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2019 Birmingham Barons season preview

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The Barons do not have elite talent to begin the year like last season with Eloy Jiménez, but they have one of the deeper teams in the organization

SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game
Rising star: Luis Basabe had a breakout year that got him time in the AFL. Can he continue the success in 2019?
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Oh, look here, SSS’s Tiffany Wintz coming through with a little bit of a scoop for the White Sox AA club. A majority of the top prospects should come through AA at some point this season, but there is already a lot here.

The Barons were worse than .500 for the entire season in 2018, and were near last place in the first- and second-half standings. Omar Vizquel got a promotion after leading Winston-Salem, as he and many players following him will look to improve on last year’s record.


Rotation

Out of the gate and for the entire season, Birmingham will have two starters on the IL in Dane Dunning and A.J. Puckett. On the positive side, the Barons will have an interesting group of starters despite that.

Jimmy Lambert and Bernardo Flores head the group in terms of 2018 success. Lambert ended the season in AA after a fantastic year in A+. He had a FIP at 2.99 and saw a huge leap in strikeouts and positive improvement in walks. Lambert’s 25 innings in AA were even better, with his best K-rate since his time in rookie ball and best BB-rate ever, to go along with a 2.73 FIP. Meanwhile, Flores was Mr. Quality Start last season because of his stellar command. Though the strikeout rates dropped to new lows, walks were also at Flores’ career low, and he was issuing more ground balls than ever in what was his best season as a pro.

Tanner Banks and Felix Paulino are two of the more “veteran” pitchers in the staff. Banks, at age 27, performed well last season in A+ and AA. He had FIPs of 3.13 and 3.87 respectively at those levels, and it earned him a trip to the AFL. However, he was not very good down in Arizona, as he allowed a 1.57 WHIP with a 4.43 ERA. Paulino was acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies for Luis Avilan last season. He started the year in the bullpen and eventually became a starter, although he did not do overly well. In fact in his two starts with the Sox, Paulino had a 3 HR/9 and a 9.70 FIP.

Kodi Medeiros rounds out the rotation in what is a big year for him, as the White Sox decide if he can be a starter or move to the bullpen. Medeiros was good with Brewers AA team, but after the Sox acquired him he took a turn for the worse. His FIP was 5.08 and his walks were almost near his career high, back in rookie ball. Medeiros did induce more ground balls, but also a lot more homers; his command will need to be better in a make-or-break year.


Bullpen

Birmingham’s bullpen does have some interesting pieces, led by Matt Foster. Foster had a stellar start with the Dash, with a 1.71 FIP and a career-high strikeout rate. In AA, Foster was humbled with a 3.93 FIP and what were career worsts in strikeout and walk rates. He should be much more prepared for this season in AA.

Mauricio Cabrera and Brian Clark are both former promising bullpen arms who have faltered lately. Cabrera even got to the big leagues in 2016, showed off a 100 mph fastball, with a 3.04 FIP. He was hurt in 2017, and his fastball and pitching have suffered. Since 2016, Cabrera has more walks than strikeouts in every stint besides his short time in rookie ball last season. Unlike Cabrera, Clark has been more hampered by his play than injury history. Clark was sailing through the system from 2014-16, but faltered mightily in AAA in 2017, to the point where Clark spent all of 2018 in AA. FIP still likes Clark, although he has not been able to get ERA below 4.00 since his time in AA in 2016.

Jacob Lindgren, Kyle Kubat, and Hunter Schryver are the lefites out of the bullpen. Lindgren has not pitched since 2016, and it is feasible that he is not ready for Opening Day. Kubat has been a reliever and a starter throughout his career, spending most of 2018 in A+ and doing well, with a 2.45 FIP. He showed great command, with a BB/9 at 1.29, but has never been a strikeout pitcher. Schryver was acquired from the Rays last season and did well. With the Dash he had a 2.22 FIP with a phenomenal 30.5% K-BB rate. He should be a candidate to hit the South Side this season.

Tyler Johnson should be the closer in AA but according to our own Daniel Victor, he is behind schedule to arrive. When healthy, Johnson is electric. In Kannapolis, Johnson had a 1.88 FIP with a career-best strikeout and walk rate. He was also 7-for-7 in save chances along with five wins, so you could say low A-ball was a little too easy for Johnson. But then, so was A+: Johnson’s FIP actually improved to 1.58, and his walk rate fell to a new career low with the Dash. He was 7-for-8 in save chances with four wins, so not quite as successful, but dominant nonetheless. He is also a candidate to see time on the South Side.

If Johnson starts the year on the IL, Danny Dopico is a candidate to take his place. Dopico spent most of the year in A+ and showed great stuff to get hitters out — he just walks quite a few batters as well. He has improved in the walk department, but not enough to garner successive promotions. Dopico had a 2.62 FIP last season for the Dash, but also allowed a career-high 43.8% fly ball rate, which, combined with a career low in HR/FB rate, seems a bit lucky. If the walks decrease, Dopico should turn more heads in the minors.


Catchers

Alfredo Gonzalez had a busy year last season. He started in AA Birmingham, where he did very well — a 116 wRC+ that was heavily influenced by a .382 BABIP. He then got the call to AAA where, well, he did not do so well. He hit less than .200, as his BABIP fell almost 100 points. After a weird confluence of events with White Sox catchers, Gonzalez got the call to the bigs for a week, and got that memorable first hit in what probably will be his only time in MLB. He seems to be more organizational depth than anything, as he has been in professional baseball since 2009.

As of now, the second catcher has not been announced yet. However, Yermin Mercedes seems to fit the mold of a promotion to AA after his fantastic year in Winston-Salem in 2018. He is still not known to be a good defensive catcher yet and was almost three years older than the average A+ player, but he did well nonetheless. Mercedes had a 136 wRC+, as he was able to show good pop and walked at a near career-high rate. He has been an above-average hitter at every level, so it is still a possibility that Mercedes’ bat forces him to the big leagues — especially if he moves over to first base.

If Mercedes does get time at first base or DH, Birmingham would need another catcher. That catcher would probably be Justin O’Conner, who was signed out of the American Association, an independent league. Indy ball is not really an apples-to-apples comparison for the minors, but Baseball Reference labels puts the American Association on the same level as the Barons. There is not much need to go into O’Conner’s stats other than that he was a former first round pick. The more important thing was that a 53-year-old Rafael Palmeiro also played in the American Association, and slashed .301/.424/.495. Let’s just say that was better than O’Conner.


Corner Infielders

Gavin Sheets has been an enigma, to say the least, in his Sox career so far. The former second round pick was drafted as a power bat with a developing hit tool. Well, last season Sheets had a low .114 ISO but a .293 batting average. Now, this can be spun in a positive or negative light, but it seems more positive than anything. He is 6´4´´, 230-pound first baseman who had a 123 wRC+ in A+ in 2018, while only hitting six home runs. He uses all fields almost evenly but his ground ball rate is a little too high for a power hitter. Hopefully the power comes around this year, because Sheets could be a late season call-up if so.

Ti’Quan Forbes should be the main player at third, but the Barons have multiple multi-position players on their roster. The former second round pick has marched slowly through the MiLB ranks since 2014. Last season in A+ was his best as a hitter so far (99 wRC+), although that’s not saying much. Forbes was able to cut down on his strikeouts by almost 10%, but the walks also fell as he became more reliant on contact. Forbes’s ground ball rate almost doubles his fly ball rate, which is also not a great sign as he enters a pivotal age 22-23 season.


Middle Infielders

Trey Michalczewski and Mitch Roman will provide depth in the system again in AA. Trey has been with the Sox since 2013 and it seems his best days are behind him. He has been a slightly below-average hitter the past two seasons, but is able to play second and third which seems to keep him around. If he is able to increase his BB-rate, Michalczewski could be as interesting as Mendick. Roman got off to a quick start in Winston-Salem last season, but struggled mightily in AA. His walk rate fell to 2.9% while his K-rate increased to 37.1%. Roman will need to normalize his plate discipline for him to earn more at-bats.

From the 28th round to now a household name among White Sox fans, Laz Rivera continues his meteoric rise. Rivera had a good start in rookie ball during 2017, but took the minors by storm last year in Kannapolis. He had a 158 wRC+ with a slash line of .346/.395/.502, which earned him a promotion to A+. There he still raked, just not at as high a clip, as his wRC+ fell to 120 but his batted ball profile improved. The knock on Rivera is that he rarely walks and is on the slightly higher end of strikeouts. If the power stays at an average to above average rate, BABIP will be very important for Rivera’s success.


Outfielders

This is the best group in AA, though there will be two injuries that need to be covered for to begin the season. Unfortunately, those injuries are to the two biggest Barons stars. Micker Adolfo is still recovering from TJ surgery, and Luis Basabe had a broken bone in his hand.

Adolfo had a breakout year in 2018 while only DH-ing due to injury. His plate discipline improved, as walks were up and strikeouts were down. Adolfo’s power was above-average, but he finally was able to get hits as it led to a 137 wRC+. Basabe also had a breakout year in A+, as he had a 146 wRC+ before his promotion. He showed huge power in A+ with a .237 ISO, as well as an increased walk rate. In AA, Basabe’s power fell back to normal along with his walks, as his wRC+ fell to 111. Both guys will be out all of April and are hoping for a May return.

Among outfielders who will start the season healthy, Luis Gonzalez and Blake Rutherford lead the way. This is a theme among AA outfielders, but Gonzalez also had a breakout 2018. Overall, Gonzalez showed much more power and much better contact, as his pull percentage was better than 50% and his ground ball rate dipped. González’s plate discipline did not really improve, but when making better contact, why try to walk as much? Rutherford also had somewhat of a breakout season in 2018, career highs in wRC+ and batting average as well as his best ISO since rookie ball. The overall contact was not much different, as Rutherford’s ground ball rate held at more than 50% but the added home run power is a good sign. If he wants to take the next step, his fly ball rate will need to improve.

Joel Booker and Jameson Fisher round out the outfield for Birmingham. Odds are Booker will get the playing time over Fisher after what was, well, a breakout year for Booker. He started with the Dash and had his best half-season of his career with a 145 wRC+. However, Booker seemed to be overwhelmed in AA, as his wRC+ fell to 99. He had a career high in strikeouts while walking less and hitting more ground balls with the Barons. Meanwhile, Fisher has fallen out of favor. He had a great first stint in pro ball and a good 2017 season. But with every promotion, Fisher gets significantly worse. Last season, Fisher had an 11.9% BB-rate but a 30.5% K-rate. His ISO was the lowest of his career, and he was hitting more ground balls than he had since 2016. Fisher has the talent to improve, but in a crowded outfield he seems to be on the outside looking in.


Last year, the Winston-Salem Dash were one of the best teams in all of minor league baseball, as they won both division titles. More of the same team success should carry over to Birmingham with the multiple promotions.

Season Opener

April 4 6:35 p.m. CST @ Biloxi Shuckers


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