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White Sox Deep Dive: Birmingham and Charlotte Left Fielders

Two sweet-swinging lefties top the list.

Blake Rutherford is the highest-ranking left field prospect in the White Sox system, per MLB Pipeline.
| Laura Wolff/Charlotte Knights

“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization.

Welcome to another year of Deep Dive, where we analyze the past, present and future for each position in the White Sox organization. Each position is broken into five parts:

  1. Depth in the rookie levels (Dominican through Arizona)
  2. Depth in A-ball (Kannapolis and Winston-Salem)
  3. Depth in the higher levels (Birmingham and Charlotte)
  4. Under the Radar-type detail on a White Sox player
  5. Free agent options

Left field is one of the weakest positions in the White Sox farm system, with only Blake Rutherford cracking the MLB Pipeline Top 30 list.

Below are the organization’s left fielders who finished the season at either Double-A Birmingham or Triple-A Charlotte.

Ages below are as of April 1, 2022

Charlotte Knights

Blake Rutherford
205 pounds
Age: 24
Bats/Throws: L/L
Other positions played: CF, RF
2018 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 9
2019 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 8
2020 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 12
2021 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 14

Baseball America noted that some scouts saw Rutherford as a possible “power-hitting center fielder in the Jim Edmonds mold” prior to the 2016 MLB draft. At this point, the White Sox might be happy with Rutherford as a center fielder in the Jim Eisenreich mode.

Rutherford was selected in the first round (18th overall) by the Yankees. By 2017, the lefty was playing for New York’s A-squad in Charleston when he was traded with Ian Clarkin, Tito Polo and Tyler Clippard to the White Sox for David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle and Todd Frazier on July 31. That year, combined with Charleston and Kannapolis, Rutherford slashed .260/.326/.348 in 101 games with 25 doubles, two triples, two homers, 35 RBIs, 10 stolen bases, 38 walks (8.6%) and 76 strikeouts (17.3%).

Rutherford enjoyed his best season to date in the Sox organization in 2018 with Winston-Salem, as he slashed a respectable .293/.345/.436 in 115 games with 25 doubles, nine triples, seven homers, 78 RBIs, 15 stolen bases, 34 walks (7.0%) and 90 strikeouts (18.5%). However, in a far less favorable hitting environment in Birmingham in 2019, he slashed just .265/.319/.365 in 118 games with 17 doubles, three triples, seven homers, 49 RBIs, nine stolen bases, 37 walks (7.7%) and 118 strikeouts (24.6%). While those numbers admittedly weren’t all that good, it could’ve been much worse: Through the end of the May, Rutherford was slashing just .185/.228/.291. From June 1 on, something clicked, and he hit a much more respectable .307/.370/.401. He did struggle versus strong competition in the Arizona Fall League after the regular season, as he slashed .179/.281/.385 with four doubles, three triples and two homers in 21 games. In order to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, the White Sox added him to the 40-man roster in December 2019.

After missing the 2020 season due to the pandemic shutdown, Rutherford had a lot to prove this year in his first shot at Triple-A. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as he had hoped. In 115 games for Charlotte, Rutherford slashed .250/.286/.404 with 30 doubles, three triples, 11 homers, four stolen bases, 21 walks (4.4%) and 119 strikeouts (25.0%). Despite reaching career highs in doubles and round-trippers, the results seemed underwhelming when realizing that half of his games were played in hitting-friendly Truist Field. Rutherford’s wRC+ was just 80, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was nearly six-to-one. As it has been throughout his career, Rutherford fared better against righties (.262/.293/.416) than southpaws (.221/.270/.374).

Rutherford, once among the organization’s Top 10 prospects, has now fallen to 23rd per MLB Pipeline and it’s debatable whether he’ll remain in the Top 30 when the new list comes out. Rutherford does have one option remaining, so the White Sox won’t be required to either put him on the major league roster or risk losing him until next year (which is the decision the team soon has to make regarding teammate Micker Adolfo). Rutherford is still just 24, which means he has still has a little time to figure things out. One positive sign: Every year prior to 2021, Rutherford’s ground ball rate exceeded 50%; this year, it fell to 45.4%, which explains the increase in doubles and homers. However, he’ll need to expand upon that progress in 2022 if he plans to be a factor in future White Sox lineups — even if it means as a fourth outfielder or platoon player.

MLB Pipeline gives Rutherford 50 grades for fielding and running, 45 grades for hitting and throwing and a 40 grade for power. He has played all outfield positions regularly but seems better suited for left and center field due to a relatively weak arm. Thus, he has a chance to be at minimum a reserve outfielder in the majors — all Rutherford has to do is produce better all-around numbers offensively with the Knights in 2022.

Birmingham Barons

Tyler Neslony
190 pounds
Age: 28
Bats/Throws: L/R
Other positions played: RF, CF

Neslony, after a solid senior campaign with TCU in 2016 where he slashed .307/.400/.537 with the Horned Frogs, was selected in the ninth round by the Atlanta Braves. After receiving a mere $8,000 signing bonus because he lacked leverage as a fourth-year senior, Neslony concluded that year’s minor league season with Single-A Rome.

The 2017 season saw Neslony provide his best full season in the Braves system, as he slashed a combined .263/.342/.363 with 21 doubles and five homers for the High-A Florida Fire Dogs and Double-A Mississippi Braves. He returned to Mississippi for 2018 where he slashed .244/.297/.333 in 125 games; that year, he established career highs in hits (110), doubles (24), and RBIs (48), and was named a Southern League All-Star.

Neslony got off to a great start in 2019 with Mississippi, but his year was hampered due to two long stints on the injured list due to a strained oblique. In 58 games that year, he slashed .292/.369/.458 with five homers, 21 walks (9.7%), 43 strikeouts (19.8%) and 140 wRC+. However, Neslony got off to a terrible start in 2021 on yet another return to Mississippi, as he slashed just .164/.250/.255 in 63 plate appearances. Then, on July 11, he was traded to the White Sox for cash considerations.

Being mired in a deep Braves farm system, Neslony seemed stuck in neutral. Freed from those chains, he seemingly turned his career around overnight. In 38 games for the Birmingham Barons spanning 138 at-bats, all Neslony did was slash .355/.444/.678 with 16 doubles, seven homers, 28 RBIs, 19 walks, 31 strikeouts and a whopping 203 wRC+! This while playing half of his games in the cavernous confines of Regions Field.

Skeptics would say he played against competition 2.5 years younger, and they’d be right. But perhaps a clean slate and a change of uniforms may have been all that was needed to reignite his career.

Turning 28 in February, Neslony is now eligible for the upcoming Rule 5 draft. It’s a long shot, but possible that his resurgence may stoke interest in claiming his services. If unselected, Neslony likely would play for Charlotte in 2022 and could even be an extreme dark-horse candidate to make the major league squad with an outstanding spring training (provided, of course, that the team doesn’t sign any big-name free agents in right field). Neslony is not merely a platoon player, as he slashed a combined .341/.442/.477 against lefties in 2021. It’s not unheard of that late bloomers can succeed when playing for a new time — Mike Yastrzemski, for one, struggled in the Orioles organization before eventually thriving with the Giants.

Could the same thing happen for Neslony? Stay tuned.

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