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2019 Charlotte Knights season preview

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With the Eloy extension and promotion, the Knights are without a big-name bat. But they certainly have big-name pitchers, starting with Dylan Cease

SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game
Express train: Dylan Cease took the minor league baseball world by storm last season, and he looks to make the bigs in 2019.
Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

This year’s Charlotte Knights squad has less prospect hype than any of the previous years of the rebuild. Dylan Cease is clearly the top-end prospect on the team, but there is a drop-off after that in terms of prospect hype. After Cease, Zack Collins, and Zack Burdi will be around, but there are more question marks surrounding them than at this point last season. At least before midseason promotions, or injuries on the South Side, this should not be as an exciting team for prospect news. But a lot of former prospects and older players are looking to shine.

The Knights finished the 2018 season last in their division, with a 64-75 record, but manager Mark Grudzielanek should have a better overall team and record by the end of 2019.


Rotation

As of now, the headliner here is Cease, and he had quite the season in 2018. He started out in Winston-Salem and had a 3.27 FIP in 71 23 innings. Though he had a dip in K/9 and K% compared to previous stints, he also had a career-low walk rate. That got him a promotion to AA, where he was even better: In Birmingham, Cease had a 2.39 FIP in 51 13 innings, in what was his most dominant half-season of his pro career. What really shows how great Cease was in AA was his 27.7% K/BB% which was more than 5% better than his previous best mark. The lone thing Cease needs to do better is going deeper into games, after averaging 5 13 innings per start in 2018.

It is conceivable that Jordan Stephens and Jordan Guerrero see time on the South Side once injuries occur, but only Stephens is on the 40-man roster at this point. Stephens made quick work of AA with a 2.81 FIP, but struggled in AAA (4.19 FIP). His limited stuff has worked against inexperienced hitters, but his low upside is a reason why he is still in Charlotte.

Meanwhile, Guerrero, who briefly lost his starting gig but regained it due to injuries to other pitchers, returns to AAA. He was very unlucky in AA but was able to step up to a 3.56 FIP in 65 AAA innings. The lefty seems to be very similar to Manny Banuelos, as Guerrero’s future is probably in the bullpen.

Spencer Adams has been with the White Sox for what seems like a decade, and it is a little surprising he’s still here. He was not placed on the 40-man in the offseason and was not even selected in the Rule-5 draft after seemingly plateauing last season. Adams did well in terms of ERA last season but he just does not have the stuff to make it in the big leagues at this point, and the 5.14 FIP seems to agree. He also only had a 1.1% K/BB% which, quite frankly, is releasable if he was not a former top prospect. This year should be make-or-break for him,

Donn Roach and Carson Fulmer seem to be in the mix for the fifth starter spot. Roach had a 3.25 FIP in 95 innings in 2018, but the 29-year-old seems to be in the organization for minor league depth at this point. Fulmer has his well-documented issues with control, and was being used more as a reliever in spring training. However, do not count him out yet for AAA starts. Once Ervin Santana gets the call for the White Sox as the official fifth man, there is a possibility a pitcher like Dylan Covey is sent down to the Charlotte starting rotation, with Fulmer officially transferring to the bullpen.


Bullpen

This bullpen group may be the White Sox’s most exciting and deep of any position group in AAA, maybe in the entire organization. Right now, the Knights have three bullpen lefties, Aaron Bummer, Josh Osich, and Colton Turner. Bummer has shifted between MLB and AAA the past two seasons, and that should stay the same; he has done much better in AAA compared to MLB in terms of ERA, but his FIP is consistent. Osich is on the 40-man, and is more lefty depth than true prospect who will make an impact on the MLB roster long-term. Finally, Turner is an MiLB lifer because of his ability to come in for spot starts. Turner was fantastic in AA with a 2.06 FIP, but faltered against better competition in AAA (5.67 FIP).

The righty firemen seem to be the most interesting bunch entering the year, including Zack Burdi, Jose Ruiz, Thyago Vieira and Zach Thompson. This will be a big year for Burdi, who has yet to regain his pre-TJ surgery velocity. The last time he was in AAA, he had a 2.86 FIP in 33 13 innings — but that was 2017. Meanwhile, Ruiz had a seemingly successful spring campaign, with a 2.70 ERA — but also a .308 batting average against in 6 23 innings. He was not overly successful in his short MLB stint last year, but showed his upper-90s fastball, and should be on the White Sox again in the future. The third fireballer is probably the most frustrating. Vieira has the ability to reach 100 mph but could not do so often in the majors last season, and he suffered for it, with a 6.44 FIP. If Vieira can get his command down, he could be a bullpen piece for the future. Thompson had an opportunity to be selected in the Rule-5 draft after a great year in A+, AA, and the AFL. He’s been terrific since shifting to the bullpen in 2018, and has an outside chance to see Chicago this season.

To round out the AAA relievers, there are some old MLB veterans. Evan Marshall has been up and down from the majors since 2014, but his best days are behind him. He has a career 4.00 FIP in the majors, and did have a very good AAA season with the Cleveland Indians. In 24 AAA innings last year, Marshall had a 2.50 FIP and only a 1.13 BB/9. Juan Minaya was a surprise demotion, as he was outrighted off of the 40-man roster, though it seemed to have been warranted. In 2018, Minaya had a 3.57 FIP and his fastball was safely in the mid-90s. However, in 4 23 innings this spring, Minaya had a 21.21 ERA and his velocity was way down. Hopefully, this is just a blip on his radar and not a dramatic skill drop-off.

The Knights currently have 26 players on their roster not counting Ervin Santana. Odds are, one of the bullpen pitchers will be on the injured list, those candidates are Burdi and Minaya, or a demotion.


Catchers

This group will probably draw the most eyes for AAA this season, as both Seby Zavala and Zack Collins should soon be on the South Side. Zavala is the lone guy on the 40-man at this point, and odds are will be the first to get the call to Chicago. He raked in AA last season with a 135 wRC+ and .201 ISO, but also had a career-high K-rate. However, once Zavala got the call to AAA and got hurt, his production fell. He had a 71 wRC+ in Charlotte, and the power fell to a career -ow .116 ISO. His BB% also fell, to a low mark of 3.1% (from 11.6% in AA). He is regarded a better defensive catcher than Collins at this point, and now that he is healthy, hopefully he will produce closer to his AA numbers.

Collins was getting time at first base this spring, so expect to see him there in Charlotte as well. He did not get promoted to Charlotte, like Zavala did at the end of the year. Collins ended AA with a 128 wRC+ and a .170 ISO, both career low marks, but still good overall. His BB% stayed about the same as previous years, but the K-rate did rise, which is where some fans saw concern. At this point in MLB history, with catcher hitting never being worse, Collins should be able to find himself a spot on the MLB roster if he can at least be serviceable defensively — unfortunately, that may be too much to ask.


Corner Infielders

Matt Skole impresses in MLB debut.

What a debut for Matt Skole!

Posted by Chicago White Sox on Monday, May 28, 2018

Since Zavala and Collins can play first base, there is not much depth there at the moment. On top of that, Charlotte still needs to send a player down to reach its 25-man roster, and it seems like it will be from this group or the pitching staff. The three corner infielders are DJ Peterson, Matt Skole, and Jordan George, and they can all play both corners.

None of the three are on the 40-man roster, and will probably not see MLB action unless there is a rapid string of injuries. Peterson might be the most likely to come up, as he has played the most at third base. His 2018 season in AAA last season was a good one, with a 119 wRC+, but he is not the top prospect he once was. Skole had a very brief and successful time on the South Side last season, but played primarily in AAA. There he showed an improved walk rate and BABIP, to bring his wRC+ to 111. But Skole’s calling card, power (ISO), was its lowest since 2015. George was claimed over the offseason, and he can play a lot of positions. Last season in AA with the Pittsburgh Pirates, George made starts at first, third, LF, and RF. On the offensive side he does not provide much positivity, but he did have a wRC+ of 101 in AA to go along with a 10.5% BB-rate and only a 12% K-rate. Problem is, George is not particularly fast and has almost no power.


Middle Infielders

The middle infield in Charlotte is led by spring training hero, Danny Mendick. After an up-and-down MiLB season in 2017, Mendick showed he could rake in AA in 2018. He had a walk rate just more than 10%, along with a K-rate at 17%. That’s pretty good plate discipline, but Mendick also showed power, with a .148 ISO. All of that was good for a 111 wRC+, and that continued to this spring, where he slashed .361/.487/.667 and flashed leather in the video above.

The rest of the middle infield group could be fun, with some new-old familiar faces in Alcides Escobar and Ryan Goins. But again, there’s probably not much MLB future with them. At second base, it should be Goins, with help from others. He has gotten MLB time specifically for his good defensive abilities at second, not because of his bat. In the majors, he is a career 63 wRC+ hitter to go along with 25 defensive runs saved at second.

At shortstop, Escobar will probably receive most of the playing time, but Ramon Torres should get some looks as well after being signed in the offseason. Like Goins, Escobar made his mark in MLB because of defense, not hitting. He has a career 70 wRC+ (worse than that, more recently), and he has not been better than 70 in a season since 2014. UZR likes his defense more than DRS, but at any rate Escobar is not the player he was in his 20s. Torres is another former Kansas City Royal and has very limited MLB experience. He is well-below an average hitter, with just a 61 wRC+ last season, but seems to be sound defensively.


Outfielders

The outfield is full of, well, lost hope. Nicky Delmonico was sent down, and before that Charlie Tilson was taken off the 40-man, no team claimed him, and is back in Charlotte. Then there are the new-old guys, like Preston Tucker and Brandon Guyer.

If not for the Eloy Jimenez extension, Delmonico would probably still be with the Sox, but now he has to earn his spot again. His wRC+ fell from 133 in 2017 with the White Sox to 84, albeit in an injury-prone season. He walked less in 2018 and struck out more, which is just not a good way to keep your roster spot. He was also not a particularly good left fielder, either, with a -6 DRS. Long story short, Delmonico needs to prove he is a major leaguer again, but he should also be the first outfielder called up if there is an injury.

Tilson, a former top prospect, that has been hampered by injuries and is now off the 40-man roster. Tilson slashed .250/.308/.417 during spring training and did get some extensive time in MLB last season (41 games), where he was actually better compared to AAA. His season in Charlotte just was very not good. He had a wRC+ of 77 with a DRS -9, and most of the worst of his defense came in left field. With Ryan Cordell starting the season in the majors, however, Tilson should get his fair share of at-bats.

Last but not least, Tucker and Guyer. Tucker has been in MLB on and off since the 2015 season, and unfortunately 2015 was his best season, at a 104 wRC+. With the Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds, the lefty has had a career wRC+ at 88, with average pop and average plate discipline. His defense in the outfield has not been good (-5 DRS), but his calling card in the minors was always his bat. Maybe it can be again, with a change of scenery. Guyer was recently re-signed by the White Sox because Jon Jay is starting the year on the IL. Guyer has had major league time since 2011, with a career 5.4 fWAR. He is considered more of a hitter, but recently has been well below-average for MLB, with just an 82 wRC+ last season. When Jay comes back, Guyer could be back in free agency.

This is not an awe-inspiring team in many respects, but it does provide MLB depth, especially in the bullpen. Once promotions start, this team should be much better by season’s end.

***

Season Opener

April 4 7:04 PM EST vs Durham Bulls


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