In 2019 the Kannapolis Intimidators will sport a new look, and a new manager in Ryan Newman. Although this team lost eight South Atlantic League All-Stars in 2018, they will still enter the season loaded for bear.
The Kannapolis pitching rotation will be strong, with the front three starters all having been selected in the sixth round or earlier in their respective drafts. Getting the Opening Day start is Jonathan Stiever. The 6´2´´, 205-pound righthander was selected out of Indiana University in the fifth round last year. Stiever displayed immediate swing-and-miss stuff last year when he made his debut at Great Falls, striking out 39 hitters in 28 innings. When he pitched for Indiana in 2017, he was on the losing end of a 1-0 pitcher’s duel against powerhouse Oregon State, who featured a lineup that included four first-round talents: Nick Madrigal, Trevor Larnach, Cadyn Grenier and Adley Rutschman. Against Stiever, this talented core went 1-for-12. Stiever was a multi-sport athlete in high school, earning notoriety not only on the diamond but the gridiron.
Konnor Pilkington was snatched up by the White Sox in the third round of the 2018 draft, out of Mississippi State. The southpaw has a prototypical pitcher’s build (6´3´´, 225 pounds) and has an impressive amateur baseball resume that includes playing on USA Baseball’s 2017 collegiate national team. Pilkington was knocked around a bit during his debut season at Great Falls, but the line was skewed by a small sample size (14 IP). Given the chance to decompress after his whirlwind draft season, it’s safe to assume a fresh Pilkington will thrive in the SAL.
Kade McClure is returning after an injury-shortened 2018. He was well on his way to an All-Star appearance when a line-drive comebacker caught his knee and ended his campaign. Standing at 6´7´´, 230 pounds, McClure’s build is similar to the big club’s Lucas Giolito. In spite of the long levers, McClure repeats his delivery well and was thriving (3.02 ERA, 42 K, 41 2⁄3 IP) before the knee injury. Kade has athleticism in his genes, as his father was an NFL replacement quarterback for the Buffalo Bills in 1987.
Davis Martin (14th round, 2018) and Taylor Varnell (29th round, 2018) are going to round out the starting rotation. Both performed admirably in short season baseball after the draft. Varnell dominated in the Arizona Rookie League, putting together a 1.97 ERA with 61 punch outs in 45 2⁄3 innings. The caveat is his age, as Varnell was approximately 2.5 years older than his average competitor.
Two lefties, Bennett Sousa and Andrew Perez, are likely to anchor the Intimidators bullpen. After fashioning a dominant 0.00 ERA at Great Falls in 13 IP, 10th round draft pick Sousa, impressed in a late-season audition with Kannapolis. He will turn 24 on April 6, so he is old for A-ball. Perez, taken in the eighth round, also performed so well in his debut season that South Side Sox almost immediately recognized Perez as an Under the Radar prospect.
Gunnar Troutwine is a contact hitting machine getting his first crack at full-season ball after being taken in the ninth round of the 2018 draft. Strike zone judgment is the name of his game, as he finished second on the Great Falls team in walks (19, in only 117 at-bats) while hitting .316.
Michael Hickman was signed to an over-slot bonus as a 13th round draft pick in 2016. Getting regular playing time at the end of the 2018 season seemed to help Hickman get in a rhythm with the bat, as he finished the year on a white-hot tear, notching hits in 11 of his last 13 games and earning a prospect profile with us in February. Hickman will also spend time acting as the backup first baseman and designated hitter for the Intimidators, beginning the season carrying over an eight-game hitting streak.
Evan Skoug was a high-profile, over-slot draft pick taken out of TCU in the seventh round of the 2017 draft. He hasn’t had great success, but he’s a hard worker and an absolute workout fanatic, with teammates saying he is one of the strongest guys on the team. His college numbers indicate a strong offensive profile, and he has displayed flashes of massive power with the Intimidators. Hopefully he can tame some of the swing-and-miss he has shown and regain his confidence with a hot start. Reports from SSS’s Kim Contreras at the instructional league suggest that Skoug was hitting very well.
This infield is going to give Newman headaches as he constructs his daily lineup card. The Intimidators roster features more starters than available positions.
Corey Zangari is the likely first baseman, but he is in Arizona rehabbing a hamstring injury and will be a few weeks behind schedule. In 2016, an aggressive assignment led to a teenaged Zangari being overmatched by more advanced pitching. He flailed at pitches and racked up strikeouts with regularity (106, in only 248 plate appearances) before a merciful demotion to Great Falls. His 2017 season was negated by Tommy John surgery. In 2018, he mauled Pioneer League pitching, hitting nine home runs in only 65 at-bats. With the stage set for his triumphant return to Kannapolis, his season was abruptly halted in his second at-bat when his wrist was broken by a pitch.
At second base, Amado Nuñez is likely to see a lot of playing time. Nuñez was signed as an international free agent in 2014 and awarded a $900,000 bonus. He is an intriguing bat looking for a defensive position. Last year at Great Falls, Nuñez’s .357 led the Pioneer League in hitting, and he also posted a .962 OPS. He has made defensive errors with regularity at multiple positions throughout his minor league career, but the bat is very promising.
Luis Curbelo and Lenyn Sosa compose a formidable tandem. Curbelo oozes offensive potential, though his 6´2´´, 205-pound chiseled frame hasn’t produced the expected results yet. His development has been slowed by a knee injury that cost him nearly the entire 2017 season. Despite being part of the organization for three years, Curbelo has only played in 131 games. He spent the offseason working out and hitting with his childhood friend, Toronto Blue Jays blue-chipper Bo Bichette, and Curbelo’s confidence is high coming into the 2019 campaign. Expect a breakout.
Sosa is a slick-fielding teenager (born in Y2K, he just turned 19 in January). Sosa has thrived on both sides of the ball in his first two seasons of minor league action. His strikeout rate of 12.7% is stellar despite playing at an age significantly younger than his competition. When his body develops, Sosa has the potential to be a special player.
Bryce Bush is likely to share time in some kind of rotation at third base with Curbelo. With Sosa and Bush being so young and getting their first test of full-season action, it is likely that Curbelo will alternate between shortstop and third base so the teenagers don’t get drained early in the season. Bush was regarded as a coup for the Sox, as they were able to acquire his talents in the 33rd round of the 2018 draft. By signing him to a $290,000 bonus they were able to lure him off of his commitment to Mississippi State and into the White Sox fold. Bush has already exhibited great strike zone judgement and excellent bat-to-ball skills. His power potential is tantalizing. Bush also debuted last August at South Side Sox in an Under the Radar feature.
Out of all of the Intimidators prospects, Steele Walker is perhaps the most exciting of the bunch. The center fielder was a first-round talent that the White Sox were able to get in the second round (46th overall). He was hampered by an insane travel schedule, as he shuttled from Arizona to Montana in his first year before finally landing in Kannapolis to finish the 2018 campaign. He was also dealing with oblique and hamstring injuries, which impacted his play. Look for Walker to come out of the gate strong and follow a development path similar to Luis González in 2018. (We took on Walker at South Side Sox in January.)
Logan Sowers is a big-bodied, 6´5´´, 230-pound masher who was drafted in the 29th round in 2018 from Indiana University. As can be expected of a player of his size, there are some holes in his swing, but Sowers hit .296 with a .869 OPS at Great Falls. He was a four-year college player, so he was a bit older than the typical Pioneer Leaguer.
Ian Dakwins was another late draft pick (27th round) in 2018, but he has excellent bat speed and contact skills. Dawkins hit .303 between Great Falls and Kannapolis during the 2018 season and posted a low 15.8% strikeout rate. He was also a four-year college player, so the same “age caveat” applies.
The Intimidators appear to be very strong both on the mound and in the batter’s box; look for the starting pitchers to feast and the hitters to rake. Defensively, this team has the potential to make a lot of errors, and fielding is likely to be the Achilles heel of the squad. Expect Kannapolis to pose a serious threat for the SAL championship and for several players to move to Winston-Salem as midseason promotions. This team is going to be a lot of fun to watch.