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2021 Charlotte Knights Season Review

Chicago’s Triple-A entry was bad this year, but a few players — especially on the offensive side — played well enough to earn critical time on the South Side.

Gavin Sheets went from firmly in Charlotte, all the way to the ALDS roster.
Laura Wolff (@LauraWolffPhoto)/Charlotte Knights

Charlotte starts our review of farm system off — and it kicks off a very bad 2021 for the North Carolina teams.

The Knights went 47-81 this season, which was the worst Triple-A record — yes, Charlotte was 30th of 30 clubs.

Early on, this team quickly turned into the White Sox travel club with the amount of injuries the Sox suffered, especially with position players. There were also a lot of breakouts for players, from Gavin Sheets to Jake Burger. Meanwhile Charlotte’s pitching staff, which was probably considered the team’s the strength before the season, faltered both at Triple-A and the majors.

The Offense

Let’s start with the guy that ended the year with the White Sox and proved a lot of people wrong about his power, Gavin Sheets. Of course, before 2021, Sheets was a pure first baseman who had not discovered the power that his scouting report promised he had out of college. Well, things changed a bit for Sheets this season. Just with the Knights, he had a 131 wRC+ and a .211 ISO, the first time he had an ISO of more than .200 in his career. (And Sheets improved that number in Chicago.) He did not necessarily sell out for power, though the K-rate did increase by about 3% and the walk rate fell about 1%. Out of the batter’s box and in the field, Sheets played 26 games in the outfield in Charlotte and then another 17 with the Sox, so he was about half-and-half between first base and corner outfield. At this point, Sheets officially is a multi-position player and a valuable hitter — now we wait to see if he will be on the Sox, or somewhere else, next year.

Now the real surprise of the entire White Sox system in 2021, Jake Burger. The fact that Burger even played again would have been a success story, but he played very well with the Knights and Sox. In his first games since 2017, Burger has a 122 wRC+ at Triple-A and a 120 wRC+ in MLB, though he struggled in the latter part of his MLB stint as pitchers were figuring him out. Burger did strike out a lot, which is understandable but it will need to improve from the 35.7% MLB number to his 26.8% K-rate in Charlotte. Burger’s walk rate was actually up from his 2017 numbers, but it very well may be that he was more timid because, well, he hadn’t played since 2017. That is hard! Burger also struggled down the stretch in the last month of the year in Charlotte, but again, he hasn’t played in a long time and hasn’t been involved for an entire year of playing baseball, ever. Next year is going to be a big year to see what type of player Burger will be, but whatever it is, what he did this season was remarkable.

From the two biggest successes that started in Charlotte, to former top prospects who keep falling. Blake Rutherford has not been a good Sox prospect since 2018, but this year was a make-or-break for him with all the injuries in the White Sox outfield. It was telling that Rutherford was never promoted as a replacement. Instead, the Sox moved around players like Sheets and Andrew Vaughn to the outfield, and signed Brian Goodwin and Billy Hamilton. Rutherford finished the Triple-A year with an 80 wRC+. The power improved from 2019 but his walks were almost cut in half and the batting average fell, due in part because he had a low in BABIP. Rutherford did not pull the ball enough, but he was able to get more fly balls than ever before. It seems like his approach changed to get more power and it did lead to more, but everything else fell, so he did not get a chance in MLB despite all the injuries. Luis González was somebody who got a chance, but he was put on waivers in a risky move (cutting Jake Lamb shortly thereafter), and thus González is now with the San Francisco Giants.

Of course, not everything was bad and some hitters promoted (or in this first case, demoted) did well with the team. Yermín Mercedes broke camp with Chicago and started out hotter than hot there, with a 204 wRC+ in April. After that month though, Mercedes faltered and in his next 174 plate appearances, he had a 50 wRC+ and was demoted. In Triple-A, it was a positive season offensively with a 106 wRC+, but it was his worst offensive year of his career. A guy who cannot play defense needs to be better. As you all should remember, Mercedes had that couple-day span where he retired and came back. After that, he did not get nearly the same amount of attention, because Sheets and Burger were doing well and he was not.

For younger and more highly-regarded prospects that did not start with the Knights, Micker Adolfo and Romy González were the most notable. Adolfo spent more time in Charlotte, and continued his power surge that started in Double-A. Adolfo had a .273 ISO and 10 homers in 44 games with the Knights. He had 20 extra-base hits in total, four more of those hits than singles. All that being said, Adolfo was only 12% better than the average Triple-A hitter, and that was due to poor plate discipline. He did not get on base enough, with a 7.4% walk rate which is closer to 2017 Adolfo than 2018-19 Adolfo. If he can somehow get his .301 OBP to a more healthy number, Adolfo will be a force to be reckoned with, whether he is with the Sox organization or another. González only spent 15 games in Charlotte on his fast-track to the majors, but he was a monster for those games. He slashed .370/.417/.704 — all of those numbers are just ridiculous, and he forced another promotion. González should be on the 2022 White Sox Opening Day roster.

The Pitching

Unfortunately, the pitching half of the Knights is not as fun, and that really is the story throughout the White Sox farm system.

Some prospects fell very far off the map, and in one case (Zack Burdi), to a different team because he was DFA’ed. Tyler Johnson also had a bad injury, was released, and then was re-signed, so he is still around, but there are a lot of question marks now. Others have question marks too, but most are based on their play.

And Jonathan Stiever falls into both categories — he did not play well, and is coming off of a bad injury. Stiever hurt his labrum at the end of the season and already has had surgery. He is supposed to be back by spring training, and hopefully he will be full strength, but he still pitched poorly this season. In 74 innings, Stiever had a 5.84 ERA, as he had a lot of trouble keeping batted balls on the ground (44% of batted balls were fly balls, and another quarter were line drives, so opposing batters were teeing off on him). It is no surprise he had a .263 batting average against, and that really was the downfall of Stiever’s season. The K-rate was right around where it was in 2019, but the walk rate did double. He has a lot to prove, but his overall numbers will look a lot better if he can just force more ground ball contact.

The other big pitching prospect is Jimmy Lambert, and though he was much better than Stiever and got more opportunities with the Sox, a 4.76 ERA is still not great. Lambert was clearly on a very tight pitch limit, as he never made it to the seventh inning. His K-rate was high in part because he had a career high 12% BB-rate, but he was able to couple it with a career high in K-rate, so some give and take here for Lambert. Where he struggled was the lack of weaker contact. Batters pulled the ball over 50% of the time against him, which usually means pretty good contact, and Lambert still has a home run problem. In 64 13 innings he allowed 11 homers, which is not good. Lambert did show some promise when he was up with Chicago, especially his last start (September 7), but he still has a lot to prove.

Rounding out the starters are a couple guys that really didn’t do well in Charlotte, but did well in other levels to deserve some note. Of course, Reynaldo López is one of those guys. He was truly horrific in Charlotte, though he was exclusively a starter and maybe that was the problem all along. López had a 7.62 ERA with the Knights, which is why people were upset when he kept getting chances with the Sox. He proved everyone wrong with a 3.43 ERA in the majors. On the other side of this is Kade McClure, with him doing much better in Double-A than with Charlotte. He went from a 3.82 ERA to a 6.81 ERA in 37 Triple-A innings. The walks, though at a lower number, went up, but the big thing was that the strikeouts fell 6%. This could have simply been fatigue by the end of the season, so 2022 will be a big year for McClure if he has an MLB future.

The bullpen was slim when it came to prospects, and there were not a lot of options that did well. Jace Fry might be the most notable, with a 2.93 ERA in 40 innings, but he was clearly outmatched whenever he was in the majors. Hunter Schryver came into this year as a notable lefty bullpen option, but proceeded to have a 4.98 ERA and that ruined any prospects of him getting a promotion. Bennett Sousa had decent numbers once he was promoted from the Barons, but he was hit hard once he arrived in Charlotte and that stifled his decent overall numbers from becoming great.

The poor bullpen play in Chicago and Charlotte should make it a priority for the front office over the offseason, as they look to re-tool what was supposed to be a strength for them heading into this season.

2021 MVP Ranks (Final)

Jake Burger (91.6) 2021 South Side Sox Charlotte Knights Player of the Year
Gavin Sheets (75.7)
Mikie Mahtook (55.7)
Tim Beckham (44.1)
Micker Adolfo (43.9)
Yermín Mercedes (35.1)
Romy González (30.9)
Mike Wright Jr. (29.2) 2021 South Side Sox Charlotte Knights Pitcher of the Year
Yermín Mercedes (24.3)
Marco Hernández (21.2)
Luis González (20.1)*
Danny Mendick (17.9)
John Parke (17.1)
Luis Robert (15.1)
Ti’quan Forbes (13.8)
Nick Williams (10.0)
Matt Reynolds (7.5)
Adam Engel (5.8)
Ruben Tejada (5.2)
Deivy Grullón (4.5)
Brian Goodwin (3.7)
Kaleb Roper (3.4)
Carl Edwards Jr. (1.9)
Peter Tago (1.7)
Anderson Severino (1.0)
Jimmy Lambert (0.6, 106 votes)
Kyle Crick (0.6, 3)
Jace Fry (0.0)

2021 Cold Cat Ranks (Final)

Kodi Medeiros (-33.2)
Reynaldo López (-32.7)
Zach Remillard (-31.9)
Nate Nolan (-29.2)
Zack Burdi (-28.7, -249 votes)*
Jacob Lindgren (-28.7, -242)*
Matt Tomshaw (-25.5)
Ofriedy Gómez (-20.6)
Ryan Burr (-20.4)
Lane Ramsey (-20.3)
Jonathan Stiever (-19.9)
Alex McRae (-19.6)
Nik Turley (-17.9)
Hunter Schryver (-17.6, -154 votes)
Danny Dopico (-17.6, -53)
Tyler Johnson (-17.4)
Connor Sadzeck (-16.8)
Seby Zavala (-14.3)
Félix Paulino (-12.8)
Zack Collins (-12.1)
Johan Dominguez (-11.9)
Matt Foster (-11.8)
Kyle Kubat (-11.3)
Bennett Sousa (-9.6)
Kade McClure (-8.2)
Kevin McCarthy (-7.6)
Joe DeCarlo (-7.3)
Tanner Banks (-7.2)
Will Carter (-7.0)
Tayron Guerrero (-6.5)
Billy Hamilton (-6.3)
Joel Booker (-4.3)
Really, you want other options? (-4.0)
Keyvius Sampson (-3.2)
Laz Rivera (-2.8)
Johan Cruz (-2.4)
Jake Lamb (-2.1)*
Evan Marshall (-1.8)
Yasmani Grandal (-1.3)
Tyler Nevin (Norfolk Tides) (-1.1)
Carlos Pérez (-1.0)
Evan Skoug (-0.3)
Blake Rutherford (-0.1)

*no longer in the White Sox system