Under the Radar details players in the Chicago White Sox system who may have suffered setbacks, gotten lost in the shuffle, or just haven’t surfaced as significant prospects as of yet. Next up is Taylor Varnell, who has excelled with the AZL Sox in his inaugural professional season.
Taylor Varnell (LHP) — AZL White Sox
For the past couple years, it seems the White Sox have pulled rabbits out of their hats and discovered some late-round magic. For example, recent picks from the 20th round and beyond include:
2016: Matt Foster (20), RHRP; Joel Booker (22), OF; Mike Morrison (27), RHRP
2017: John Parke (21), LHSP; Laz Rivera (28), SS; Parker Rigler (31), LHSP
2018: Nick Johnson (21), RHRP; Rigo Fernandez (24), LHRP; Ian Dawkins (27), OF; Logan Sowers (28), OF; Taylor Varnell (29), LHP; Bryce Bush (33), 3B
Of course, it’s too early to say the players above were absolute steals, because they’ve yet to play any major league games. It’s usually best to wait three to five years to see how these picks specifically, as well as the MLB Draft in general, work out.
With that said, the 2018 draft looks especially good for the White Sox, with regard to late round picks; the list above doesn’t even include other players such as right-handed relievers Jack Maynard (25), Devon Perez (26), and Austin Conway (31) who have excelled at times this year as well. But of all the players listed above for the 2018 draft, the one who has been arguably the most dominant this year has been Varnell.
As a college senior, Varnell picked a bad time to have his worst collegiate season. After spending a year with Western Oklahoma State JC in the bullpen, he transferred to Oral Roberts, where he had a 3.28 and 2.02 ERA during his sophomore and junior seasons; while his sophomore was cut short due to labrum surgery, he bounced back in 2017 with a terrific junior season out of the bullpen.
When Varnell returned to the starting rotation in 2018, his season fell apart, with a 5.95 ERA and 1.49 WHIP over 59 innings, allowing 58 hits and 30 walks while striking out 62. He had his best game against Alec Bohm, Greyson Jenista, and the Wichita State Shockers, when he allowed just two hits and two walks while striking out seven over five innings. The White Sox must have seen enough then to take a chance on the Sayre, Okla. native, drafting him in the 29th round, where they announced him as a reliever.
In 10 starts for the AZL White Sox, this 23-year-old has overpowered hitters to the tune of a 1.97 ERA and 0.88 WHIP, while allowing just 30 hits (.175 BA) and 10 walks (5.4 BB%) and striking out 61 (33.2 K%) in his 45 2⁄3 innings of work.
Varnell has actually fared better against righties (.159) than he has against lefties (.242). It is understandable why the White Sox would consider him a reliever; he had far more success in the collegiate level out of the bullpen than he ever did as a starter, and there is also an injury history with him as well. But in 2018, Varnell has far exceeded his career high in innings — prior to this season, his collegiate career high was 26 2⁄3 innings, but as of August 18, he’s now at 104 2⁄3 .
Varnell, at six-foot-one and 190 pounds, actually does have the arsenal to succeed as a starting pitcher going forward. His fastball has significant movement, and currently maxes out at 92-93 mph. He also features an outstanding changeup, which runs 78-80 and helps explain why right-handed hitters are batting just .175 against his offerings so far. However, Varnell’s best pitch may be a 12-6 curveball that has been likened to that thrown by Barry Zito.
Clearly, Varnell hasn’t been challenged in the Arizona League; however, this may be by design, to give him a confidence boost prior to facing more difficult opponents in 2019. Because of his age, I envision him skipping Great Falls and beginning next year in Kannapolis’ rotation.
The White Sox organization will need to monitor his innings closely going forward, as in 2018 he’s far exceeded his combined inning total over the three previous years. Varnell has a ceiling of a fourth or fifth starter if everything continues to click (consistent velocity, durability, health, control); his floor, otherwise, would be that of a non-LOOGY middle reliever, which would potentially give him a faster track to the majors.