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2021 Birmingham Barons Season Review

Though the season ended in a big slump, it was still a division-winning year and ended up being the home to some of the top prospects in the system.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Chicago White Sox
He started in Double-A and eventually made it to MLB: what a 2021 for Romy González.
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The Barons were a very good minor league baseball team — truly the only White Sox MiLB team that was good in 2021.

Double-A is a big marker in a player’s development for several reasons. One, it has become the level where good players prove that they really are good — or where they fail. Triple-A, though it still has its value, has become more of a 40-man roster team, with former MLB players trying to stick with a team one last time; a Schaumburg alt-site team, if you will.

Specifically for the Sox, Birmingham is (or at least was) a death trap for offense and if a hitter succeeded there, it was a huge deal. But in 2021, offense was the aspect of the team that kept the Barons in the playoff hunt until the last rainout of the season.

The Offense

Coming into the season, the Barons were not where the prospects were — that was Kannapolis. But over the course of the season, the prospects finally got to Alabama and played so well, fans and the front office had to take notice.

There is not a more perfect example than Romy González.

González skipped some time with Winston-Salem, where he probably would have played if there was a 2020 season, so that made his success in Double-A just that much more brilliant. He left with a slash line of .267/.355/.502 for a 136 wRC+. He became a 20-homer and 20-stolen base player with the Barons, and Birmingham was the launching pad for his rise all the way to the majors. González was not exactly an afterthought heading into 2021, but he is now the next man up if the Sox decide not to bring back Leury García.

It wasn’t a surprise to see Micker Adolfo do well (unlike González), but Adolfo proved he could still be big power bat that he was before the multiple injuries and the lost 2020 season. He hit 25 homers on the year, 15 of them with the Barons. Adolfo was not the necessarily the same player as he was in 2018-19: He walked a lot less in ’21 than he did in the two previous seasons, but the strikeout rate in the low-mid 30s is right where he normally was. The power was consistent, so it is possible that Adolfo decided to be less patient at the plate to show his true power more often. It could also have been a byproduct of not getting a lot of recent reps due to the pandemic. Whatever the case is, odds are Adolfo won’t with the White Sox in ’22, but those odds didn’t rise because he played poorly.

These two were the best of the offensive bunch to start in Double-A. Laz Rivera, Ti’Quan Forbes, and Carlos Pérez had good seasons in their own right, but were largely overshadowed by the new guys higher up in the prospect rankings that came up in their stead.

Yolbert Sánchez was among the first to come up, and is the most likely to make it to the majors eventually. He was having a very average season with the Dash by the time of his promotion, but with his defense, age, and the amount of international signing bonus dollars he got, it was time to see what Sánchez could do against better pitching. Well, he did well enough that he is now almost expected to be with the Sox at some point in 2022. In 39 games with the Barons, Sánchez had a 132 wRC+, led by a bigger reliance on contact. What Sánchez did after his promotion seemed like a change that fans and the front office should be excited for. Though his walks were cut by more than half, the K-rate fell 3% as well, that somehow led to a 50 point increase in BABIP and batting average. This is the type of player Sánchez will need to be: contact-oriented and good defense up the middle.

Though Sánchez had a much better time in Birmingham, the better prospect is Yoelqui Céspedes. MLB Pipeline has him ranked second in the system. He started out hot in Double-A but faltered down the stretch. He will get another opportunity against the best pitching he’s ever faced, this fall in the AFL. Overall, Céspedes showed some pop and speed. The power left once he was promoted and that isn’t a surprise that it fell; this has been the most games he’s played in awhile, and Regions Field is known to be a bit of a power-outage stadium. Céspedes did make up for a lack of power with more hits in general, but the results of this season alone make it hard to determine the type of player he will be. Stay tuned next year to see if a true offseason will make the plate disciple a bit better than a 3% BB-rate and 27% K-rate; Céspedes still has a lot to prove.

The Pitching

The arms were never really the story for Birmingham, but there still were some notable prospects and performances. Unfortunately, the best performance came from Konnor Pilkington, who was traded at the deadline.

After Pilkington left, Kade McClure became the top starting prospect on the team. Before his promotion to Charlotte, McClure had a 3.82 ERA with a 27.4% K-rate and 7.1% BB-rate. Just an OK season, but the command was still very good. The problem McClure had was a .243 batting average against, and allowing too many homers. Now, a .243 batting average isn’t necessarily bad for an offensive player (that was basically Adolfo’s), but it isn’t that good for a pitcher. That is a hit every four batters, and that isn’t sustainable if a pitcher wants to have a good season. Thanks to a pretty healthy strikeout rate and lack of walks, the 3.82 ERA was attainable, but McClure can do better and will need to.

The other top prospect on the starting pitching end was Jason Bilous, who started with Winston-Salem and was dominant enough to get a very early promotion. Bilous just did not do very well once he was promoted. He finished with a 6.51 ERA and a batting average against way up at .276, — not so good. The K-rate was still healthy, but a lot smaller compared to Bilous’ time with the Dash, and a 10% BB-rate is fine but a little too high if the BAA is .276. Bilous probably should move to the bullpen at this point because his stuff is good, and he basically proved in Double-A he can’t start. We will see where he ends up in 2022.

Before a review of the bullpen, best to give some props to a guy who was there but ended up being so good he moved back to staring, Emilio Vargas. It is tough to know if he truly has the majors in his sights, but he still pitched well with a 2.90 ERA.

Now to the pen, where Bennett Sousa and Andrew Pérez starred, with Sousa getting promoted eventually. These two lefties basically been on the same team each season, with Sousa getting promotions more frequently. Sousa spent half of his time with the Barons and did very well, with a 3.28 ERA and with a big increase in strikeouts. Where he ran into trouble was with the command, though he seemed to fix that in Charlotte. Pérez is younger than Sousa, so maybe that is why he wasn’t promoted, but it was not because he didn’t pitch well. He had better command than Sousa, with just a 6.5% BB-rate and a K-rate of more than 30%, so not too shabby on his part. Pérez did allow more hits and homers, though, so his ERA was higher, at 3.50. Both Perez and Sousa are lefty bullpen depth for the White Sox at this point, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them in Chicago in 2022.

Caleb Freeman is probably the more interesting option in relief, as a Top 30 White Sox prospect. Freeman was a 2019 draftee who didn’t exactly struggle in Winston-Salem, but got better once he was promoted. In 16 23 innings in Double-A Freeman struck out more batters and walked fewer as well, to give him a 2.70 ERA. Even better, he was 3-for-3 in save chances to give him nine saves on the season. Freeman has a decent fastball-curve combo that could jolt him up to MLB relatively quick.

Two notables that weren’t talked about who were with the Barons at some point were José Rodríguez and Yoelvin Silven, they just didn’t play enough so good to save those for later. But both made it to Birmingham from Kannapolis, which is very impressive.

MVP Ranks (Final)

Jameson Fisher (63.8) 2021 South Side Sox Birmingham Barons Player of the Year
Kade McClure (45.7) 2021 South Side Sox Birmingham Barons Pticher of the Year
Carlos Pérez (41.2)
Konnor Pilkington (40.8)*
Yolbert Sánchez (39.8)
Ti’quan Forbes (26.8)
Micker Adolfo (20.3)
Emilio Vargas (16.4)
Tyler Neslony (15.8)
Johan Dominguez (12.9)
Ofriedy Gómez (10.5)
Romy González (10.1)
Yoelqui Céspedes (9.9)
Zack Granite (7.3)
Davis Martin (4.5)
Kyle Kubat (4.3, 26 votes)
José Rodríguez (4.3, 15)
Joe DeCarlo (4.1)
Gunnar Troutwine (3.8)
@BhamBarons (2.0)
Jagger Rusconi (1.4)
Taylor Varnell (1.3)*
Zach Murkenhirm (1.3)

Cold Cat Ranks (Final)

Ian Dawkins (-56.7)
J.B. Olson (-55.5)
Alec Hansen (-30.3)
JJ Muno (-27.0)
Jason Bilous (-24.0)
Lenyn Sosa (-21.6)
Peter Tago (-20.2)
Luis Ledo (-17.4)
Craig Dedelow (-16.1)
Nobody TBH/Lay Off the Cold Cat (13.1)
Joel Booker (-10.3)
Jake Elliott (-9.2)
Anderson Severino (-9.0)
Caleb Freeman (-8.9)
Bennett Sousa (-8.3)
Justin Jirschele (-7.3)
Mitch Roman (-6.5)
Andrew Pérez (-4.7, -39 votes)
John Parke (-4.7, 8)
Xavier Fernández (-4.6)
Laz Rivera (-3.4)
Félix Paulino (-2.5)
Yoelvin Silven (-2.0)
Yasmani Grandal (-1.9)
Blake Battenfield (-1.8)
Brian Glowicki (-1.6)
Zach Remillard (-1.4)
Lane Ramsey (-1.3, -6 votes)
Declan Cronin (-1.3, -5)
Ofriedy Gómez (-1.0)
Vince Arobio (-0.2)

*No longer in the White Sox system.