening Day) is looking to bounce back in 2018. Between low and high A ball in 2016, the speedster slashed .264/.328/.452. In 2017, all with Winston-Salem, he hit just .221/.320/.320. It was a considerable drop in power, but his K-rate and BB-rate improved. Basabe needs to get more hard contact this upcoming season to put himself back on track as a prospect.
Vizquel will have a tough time finding playing time for the plethora of starting pitchers and outfielders he has at his disposal. But that speaks to how deep the Sox farm system is — and is a great problem to have.