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White Sox Deep Dive: Birmingham and Charlotte Center Fielders

Yoelqui Céspedes tops this list of outfielders.

Yoelqui Céspedes ranks second among all White Sox prospects according to MLB Pipeline.
| Ron Vesely/Getty Images

“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

Center field, along with shortstop, is where you want you want your most athletic players on the diamond. While this is also true for the White Sox, only one prospect currently ranks among the team’s Top 30 prospects according to MLB Pipeline — Yoelqui Céspedes. There is certainly much unproven potential, and speed to burn, so it will be exciting to see how the youngest CFs progress in the 2022 campaign.

Below are the organization’s center fielders who finished the season at Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte.

Ages below are as of April 1, 2022

Charlotte Knights

Mikie Mahtook
220 pounds
Age: 32
Bats/Throws: R/R
Other positions played: LF, RF

All Mahtook did in 2008 as a senior for St. Thomas More High School (Lafayette, La.) was hit .450 with 13 homers, 45 RBIs and 25 stolen bases while also earning All-State recognition as the star quarterback. Ultimately he led his prep squad to helped lead to three baseball district championships and two football district titles. His athleticism drew many recruiting eyes upon him, but he ultimately opted to stay close to home and play ball for LSU. Many wanted him to play football collegiately, perhaps even his dad and uncle who also played for the school, but it seems he made the right choice, as Mahtook’s slash numbers improved gradually from .316/.382/.495 to .335/.436/.623 to .383/.496/.709.

Unsurprisingly, Mahtook was considered one of the best collegiate prospects as a junior when he was selected in the first round (31st overall) by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2011 MLB draft. Mahtook worked his way up the Rays system and enter his first major league action in 2015 as he slashed an impressive .291/.351/.619 in 41 games. Injuries took a toll for him in 2016, as he hit just .195/.231/.292 while being placed on the injured list on four separate occasions. Then, in January 2017, he was traded to the Detroit Tigers for a player to be named later that ended up being Drew Smith.

Mahtook enjoyed his best full season, with the Tigers in 2017, as he slashed .276/.330/.457 with 12 homers, six stolen bases and 107 wRC+. In 67 games for the Tigers in 2018, he slumped to .202/.276/.359 with nine homers, and went hitless in 23 at-bats for Detroit in 2019. He signed as a minor league free agent with the Philadelphia Phillies after the 2019 season, but didn’t enter into any action due to the pandemic.

The White Sox signed Mahtook to a minor league deal in February 2021, and he ended up among the power leaders in the entire organization. In 106 games and 387 at-bats for Charlotte, he slashed .251/.318/.518 with 18 doubles, 26 homers, 62 RBIs, 31 walks (7.6%), 102 strikeouts (24.9%) and 117 wRC+. While posting a decent year for the Knights, it doesn’t seem he was seriously considered to fill in for Luis Robert when La Pantera was placed on the injured list in May, missing half of the season.

Mahtook is now a minor league free agent, and is eligible to sign with a team of his choosing for the 2022 campaign.

Birmingham Barons

Yoelqui Céspedes
205 pounds
Age: 24
Bats/Throws: R/R
Other positions played: RF
2021 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 7

The younger half-brother of Yoenis Céspedes, Yoelqui played from 2015-19 with Alazanes de Granma in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, where he slashed .287/.352/.416 over 226 games. He also played for Cuba at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, and defected two years later while playing on Cuba’s team in the independent Canadian-American Association. He added about 20 pounds to his 5´9´´ frame while training with Yoenis in advance of joining a big-league club, boosting his raw power and his prospect stock.

Yoelqui became eligible to sign in March 2020 but elected to wait until the subsequent signing period, accepting a $2.05 million bonus from the White Sox in January 2021. At the time of the signing, he was ranked the best international prospect per MLB Pipeline, but was ranked a bit lower by both Baseball America and FanGraphs.

Due to visa issues, Céspedes didn’t get to play for Winston-Salem until June 19. After shaking off some rust for his first month, he began hitting with authority around mid-July and never really stopped. In 45 games for the Dash totaling 176 at-bats, Céspedes slashed .278/.355/.494 with 17 doubles, seven homers, 10 stolen bases, 13 walks (6.5%), 56 strikeouts (28.1%) and 127 wRC+. He didn’t lift his foot off the accelerator after being promoted to Birmingham on August 17, as he slashed .298/.340/.404 for the Barons with three doubles, two triples, one homer, eight stolen bases, three walks (3.0%), 27 strikeouts (27.0%) and 108 wRC+. Combined with both teams, he slashed a solid .285/.350/.463 in 72 games with 20 doubles, two triples, eight homers, 27 RBIs, 18 stolen bases, 16 walks (5.4%) and 83 strikeouts (27.8%).

While the numbers were quite good, Céspedes did show himself to be a free swinger, as evidenced by his high strikeout and low walk rates. More advanced pitchers from Triple-A on up will take advantage of that aggressiveness. To gauge his progress, Céspedes was assigned an Arizona Fall League roster spot, where he struggled against those advanced pitchers by slashing just .181/.244/.222 in 19 games for the Glendale Desert Dogs. Ultimately, this experience should ultimately help him gain better knowledge of the strike zone.

Currently ranked second in the Sox system per MLB Pipeline behind only Colson Montgomery, Céspedes is given a 70 grade for his arm, which could serve him in good stead for right field. His power is his next-highest tool at 55, while his speed and defense are both graded respectably at 50. His hitting tool is graded the lowest at 45, for the reasons mentioned above.

Céspedes likely will return to Birmingham to begin the 2022 season, but should earn a promotion to Charlotte later in the year. Depending upon acquisitions prior to the 2023 season, and perhaps depending upon the success of other internal options, the hot prospect could be in line for a right-field spot that year at the MLB level, provided he improves his plate discipline.

Joel Booker
190 pounds
Age: 28
Bats/Throws: R/R
Other positions played: LF, RF
2019 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 57
2020 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 79
2021 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 99

After spending his first two collegiate seasons at Indian Hills (Iowa) JC, Booker played his final two years with the University of Iowa. As a senior for the Hawkeyes, he slashed .370/.421/.532 in 56 games with 19 doubles, two triples, five homers, 37 RBIs, and 23-for-25 stolen bases.

The results were good enough for the speedster to be selected in the 22nd round of the 2016 draft. He immediately paid dividends, as he slashed an impressive .312/.403/.404 in 65 combined games with the AZL White Sox and Great Falls with 16 doubles, one triple, two homers, 31 RBIs, 41-of-43 stolen bases, 27 walks (8.9%) and 49 strikeouts (16.2%).

The 2017 season saw Booker split his time with Kannapolis and Winston-Salem, combining to slash .274/.329/.349 in 123 games with 17 doubles, two triples, five homers, 44 RBIs, 23 stolen bases, 27 walks (5.1%) and 107 strikeouts (20.2%). And it was in 2018 when Booker began seeing his name on a few prospect lists, as he earned the Carolina League’s All-Star Game MVP while concluding the season with Birmingham. Although he did struggle a bit with the Barons, he still finished the year with a combined 26 stolen bases and a career-high 44 walks.

After beginning the 2019 season well with Birmingham (.351/.400/.446 and eight stolen bases in 20 April games), Booker was promoted to Charlotte. However, he had difficulty hitting there, slashing just .203/.276/.304 in 26 games. After his demotion to Birmingham on June 21, Booker continued his struggles by hitting just .222 for the remainder of the year. In a combined 102 games with both teams, he slashed .245/.308/.322 with 13 doubles, one triple, four homers, 36 RBIs, 19 stolen bases, 24 walks (6.2%) and 89 strikeouts (22.8%). Unfortunately, he didn’t have a chance to redeem himself thanks to the pandemic shutdown.

Unfortunately, 2021 was more of the same for Booker. He began the season in Charlotte, but was shortly afterward demoted to Birmingham where he spent the remainder of the year. Combined with both teams over 61 games, Booker slashed just .218/.243/.335 with eight doubles, five homers, 15 RBIs, 15 stolen bases, four walks (1.9%) and 73 strikeouts (35.3%). His wRC+ was 67 for Birmingham, and an unsightly -47 with Charlotte. Injuries didn’t help matters any, as he was placed on the injured list for the final eight weeks of the season. Booker will be eligible for the upcoming Rule 5 draft, but he likely won’t be selected due to his offensive struggles.

At one time, it looked like Booker could have enjoyed a role much like Billy Hamilton as a fourth or fifth outfielder; sadly, those hopes seem to be slowly fading away.

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