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Kannapolis Cannon Ballers 2021 Season Preview

A ballpark and nickname debut, buffered by the best talent in the system? Ballers, indeed

The big Texan out of Refugio, Jared Kelley, headlines a Big 3 of the top starters in the system.
Sean Williams/South Side Sox

Although minor league baseball hasn’t been played since 2019, the Kannapolis baseball team has been busy.

Not only did they break ground and complete construction on a shiny, new, state-of-the-art ballpark and training facility, they also underwent a total brand makeover in renaming the former Intimidators the Cannon Ballers.

As part of a very thoughtful marketing campaign, the city’s founding by textile magnate James Cannon and the team’s association with NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt were melded, with great success. Although the team parted ways with the “Intimidators,” the team’s mascot Boomer bears a striking resemblance to the beloved race car driver and wears his iconic mustache. Even Earnhardt’s No. 3 is visible in the form of the letter “B” on one of the Cannon Ballers baseball caps.

The Cannon Ballers roster has also undergone a complete makeover. From top to bottom, not one player or coach has seen prior action in Kannapolis. Under normal circumstances this would be shocking, but with the Covid pandemic negating the 2020 season it isn’t that remarkable. The Ballers will be competing in the Central Division of the realigned Low-A East, as their former governing circuit, the South Atlantic League was made defunct by MLB’s realignment of the minors.

Taking the reins of this prospect-laden and very precocious team is manager Guillermo Quiroz. This will be Quiroz’s first managing gig, after having served previously as a hitting coach for both the Winston-Salem Dash and Charlotte Knights. The good news for the rookie skipper is his squad will be the most exciting team in the organization.

What weapons will Quiroz have available in his quest to balance player development and league dominance? Let’s take a look.


Rotation

The three-headed monster of Jared Kelley, Matt Thompson, and Drew Dalquist boasts draft pedigree, tools to salivate over, and significant capital investment. The trio’s combined signing bonus is a hefty $7.1 million. From a “stuff” standpoint, the two Texans, Kelley and Thompson, should slot in as 1 and 1A in the Ballers rotation while Dalquist, who emphasizes pitchability, will likely fall comfortably into the 3-spot.

As the top prep arm in the 2020 draft, Kelley posted eye-popping numbers, finishing his high school career with a 32-3 record and a 0.43 ERA. The righthander’s arsenal is a lethal cocktail of big velo, plus secondaries and movement. For a young pitcher, his changeup is very advanced, which should allow him to dominate the low-level minors. (Fascinating fact, the youthful fireballer hails from Refugio Texas, the birthplace of Nolan Ryan.)

Thompson has plus velocity and his slender 6´3´´, 195-pound build offers further projectability and plenty of upside.

Dalquist doesn’t blow up the radar gun, but he displays a repeatable delivery and a solid four-pitch mix. Listed at 6´1´´, 175, he has a frame that can handle some additional good weight.

Bailey Horn, selected from Auburn in the fifth round of the 2020 draft is the first southpaw in the rotation. Before Covid ended his college season last year, Horn had struck out 27 hitters in just 17 13 innings.


Bullpen

Some notable arms among the Ballers relief corps include Sammy Peralta, Martin Carrasco, and McKinley Moore. The left-handed Peralta showed dominance at both rookie-level affiliates in 2019, holding opposing hitters to a .182 average while striking out 58 over 36 23 frames. Carrasco was taken from the Padres in the Rule 5 draft. He is an undersized right-handed changeup specialist with impeccable control. His 6.4 to 1 K:BB ratio helped him post a 2.73 ERA over 102 minor league innings. Moore was molded in the form of a traditional power reliever. Standing at 6´6´´, the righty brings the heat. The caveat is a very inconsistent release that has been responsible for allowing 6.9 walks per nine innings. On the positive side, he has struck out 12.9 per nine. Currently, Moore is one to dream on, with hopes that further instruction will lead to refinement and consistency in his delivery.


Catchers

The Cannon Ballers catching corps is comprised of three players selected in the 2019 draft: Ivan González was taken in the eighth round, Victor Torres the 11th round, and Daniel Millwee the 30th round. González and Millwee were college players signed to under-slot bonuses, while Torres is considered the hotter prospect. His $175,000 signing bonus resulted in a $50,000 hit against the pool, so you know he was important in White Sox plans. In Kannapolis, look for Millwee and González to be offensive performers, as they are significantly older and showed excellent bat-to-ball skills in the rookie league. At the current juncture Torres is more of a project, and will very likely struggle with the promotion to full-season baseball.


Infielders

The Ballers infield should provide solid entertainment, as there are some true prospects. Former prep water polo star Sam Abbott will man first base. The 6´4´´ left-handed hitter has power to burn, posting a .221 ISO in 2019. However, he has also displayed significant swing-and-miss. In his three minor league seasons, he has struck out in 34% of his plate appearances.

The keystone will be controlled by Samil Polanco and José Rodriguez. Offensively, Polanco has displayed a see-ball-hit-ball approach that is very commonplace among Dominican players where the motto is, “You have to hit your way off the island and walk your way to AAA.” Although Polanco has posted a respectable .282 batting average, his overall offensive line was pretty empty during both of his rookie-level seasons. His .314 OBP is likely to take a significant hit in Kannapolis, particularly if he posts a walk rate similar to the 2.7% he generated in the Arizona League.

Rodriguez a hybrid infielder who has played second, short, and third, and starts the season a few days shy of his 20th birthday. Using a similar offensive approach as Polanco the tooled-up, undersized right-hander posted a .213 ISO while hitting nine home runs in 188 at-bats. One of his teammates, Tyler Osik, shared, “He’s one of the best if not THE BEST player I’ve ever played with. Each day he does something that makes your jaw drop, no kidding.” That's very high praise coming from a guy that played with Andrew Vaughn.

Shortstop Lency Delgado was signed in the fourth round of the 2018 draft, for $525,000. So far, he has offered more projection than results. In his two minor league seasons he has performed below the league average in wRC (weighted runs created) while posting a 34% K rate. Approaching his 22nd birthday, it’s time to start converting his tools into production.

D.J. Gladney and Bryan Ramos will likely share third base and designated hitter duties while also spelling Abbott at first. The homegrown Gladney has already shown prodigious power as a teenager. Without the benefit of an advanced rookie league assignment in 2020, Gladney’s is an aggressive promotion. Expect some slumps along the way for the young slugger as he tries to match his hit tool up with his game-breaking power.

Ramos is the youngest player on the Cannon Ballers squad and likely to be one of the youngest players in Low-A this season. Given his youth, it is astounding that he managed to pair a 20.2% strikeout rate with a 8.7% walk rate as a 17-year old in rookie ball in 2019. This should be a challenging assignment for the teenager, but if past performances are indicative of future results, Ramos should be up to the task.


Outfielders

In the outfield the Ballers boast a bevy of prospect talent in the quartet of Benyamin Bailey, James Beard, Chase Krogman and Caberea Weaver. The 19 year-old Bailey is a behemoth, 6´4´´ manchild who led the 2019 Dominican Summer League with a .477 OBP. In spite of his ample strike zone, Bailey drew 52 walks while striking out 40 times in 243 plate appearances. His .324 batting average helped him author a 166 wRC as a 17-year-old.

Beard will use his 80 grade speed to track down baseballs in center field. In an organization that rosters Billy Hamilton, Luis Robert, and Adam Engel it’s pretty amazing that Beard may be the fastest of them all. Offensively, Sox fans should be tolerant when Beard does not produce immediately. Think of him as a really exciting player, but more of a slow burn.

In a move eerily similar to their 2018 draft, the White Sox used a very late day three pick in 2019 to select prep outfielder Krogman. Drafted in the 34th round, the Sox reeled in Krogman with an atypical $190,000 signing bonus to forego his college commitment. The sweet-swinging, left-handed hitter has a cannon for an arm and an approach that earned accolades from his teammate Jake Burger: “He was [with me] at instructs. He has what it takes, a lot of baseball knowledge and talent. He’s also a really good dude and a good kid.”

Still shy of his 22nd birthday, Weaver will fill the role as elder statesman of the Cannon Ballers outfield. Weaver was selected during the 2018 draft as a seventh-rounder and signed to a slot value bonus. He’s another player who so far has emphasized tools over results. On the field and base paths he can flat-out fly. He also oozes athleticism, and at 6´3´´, 180 has potential to add good weight and more power to his greyhound-like frame.


Other interesting names

Left-handed pitcher Ty Madrigal is White Sox second baseman Nick Madrigal’s older and taller twin brother. Infielder Brandon Bossard is the progeny of “Sodfather” Roger Bossard, and pitcher Garvin Alston Jr. possesses big league DNA as his father Garvin Sr. once had a cup of coffee with the Colorado Rockies. Garvin Jr. was said to have been throwing the ball well this spring. He also has the distinction of being signed by super scout John Kazanas, who belongs in the baseball scout hall of fame for finding Mark Buehrle in the 38th round alone.


What to expect

With 10 of Prospects 1500’s Top 50 White Sox prospects, this roster is likely to be pound-for-pound one of the most exciting teams in minor league baseball. On the pitching side the big three of Kelley, Thompson, and Dalquist will stack up favorably with nearly any rotation. With so much speed in the outfield, the defense should be able to track down almost everything hit out of the infield. The infield defense is likely to experience some growing pains. Offensively on the nights when things gel, the Ballers are going to be a joy to watch and will light up the scoreboard like a pinball machine going tilt.

However, given their youth and inexperience there are likely to be nights where the strikeouts pile up, leading to frustration and sparse hit totals. It will be interesting to see the effects of the lost 2020 season on player development, not only in the White Sox organization but throughout baseball as a whole.

White Sox fans should look forward to the ride.