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White Sox Deep Dive: Birmingham Right-Handed Starting Pitchers

This bevy of Barons talent is mostly caught between rotation and relief roles.

Davis Martin took off after his promotion to Birmingham late in 2021, and has an outside shot at Charlotte in 2022.
| Tiffany Wintz/South Side Sox

“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization. Each position is broken into a five-part series:

  1. Depth in the rookie levels (Dominican and 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

While Kannapolis and the rookie leagues carried six right-handed starters among the organization’s Top 30 overall prospects, they are still at least two or three years away from reaching the majors. In the meantime, Charlotte and Birmingham finished the year with four righty starters of their own among the organization’s Top 30 prospects — and they’re much closer to being major league ready.

Below are the right-handed starters that finished the season at Double-A Birmingham.

Ages below are as of April 1, 2022


Birmingham Barons

Jason Bilous
6´2´
185 pounds
Age: 24
2020 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 51
2021 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 42

Bilous was ranked among the Top 200 draft prospects by MLB Pipeline prior to the 2018 draft, but slipped to the 13th round due to concerns about his control. His fastball was graded 65, slider 55, changeup 50 and control 40 by MLB Pipeline at the time.

In his junior season with Coastal Carolina, Bilous fanned a whopping 103 hitters but walked an incredibly-high 66; his 7.13 BB/9 rate in 2018 for the Chanticleers was nearly identical to his overall college rate of 7.12. Upon being drafted, he was immediately inserted into the Great Falls rotation, where he suffered through a 7.81 ERA and 1.95 WHIP, with 46 hits (.324 OBA) and 24 walks (5.54 BB/9) while striking out 31 (7.15 K/9) in 39 innings.

The 2019 season was kinder to Bilous, as his ERA and WHIP improved to 3.70 and 1.39 in his 31 appearances (17 starts) spanning 104 23 innings for Kannapolis. Opponents hit just .220 against Bilous that year, while he improved his strikeout rate to 9.72 K/9. His walk rate did improve a bit, but was still way too high at 5.25 BB/9.

After the year layoff in 2020 due to the pandemic, Bilous began the 2021 season with Winston-Salem and got off to a great three-game start. In 14 23 innings for the Dash, he posted a 2.45 ERA and 0.89 WHIP as he surrendered just nine hits (.208 OBA) and two walks (1.23 BB/9) while striking out 26 (15.95 K/9)!

Obviously, the organization was cognizant of those results and immediately promoted him to Birmingham. Against competition roughly 18 months older, Bilous struggled in 17 starts with a 6.51 ERA and 1.55 WHIP. During his 65 innings for the Barons, he relinquished 71 hits (.278 OBA) and 30 walks (4.15 BB/9) while fanning 80 (11.08 K/9). His numbers got progressively worse in the final months, as he posted a bleak 10.02 ERA and 2.32 during his final six starts.

Nevertheless, he was one of just two prospects (joining reliever Bennett Sousa) protected from the Rule 5 draft and added to the 40-man roster this past November.

While Bilous did pitch in the upper-90s in the Cape Cod League in short stints back in 2016, his heater now typically runs 92-95 mph. His low-80s slider offers solid movement and speed variance with his fastball, and is considered a plus pitch by MLB Pipeline. Also according to that site, Bilous’ repertoire includes a changeup that neutralizes lefties, and also a curve. MLB Pipeline grades his heater and slider at 55, while his curve and change are graded at 50. As expected, they grade his biggest weakness as control with a 45, in part caused by a long arm action in the back of his delivery that hampers him from repeating his release point and keeping his mechanics in sync.

When the White Sox added Bilous to the 40-man roster, they clearly overlooked his ERA and WHIP while focusing on his soaring strikeout numbers and improved control numbers. It is believed that Bilous’ heater can tick up 2-3 mph in shorter spurts when he’s not worrying about going deeper into games.

Thus, beginning in 2022, he’s likely to be a higher-leverage reliever with either Birmingham or Charlotte. Bilous is currently ranked 18th among all White Sox prospects according to MLB Pipeline.

Emilio Vargas
6´3´´
220 pounds
Age: 25
2021 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 35

Vargas, signed as a 16-year-old from the Dominican Republic by the Arizona Diamondbacks, was a slow riser in that organization, although performing well at every stop. Finally, in November 2018, he was added to their 40-man roster in order to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. That year, combined with High-A Visalia and Double-A Jackson, Vargas posted a 2.88 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 26 starts totaling 143 23 innings. In that span, he ceded just 123 hits (.229 OBA) and 49 walks (3.07 BB/9) while striking out 170 (10.65 K/9).

Limited to 17 starts for Jackson in 2019 due to injury, Vargas posted a respectable 3.78 ERA and 1.13 WHIP over 85 23 innings as he allowed 74 hits (.231 OBA) and 23 free passes (2.96 BB/9) while fanning 70 (7.35 K/9). He was promoted to Triple-A Reno on March 6, 2020 but never pitched because of the pandemic.

Perhaps alarmed because of his lower strikeout rate from the year before, and the need to protect certain prospects from that year’s Rule 5 draft, Vargas was placed on waivers in the hopes of re-adding him back onto the roster without 40-man limitations.

“Not so fast!” cried Rick Hahn. The White Sox claimed Vargas off of waivers on Nov. 20, 2020 and actually tried the same thing (successfully) when designating him for assignment on February 1 of this year — essentially clearing a spot on their own 40-man roster.

Vargas then produced arguably the best season of any righthander who pitched in a full-season league in the Sox system. In 21 games (15 starts) totaling 83 23 innings for Birmingham, Vargas posted a 2.90 ERA and 1.16 WHIP by relinquishing just 69 hits (.225 OBA) and 28 walks (3.01 BB/9) while fanning 99 (10.65 K/9). The biggest concern with Vargas’ results is that he posted a 1.86 at spacious Regions Field while producing a mediocre 4.75 ERA in road games. This could become an issue when pitching at the hitter-friendly Truist Field in Charlotte in 2022.

According to Prospects Live, Vargas features a crafty, three-pitch repertoire that includes a 91-92 mph heater that plays a few ticks higher because lives primarily up in the zone; this is given a 50 grade. Vargas’ slider provides a solid weapon versus righties, and often produces weak contact from his opponents. This pitch, along with a changeup with good vertical drop, are both graded 50 as well. The site gives him a 50 for control and 40 for command. However, since Vargas has consistently produced solid OBA numbers without elite stuff, I’d upgrade the command to a 45 or 50.

There’s not a lot that distinguishes Vargas, beyond being a reliable, durable starter. However, his results have always outperformed his talent, which is a testament to his craftiness. His lack of velocity also explains why he’s yet to reach Triple-A, in this world of triple-digit radar readings. Vargas actually makes an ideal swingman candidate who could pitch long innings in relief and can contribute a spot start here and there at the major league level.

That is, however, if he survives Truist Field first.

Blake Battenfield
6´3´´
225 pounds
Age: 27
2020 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 62
2021 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 43

Battenfield, a resident of Tulsa, remained in his native state to play with the Oklahoma State Cowboys after high school. His first three years were primarily spent in the bullpen, where Battenfield crafted a respectable 2.60 ERA and 1.35 WHIP over 97 innings. During that time, he allowed 86 hits while posting a mediocre K/BB ratio (1.47), with 45 walks and 66 strikeouts. He split time evenly between the rotation and bullpen with the Cowboys as a senior (2017), posting middling results: 4.91 ERA and 1.49 WHIP over 69 23 innings, while walking 31 and striking out 58.

These results obviously weren’t spectacular, which explains why Battenfield slipped all the way to the 17th round of the 2017 draft. He served exclusively out of the bullpen that year for Great Falls, where he posted mediocre ERA (4.88) and WHIP numbers over 31 13 innings in the high altitude, but some of his peripherals stood out. Opposing hitters batted .271 against his offerings, but he punched out 40 hitters (11.5 K/9) while walking only eight (2.3 BB/9). Partly based on those numbers, the Sox decided to convert him to a starter for 2018.

Battenfield pitched outstandingly for Kannapolis in his 13 starts in 2018: 2.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 52 hits (.210 OBA), 16 walks (2.1 BB/9), and 69 strikeouts (9.3 K/9) over 67 innings, earning a promotion to Winston-Salem on June 21. As expected, his numbers declined a bit in nine starts (53 1⁄3 innings) for the Dash, but were still respectable: 4.22 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 50 hits (.248 OBA), 13 walks (2.2 BB%), and 46 strikeouts (7.8 K/9).

After a terrific six starts to begin the 2019 season with the Dash, Battenfield earned an early promotion to Birmingham, where he did struggle with his command. In 19 starts for the Barons totaling 95 23 innings, he posted a 4.52 ERA and 1.38 WHIP by allowing 107 hits (.287 OBA) and 25 walks (2.4 BB/9) while fanning 69 (6.5 K/9). He especially labored against lefties (.299 OBA, 1.59 WHIP) in comparison to righties for Birmingham (.278 OBA, 1.23 WHIP). His 36.8% ground ball rate didn’t do him any favors, either.

After the year off due due to the pandemic shutdown, Battenfield continued to struggle versus Double-A competition in his 23 outings — 20 of which were starts. In 106 innings for the Barons in 2021, Battenfield posted a 4.75 ERA and 1.41 WHIP as he relinquished 128 hits (.293 OBA) and 21 walks (1.8 BB/9) while striking out 79 (6.7 K/9). His control was again exemplary, but his command was not, as he allowed more hits than ever before while striking out fewer hitters. Lefties (.297) hit him slightly better than righties (.290), but the biggest discrepancy was in his home/road splits. In pitching-friendly Regions Field, he compiled a 3.76 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and .255 OBA; on the road, he posted a 5.74 ERA, 1.56 WHIP and .329 OBA. This certainly constitutes red flags if looking toward a promotion to Charlotte.

Battenfield has an impressive repertoire that includes a natural sinking fastball, a rising four-seamer, an effective slider, a big-breaking curveball with good spin and depth, and a changeup that still needs work. He doesn’t appear to throw especially hard. I haven’t seen any projections, but we’re probably looking at the low 90s, as he was in the mid-80s as a varsity athlete according to Perfect Game and has gotten stronger since then. But the righthander’s movement and speed variations help his fastball play up. His changeup has yet to be mastered, as evidenced by the success Double-A lefties enjoyed against him this year.

Though Battenfield is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, he won’t be selected due to his age and lack of stuff. With his control, repertoire and decent success over the past few years, one can envision a pitching coach career down the road for Battenfield. However, for 2022, it seems he’s more destined to be a long reliever for Birmingham than a significant part of the Charlotte Knights rotation.

Davis Martin
6´2´´
200 pounds
Age: 25
2021 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 69

Martin, who was projected to be drafted much higher in 2018, slipped to the 14th round as he struggled with Texas Tech to the tune of a 4.87 ERA and 1.49 WHIP. Martin did hold his own, however, with the AZL Sox and Great Falls as he combined to post a respectable 4.29 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in nine outings spanning 21 innings.

The 2019 season was fairly rocky for Martin, but it wasn’t a lost campaign by any means. In 27 starts totaling 144 23 innings, Martin allowed 152 hits (.266 OBA) and 38 walks (2.4 BB/9) while striking out 156 hitters (9.7 K/9). Lefties and righties fared equally against his offerings, but aside from a fairly high batting average, Martin’s biggest issue was that he surrendered 17 homers — a high number considering the ballpark he pitched in. Martin’s first-half ERA, WHIP and OBA were awful at 6.35, 1.91 and .291; thankfully his second-half numbers improved to 3.87, 1.15 and .243. Thus, it appears that while Martin maintained his control throughout the season, he improved his command as he hit the locations he wanted.

After missing the 2020 season due to the pandemic, Martin began the year with Winston-Salem but struggled with a 5.32 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in his 17 starts. In 67 23 innings, he relinquished 80 hits (.297 OBA) and 26 walks (3.5 BB/9) while striking out 78 (10.4 K/9). Lefties hit .271 against his offerings there but righties thrived by hitting .312. Despite his struggles for the Dash, Martin was promoted to Birmingham on August 8 and performed much better in his six games there. In 20 13 innings for the Barons, he surrendered 19 hits (.250 OBA) and eight walks while fanning 20 on the way to a 3.54 ERA and 1.33 WHIP.

According to MLB Draft Countdown in 2018, Martin’s fastball runs 89-93 mph while his curveball runs 80-83. He does feature both a four-seamer and a two-seamer, while his changeup helps neutralize lefties somewhat (although it was graded at just 40 prior to his draft selection). Obviously, Martin may have gained a little oomph on those pitches in the three years since that scouting report, based upon his high strikeout totals. He will need to work on keeping the ball down, as Double-A hitters hit grounders less than a third of the time. Martin features sound mechanics, and has seemingly improved upon his 45 grade control. If he can have success with Birmingham with keeping the ball down, he’ll have a chance to earn promotion to Charlotte at some point in the 2022 season.

Lincoln Henzman
6´2´´
205 pounds
Age: 26
2018 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 23
2019 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 32
2020 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 65
2021 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 79

With the exception of two starts in his freshman season, Henzman was exclusively a reliever for the Louisville Cardinals. His best season was as a junior, when he pitched in 27 games (saving 16) totaling 37 2⁄3 innings with a terrific 1.67 ERA and 0.85 WHIP — allowing just 22 hits (.169 OBA) and 10 walks (2.39 BB/9), striking out 37 (8.84 K/9). With those results, the White Sox drafted Henzman in the fourth round of the 2017 draft, with the intention of converting him into a starter.

After receiving a signing bonus of $450,000, Henzman pitched for the AZL Sox and Great Falls. In 11 combined outings (seven starts), he maintained a respectable 3.86 ERA and 1.29 WHIP over 28 innings, allowing 27 hits (.262 OBA) and nine walks (2.89 BB/9) while striking out 17 (5.46 K/9).

Henzman went deeper into games in 2018 for Kannapolis, starting 13 and pitching 72 2⁄3 innings, with better-than-expected results. For the Intimidators, Henzman posted a 2.23 ERA and 1.05 WHIP, and allowed just 68 hits (.241 OBA) and eight walks (3.0%) while striking out 60 hitters (1.0 K/9). He was promoted to Winston-Salem on June 21, but was held to pitch counts as Henzman had already far exceeded his career high in innings. In 14 outings totaling 34 2⁄3 innings for the Dash, he posted a 2.60 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, ceding 34 hits (.256 OBA) and 10 walks (2.6 BB/9) while striking out 20 (5.2 K/9).

The 2019 season saw Henzman go through some struggles — particularly with putting hitters away. In nine starts spanning 41 innings for the Dash, he posted a 4.61 ERA and 1.37 WHIP as he relinquished 46 hits (.288 OBA) and 10 walks (2.2 BB/9) while fanning just 18 (4.0 K/9). He did earn a promotion to Birmingham in early June, and struggled against his more advanced opponents. In 15 starts totaling 79 13 innings for the Barons, Henzman compiled a 5.56 ERA and 1.44 WHIP as he surrendered 96 hits (.301 OBA) and 18 walks (2.0 BB/9) while striking out 44 (5.0 K/9). While he maintained his above-average control, but his command was lacking as he didn’t miss many bats due to a high OBA and low strikeout rate.

Unfortunately, Henzman has missed the last two seasons due to a combination of pandemic and injury. When he’s on, his repertoire includes a heavy sinking fastball that runs anywhere from 90-95 mph according to MLB Pipeline, and despite his struggles in 2019, still induced a 53% ground ball rate. He throws an upper-80s cutter, while also throwing an above-average changeup. That changeup has helped Henzman, as lefties have consistently hit him for a lower average than have righties during his young career. MLB Pipeline graded his fastball as 60, changeup at 55, and control and cutter at 50.

Don’t be surprised to see him begin next year in the bullpen for Birmingham, slowly wending his way back into the rotation once the rust is shaken off. It would indeed be nice to see this former organizational Top 30 prospect bounce back in a big way.

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