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An early peek at the 2019 Intimidators

Whether holdovers from 2018, or brand-new additions to the team, Kannapolis will once again be a hub of exciting baseball

Back-to-back: The Intimidators have high hopes for more playoff baseball in 2019.

The 2017 and 2018 baseball seasons saw many quality White Sox prospects pass through the South Atlantic League by way of the Kannapolis Intimidators. Intimidators fans and baseball prospectors were treated to visits of varying length from Nick Madrigal, Luis Robert, Jake Burger, Gavin Sheets, Blake Rutherford, Dylan Cease, Micker Adolfo, and many others.

The 2019 version of the Intimidators may not be hold the same initial appeal, but that doesn’t mean the cupboard is bare. Here’s a snapshot of 10 players who should log significant time at Kannapolis this season.

Old friends

Steele Walker: Walker was taken in the second round of the 2018 draft (46th overall) from the University of Oklahoma. He signed for an over-slot bonus of $2 million and reported to the White Sox minor league system with the lingering effects of a nagging oblique injury and hamstring issues. He’s an explosive center fielder with a smooth and powerful left-handed hitting stroke. Now that the injuries are behind him, expects a very high level of play before a promotion after the SAL All-Star Game. This kid is chock full of personality, swagger, and baseball skill that meshes well with his 80-grade salon quality haircut and fantastic baseball name.

Corey Zangari: It seems like Zangari has been in the White Sox system forever, but he won’t turn 22 until May — which makes him the same age as most college seniors. Zangari tried Kannapolis in 2016, but was woefully overmatched by older pitchers with advanced breaking balls, and only a merciful demotion to Great Falls saved him from a 200 strikeout season (he had 108 whiffs in 248 plate appearances, for a 43% K-rate).

After missing 2017 with Tommy John surgery, Zangari returned to man first base for the Great Falls Voyagers late in 2018. For Great Falls, the hulking 6´4´´, 240-pound slugger hammered nine home runs while driving in 22 runners in only 17 games. He was promoted to Kannapolis in July, only to miss the rest of the season after being struck on the wrist by a pitch during his second plate appearance. A clean bill of health should result in Zangari accumulating a lot of at-bats between first base and designated hitter in 2019. Zangari was a 2015 sixth round pick, and was signed to a significantly over-slot $510,000 bonus. When he arrived in Kannapolis last season his body looked notably sculpted, as if he had spent a significant amount of time working on his conditioning.

Luis Curbelo: Another high-profile White Sox draftee who has experienced bad luck as it pertains to his health is Curbelo, who was bitten by the “injury bug” in 2017, missing nearly the entire season with a torn meniscus. In 2018, Luis was able to stay on the field and get some much-needed reps to spur his development. He is a big-bodied shortstop in excellent shape, possessing immense offensive potential. He spent this offseason working out and hitting with his longtime friend, Toronto Blue Jays prospect Bo Bichette. Curbelo is motivated to prove himself and establish a role in the White Sox’s rebuild plans. He also has his eye on a promotion to High-A Winston-Salem, where his former Kannapolis manager Justin Jirschele is taking the reins in 2019. An enthusiastic Curbelo tells South Side Sox, “I’m going to kill it in spring training and give them no choice but to put me there.”

Michael Hickman: Hickman was another piece of the White Sox system acquired during the 2016 draft. He was taken in the 13th round as a draft-eligible freshman from Chipola Junior College in Florida. Chipola is a popular school for baseball players looking to enter the draft, and two of his college teammates were also picked in 2016 (Reynaldo Rivera, second round, Detroit Tigers, and Jose Caballero, seventh round, Arizona Diamondbacks). Hickman is a left-handed hitting, offense-minded catcher-first baseman. He finished the 2018 season on a tear, hitting .412 in his last 13 games (21-for-51, with six doubles and two homers) and recorded multiple hits in seven of his last eight games. He will begin 2019 with an eight-game hitting streak intact, and he should have a path to regular at-bats while rotating among 1B, catcher and designated hitter. His Perfect Game player profile touts Hickman’s “huge bat-speed and power potential.”

New faces

Amado Nuñez: Nuñez was signed as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2014 for $900,000. The 21-year-old infielder should get a crack at full-season baseball after hitting .357 with a .962 OPS and six homers and 52 RBIs at Great Falls in 2018. Defensively, he is a work in progress, as he is trying to find a positional home (he has played shortstop, third base, and second). The error totals are alarming, but one of his teammates told South Side Sox, “He can pick it, and has a plus-plus arm. Most of his errors are on throws, and come from spiking the ball or air-mailing it to first base. Sometimes when you have that kind of arm strength, you try to do too much.” The same teammate also talked about Nuñez’s improved offense: “His hitting got better last year because he’s healthy, and got the reps he needed to improve. He stopped focusing on trying to hit home runs. He hits the crap out of the ball and barrels it 90% of the time.”

Gunnar Troutwine: Troutwine was selected in the ninth round last year and took a significantly under-slot, $10,000 bonus as a senior sign (very similar to Craig Dedelow, the 10th round pick in 2017). Troutwine hit .316 with two home runs at Great Falls, but his hitting approach and strike zone judgement are said to be stellar. He finished second on the Great Falls roster with 19 walks (in only 117 at bats), while striking out 20 times. He seems to be the kind of player that new White Sox hitting coordinator Matt Lisle may be able to tinker with to optimize his power potential, as Lisle has emphasized lifting the ball in his teaching prior to becoming a White Sox staffer.

Lenyn Sosa: Another international signee, Sosa has shown polish beyond his years, as he has played and succeeded at every level despite being younger than most of his competition. Sosa will enter the 2019 season just after celebrating his 19th birthday. He slashed .293/.317/.406 at Great Falls, but the most encouraging statistic was his very low, 12% strikeout rate. He has also displayed slick defensive chops, as he made just seven errors in 65 games while spending time at shortstop, third base, and second base.

Bryce Bush: Bush may go down as the greatest coup of the 2018 draft, as the White Sox acquired him in the 33rd round and got him to forego his college commitment to Mississippi State by ponying up a $290,000 signing bonus. Bush possesses a tantalizing offensive profile, and his Perfect Game profile notes “huge power potential.” Defensively, Bush is said to display stiff actions at third base, but as a teenager there is plenty of time for this skill to develop, as the physical tools are there.

In 14 games in the Arizona Rookie League, Bush punished pitchers to the tune of .442/.538/.605 OBP — and perhaps even more exciting is the fact that he struck out only four times while walking eight. The short stint earned Bush a promotion to Great Falls, where he still held his own (.250/.327/.386) despite being two-and-a-half years younger than his average competitor. There appears to be a logjam on the left side of the Kannapolis infield, but there is a good chance Bush will see time there in 2019.

Jonathan Stiever: Following a recent trend of theirs, the White Sox selected Stiever from Indiana University in the fifth round of the 2018 draft. He sports an athletic profile, having been an accomplished high school football player in his home state of Wisconsin prior to pitching for the Hoosiers. Stiever signed for a full slot value bonus of $386,800 and reported to Great Falls. Once there, Stiever displayed swing-and-miss stuff, striking out 39 batters in 28 innings while pitching his way to a 4.18 ERA and 1.14 WHIP.

The item of interest that most intrigues about Stiever was a start he had in college against baseball powerhouse Oregon State. Stiever went toe-to-toe with Luke Heimlich, coming out on the losing end of a 1-0 pitcher’s duel. In that contest, revered college hitters Nick Madrigal, Adley Rutschman, Trevor Larnach, and Cadyn Grenier combined to go 1-for-12 against the Hoosiers. For anyone that doesn’t understand the gravity of this, Madrigal, Larnach and Grenier were all first round selections in MLB’s 2018 draft, and the current buzz suggests Rutschman may go No. 1 overall in 2019.

If there is one thing not to like about Stiever, White Sox fans will be disappointed to find out that he is a huge Green Bay Packers fan, as verified by his Twitter timeline. There may also be questions about his conditioning (typed with tongue firmly in cheek); a tweet he composed in 2013 said, “Not sure if I’ve moved a total of 50 feet today.” This young man seems as all-American as Sox fans could ever wish for.

Konnor Pilkington: Pilkington was selected by the White Sox in the third round of the 2018 draft from Mississippi State University. According to his bio page on the MSU website, his accolades include being a member of the 2017 USA Collegiate National Team and being the No. 2 SEC prospect in the 2018 draft. As the ace of his college staff, Pilkington led the team in strikeouts (111) and batting average against (.199). The left-handed starter’s fastball is said to sit comfortably in the low 90s, touching 95 mph. At Great Falls, Pilkington pitched 12 innings, striking out nine while allowing 14 hits. He sports a strong amateur baseball resume, and a prototypical starter’s build at 6´3´´, 225 pounds.