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Birmingham Barons 2022 Season Review

It wasn’t all about Project Birmingham; Double-A boasted good prospects the entire year, with a couple of eventual major leaguers

Chicago Cubs v Chicago White Sox
By August, José Rodríguez had regained his status as the hottest hitter in the White Sox system.
Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Double-A is always where you find out if a prospect is for real or not. That was pretty much the case this season, too — at least until the final few weeks of the season, when Project Birmingham started.

Yes, the list of players brought up from A-ball does indicate the White Sox think those guys are a part of their premium young talent, so in a way, it does indicate they are for real. On the other hand, bringing up guys during their first full professional season to Double-A did spell disaster on the field for some. There is a huge difference between both levels of A-ball and Double-A, and it showed for some, in small sample sizes.

Before the Project arrived though, this was a team with good talent. A couple of players even made the rare jump from Double-A to MLB in a single season — at least, rare for the White Sox. Birmingham should have even more talent to start next year but overall, the Barons were a successful prospect team, even if the actual team was not successful enough to have a winning record.

Before Project Birmingham

Yes, there was a “before” Project Birmingham this season, and it was off to a good start. Davis Martin had one of the hotter starts, and left for Charlotte after just three games. In any stint this year and prior, Martin’s time with the Barons featured the highest strikeout rate of his career (32.4%), although that fell to 16.9% in the majors. But the potential is there. His K-rate in MLB is a professional low, so hopefully Martin goes into the offseason knowing what he needs to do to get more strikeouts.

Sean Burke basically replaced Martin in Double-A, as their promotions were pretty close to each other. Burke’s time in Birmingham was a tale of two halves. After coming off of a stint on the IL that lasted about two weeks, Burke went seven starts with a 9.13 ERA. The walks were high, plus he allowed 34 hits in just 22 23 innings, so he was getting hit around often. In his last seven starts in Double-A from August through September, something changed to where Burke ended his time in Birmingham with a 2.54 ERA. The obvious answer is that a lot of those hits and walks Burke had given up in the previous seven starts became strikeouts. He had a 41.4% K-rate over these last 28 13 innings. He was good enough to become one the few Barons to get some time in Charlotte. Maybe we will see him in MLB next season?

Another guy who got time with Charlotte is Oscar Colás, after great stints with the Dash and Barons. He was, somehow, even better in Double-A, so maybe the High-A placement at the start of the year was more of an expectation-setter that he wouldn’t be in MLB in 2022 than it was about skill. With Birmingham, Colás did see a drop in walks and a rise in K-rate, but he made up for it with a huge burst of power. He had 10 extra-base hits to go along with 14 homers in just 51 games. That comes out to a very healthy .257 ISO. The strikeouts going much higher than they were in Double-A (24%) would be a little concerning, but the contact, when he makes it, is nothing to ignore. MiLB year two will be big for Colás. He also showed off a pretty good arm from time to time as well, perfect for a right fielder to go along with his lefty bat. Anybody know what team could use a player like that?

The 2023 season can also be affirming for Lenyn Sosa, the other guy from the Barons to make it to the bigs this year. This season was Sosa’s first real good year from the plate, and it came from multiple areas. His walks fell below 20%, and was all the way down to 13.8% for Birmingham. Sosa had not seen those numbers since 2019 in Kannapolis, and near 13% since rookie ball. On the power side, Sosa’s previous career high in homers was 11, set just last season. Sosa had 23 in 2022, with 14 of them coming for the Barons. He had a .218 ISO in 60 Double-A games. He is pulling the ball more this season, which will help, and hitting more liners, so it is overall better contact — though just by looking at the ISO you could’ve guessed that. We saw how Sosa looked in MLB: overwhelmed, and bad. Hopefully that little stint will help him next season, because he has a good shot to start the year in Chicago.

The other guy who is in that realm of second-base possibilities is Yolbert Sánchez; yeah, he started in Double-A, too. Sánchez only appeared in 18 games, being quickly promoted after a .353 batting average. Oof course, he had 17 singles and just one extra-base hit.

To finish listing out all of the potential 2023 White Sox second basemen is the best prospect of the three, José Rodríguez. He started out the year pretty badly, and it slowly got better until he broke out in the final month-plus of the season. In the first two months, Rodríguez had a 67 wRC+ with bad bat-to-ball results and an even worse power showing. He had a .235 average with one homer in the first 41 games. In his next 38, the power was still lacking, as Rodríguez didn’t hit any homers over that time. However, he started getting hits, and a lot, at that. Rodríguez had a .331 batting average over that time, to get him to a 108 wRC+. Yeah, Rodríguez doesn’t walk much in general, so if he is not showing pop, hits in a third of his at-bats doesn’t make him much better than an average offensive player.

But after the All-Star break is when the power came: In his final 25 games before injury, Rodríguez hit 10 home runs for a .367 ISO. The batting average fell, but his walks more than tripled, so he had a 159 wRC+ for about a month’s worth of games. This stretch included homers in five straight games (August 12-17). You just hope Rodríguez can put this together, or something close, over a full season.

This is where we are going to get to the better-known prospects, but more on the disappointing end. And yes, I know that guys like Tyler Neslony and Raudy Read did really well with the bat, but they are both 28, they are MiLBers instead of MLB prospects.

Jason Bilous, Matthew Thompson, and Caleb Freeman hit this category of good and interesting prospects, but they had bad 2022s. Freeman was riddled with injuries, as he only got in 18 appearances, and when he was in, he walked way too many guys, with a rate near 20%. Thompson started the season with the Dash and was promoted a bit earlier than the Project players, and was hit around. His strikeouts were actually up a decent amount, but so was his WHIP (1.46). The ground balls allowed also fell to less than 30%, which is not a good sign. For Bilous, it was another disappointing year as a starter. Again, it might be time to try him out in the bullpen, because he does have a decent fastball and slider — he just needs more control of it. Maybe working out of the bullpen can help that.

Yoelqui Céspedes was not bad this year, but he did not take the step everybody thought he could and needed to. The hit tool really is not there, because 30% strikeout rate in Double-A is just not good enough. He does have good pop, with 17 homers and 30 other extra-base hits. Céspedes just does not walk enough to make up for the lack of hits. You might say hey, but he had a .332 OBP, that is good — and you are correct. However, that comes from 23 hit-by-pitches, which is just six fewer than his 29 walks. So, the opposing pitchers helped a bit. What is starting to become clear is that Céspedes is better as a platoon player against lefties: His OPS against lefties was .866, compared to .730 against righties, and his power vs. lefties was phenomenal. Maybe he peaks as a fourth outfielder — the White Sox still need those — but it is time to temper expectations.

Project Birmingham

Kohl Simas — 9.95 ERA in 6 13 innings
Drew Dalquist — 3.38 ERA in 13 13 innings
Jared Kelley — 4.50 ERA in 12 innings
Cristian Mena — 6.30 ERA in 10 innings
Norge Vera — 5.63 ERA in eight innings
Luis Mieses — .299/.333/.443 in 23 games
Bryan Ramos — .225/.279/.375 in 21 games
Colson Montgomery — .146/.192/.292 in 14 games
Adam Hackenberg — .167/.239/.262 in 13 games
Wes Kath — .170/.250/.191 in 13 games
Wilfred Veras — .267/.313/.533 in 12 games
Duke Ellis — .318/.423/.500 in nine games

That is Project Birmingham for you, some guys did much better than others, but most did pretty poorly. I don’t think bringing anybody from Kannapolis all the way up to Birmingham is that great of an idea. I also am not sure bringing up guys in their first full season as pros to Double-A is a great idea, either, though that is more understandable. Really, the main guys that I do not see a problem bringing up were Luis Mieses, Duke Ellis, Adam Hackenberg, Bryan Ramos, and Drew Dalquist. With the rest, there was less cause to bring them up. Maybe this was a way to get this group of players their own AZL experience without playing through October, but a lot of us thought some guys would play fewer games or pitch fewer innings in Birmingham than they did.