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Charlotte Knights 2021 Season Preview

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Minor League baseball is back, and the Triple-A team offers a lot of familiar names

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Chicago White Sox
Jonathan Stiever will be the highest-rated prospect on this year’s Knights squad.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After a year without minor league baseball because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a delayed 2021 season, MiLB is finally back.

This year will be a bit different for the obvious pandemic reasons, but also because of some new wrinkles mandated from MLB. There will be fewer teams overall in the minors, as in Chicago’s case the White Sox will be without the Great Falls Voyagers and an advanced rookie league team.

However, for Triple-A and Charlotte specifically, the bases are changing. They will be going from a 15´´ x 15´´ bag to 18´´ x 18´´ that will also be stickier (or grippier?).

Overall, the MLB and MiLB are becoming more and more “federalized,” with each MiLB level using different rules changes so that MLB can figure out which changes are best. For the Knights and all of Triple-A, that means larger bases.

With instant replay, the millisecond a player is off the bag has become more important and this should help if MLB decided a grippier bag is better for the game. The bigger bag should lead to more infield hits, stolen bases, and close safe/out calls in general, but we will all find out if that is true in practice during the season. Odds are, this won’t affect the game overall, but it will take some adjusting for everyone, including the coaching staff.

The would-be 2020 Knights coaching staff is almost the same for the 2021 season, as Wes Helms will still be the manager. The former major leaguer managed the Birmingham Barons in 2019, so most of his players he’ll have managed already. Matt Zaleski was named the pitching coach in 2020 and will retain that role. He is a career White Sox MiLBer as a player and a coach; he was last with the Winston-Salem Dash in 2019 as a coach. Finally, an actual new hire for 2021 is hitting coach Chris Johnson. He is a former MLB corner infielder with eight years of MLB hitting experience and a career 97 OPS+. He has a bit more MLB experience than Helms, and because the White Sox are already down quite a few MLB bats, his experience should be a positive for the young guys in Charlotte who are close to being in Chicago.


Hitters

So far, fans have not seen a lot of Charlotte Knights talent on the South Side. Four current or past 2021 White Sox could probably pass as Opening Day Charlotte starters. Jake Lamb may be a Triple-A hitter, but it seems like he will be with the Sox for the foreseeable future, but the other three are Nick Williams, Luis González, and Danny Mendick.

Williams started the year with the Sox and failed to record a hit in 13 plate appearances. He had a big spring training, so that is why he saw time on the White Sox roster — along with an injury to Eloy Jimenéz. Williams is not on the 40-man roster, so it will take a 60-day IL type of injury to see him again.

González is on the 40-man so it is much more likely he is the outfielder that fans see come up for 10-day IL injuries — as he is after Luis Robert’s devastating hip injury on Sunday. The 13th-rated Sox prospect per MLB.com is coming off a disappointing 2019 MiLB season with the Barons. González went from hitting over .300 with a wRC+ over 140 in 2018 to .247 with a 97 wRC+ in 2019. He has a lot to prove in order to be an everyday outfielder in MLB, but he has done well enough to be the sixth outfielder.

Danny Mendick also saw time in 2021 with the White Sox, but has since became an alternate-siter — and it seems the only reason for that is he cannot play the outfield, and the fact he has options left. Mendick has better numbers than Jake Lamb and Leury García, with a 179 wRC+ this season. Yes, it is just eight games, but that still probably deserves a roster spot. Overall, Mendick is a career average hitter with 98 wRC+ and has fine, not spectacular, (definitely not Gold Glove) defensive abilities.

A surprising player that hasn’t been with the Sox yet is Seby Zavala. The 21st-ranked Sox prospect according to FanGraphs does have MLB experience but did not play a professional game last season. The last time Sox fans saw Seby in a competitive game was 2019, when he had a -68 wRC+ in five games with the Sox and an 87 wRC+ with Charlotte. He probably is the third catcher in the depth chart, but Yermín Mercedes has catapulted himself above Zavala as a hitter over the past few seasons. But if Zack Collins or Yasmani Grandal miss some time, Zavala should be up to catch.

To round out the 40-man roster hitters in Charlotte are Gavin Sheets and Blake Rutherford. Both of them got chances in Glendale, but obviously did not earn a spot on the roster and haven’t been called up despite a rash of White Sox injuries early on. Gavin Sheets is a first baseman and now an outfielder, probably left field if ever for the White Sox. Meanwhile, Rutherford is a natural outfielder who plays all three positions. In 2019, Sheets had a 122 wRC+ that came solely from batting average and his 10% walk rate, though his power did show a bit more than in years past (16 homers). Rutherford had a much tougher time in Birmingham, as his offensive stats cratered compared to his time with Winston-Salem.

Jake Burger will be in Triple-A for the Knights. He is coming off of injuries and a pandemic that has kept them out of baseball since 2017, so there is not much else to add beyond the fact he is finally healthy and now it is time to discover what type of hitter he really is.

Other not-so-prospecty names are former major leaguers Tim Beckham, Marco Hernandez, Matt Reynolds, and Mikie Mahtook. These guys probably won’t see time with the big club without a player going on the 60-day IL.

The hitters are mostly names you all have heard of, at Triple-A because they just aren’t good enough for the majors.

On the pitching side, there is a bit more upside with players that could make a difference during a playoff run.


Pitchers

Jimmy Lambert is the Opening Day starter for Charlotte. He made the White Sox roster last season as a bullpen arm, but was essentially out for the year because of injury. Now he is back to being a starter, a role he hasn’t filled since 2019 with Birmingham. Lambert has a low- to mid-90s fastball to go along with a change, and two breaking pitches, a curveball and slider. The last time we saw him starting was in 2019, which was a disappointing Double-A campaign compared to 2018. His FIP went from 2.73 in 2018 to 4.71 in 2019 for the Barons. This was mostly due to an increased home run rate, but his walks also doubled. So when Lambert gets his chance to start in Charlotte, those two aspects of his game are things to watch: Can he keep the walks down to the 5-7% range, and will his home run rate normalize to his career average?

Jonathan Stiever has been up this season and currently has an infinity White Sox ERA because of his lone appearance. He will probably be the highest-rated Sox prospect to open the season, as he is rated No. 7. He has about the same arsenal as Lambert, but throws a bit harder and uses his slider more often than a curve. The last time he was a starter was also in 2019, but in High-A, where he looked great: In 71 innings, he had a 3.13 FIP with a great 19.7% K-BB rate. Stiever hasn’t shown what he is capable of in the majors yet, but he will be back to starting in Triple-A.

Those two are probably the best of the bunch to keep an eye on in terms of starting pitchers, but Reynaldo López should be there as well along with Kade McClure. McClure is a sixth-round pick who has seen his fastball velocity go up each year per FanGraphs. As a starter in the minors he has looked good, but as he’s gotten promoted, his strikeout numbers usually fall — but because McClure does not walk batters that much, he has been able to get away with it. MLB Pipeline notes that McClure has some trouble getting lefties out, and that is probably where the drop in K-rate comes from, as lefty bats get better each time he is promoted. McClure’s placement in Charlotte is an aggressive move, as he last pitched in High-A in 2019 — but the Sox certainly could use a surprise for their MLB pitching depth.

The best players on the Knights are the relievers, as Charlotte will have a fantastic group of arms and former top prospects. Zack Burdi should start out the year there, and will compete with Tyler Johnson for time as the closer. Without an early-2019 injury, Johnson would probably be up with the Sox by now. If a long-term injury to a righty arm up north happens, Johnson should be one of the guys that gets the call up. He has a good fastball (in the mid-90s) and a decent slider. Johnson just needs to pitch competitive innings at this point, and he is usually very good when he does.

On the lefty side, Kodi Medeiros, Nik Turley, Hunter Schryver, and Jacob Lindgren are the names to know. Medeiros is a converted starter and did look good n 2019, with a 2.55 ERA — but the advanced stats did not look as good because he didn’t strike out a lot of batters while walking too many. Schryver has always been a reliever, and FanGraphs does like him a bit more than other sites (26th-best Sox prospect). Schryver had TJ surgery last season so he could start the year on the IL, but he’s a guy to watch because the Sox do not have much lefty depth in their bullpen and he has shown good stuff and results over his time.

On the older side are Turley and Lindgren. Both have stuff that leaves a lot to be desired; Turley has a good fastball , and Lindgren is a former top prospect with a good slider. Lindgren was still coming back from his injuries when he pitched in 2019, slowly moving up the system. He has not pitched in the high minors since 2015, so he still has a long way to go. Turley has more MLB experience and had decent advanced stats year last season in Pittsburgh with a 3.88 FIP. The southpaw just has a walk problem that’s prevented him from putting everything together so far for a permanent MLB bullpen spot.

To fill out the bullpen are a few more notable former major leaguers like familiar face Ryan Burr. The fireballer Tayron Guerrero will be there as well, along with Connor Sadzeck.

This bullpen has a ton of arms to keep an eye on, but the guys cited are the best or most intriguing.

There are a lot of unknowns heading into this season, and it should make for a fun year. Odds are, somebody on this roster will help the Sox make the playoffs later in the season.