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Feeling less bad about White Sox drafts

Sure, the South Siders have had some draft busts, but they’re hardly alone.

Chicago White Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers
Supplemental first-rounder Keenyn Walker fizzled in the White Sox system — but, yes, it could have been worse.
Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images

With the talent acquired from the 2016-17 fire sale and the high draft picks of 2018-19 now graduated (or traded), the White Sox are once again universally considered to have the worst farm system in the league.

Fans are plenty familiar with a pattern of poor drafting and busted picks that has led to this, but in fairness, have the White Sox really been THAT bad at drafting? An honest analysis of their trends would suggest that they’ve drafted some pretty well-regarded talents, while other teams had bigger picks turn out a LOT worse.

2009: Jared Mitchell

Famously taken 23rd overall, one spot ahead of Randal Grichuk and two spots ahead of some guy named Mike Trout, Mitchell actually was considered a solid pick at the time. A tooled-up center fielder who was considered close to the majors, Mitchell briefly looked the part before injuries derailed him and contact issues were quickly exposed. He did manage to ascend to Triple-A at age 25 and hold his own, giving some hope that the team would nab some sort of value out of that pick, but alas, he flatlined in 2015 and was in indy ball by the following season.

But at least we didn’t take: Donovan Tate
The No. 3 overall pick was instantly considered a Top 50 prospect when he was selected by the Padres. Like Mitchell, he was a tooled-up center fielder, but as a prep pick he had a lot of time to develop his game and refine his many tools. Sadly, a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness derailed him quickly and, like Mitchell, Tate was out of affiliated ball by 2016, never having ascended past High-A.

2011: Keenyn Walker

A supplemental first round pick, Walker was a two-year JUCO prospect, splitting the line between an outright prep player and a typical collegiate pick, much like Tim Anderson. Unlike Timmay, Walker was unable to translate his tools into professional success. While the outfield speedster stole an impressive 56 bases in his first full season of affiliated ball (split between Kannapolis and Winston-Salem), he was eaten alive in his repeat at High-A, and an ill-advised promotion to Double-A only further exposed the flaws in his game. Though Walker’s performance at Birmingham did finally show improvement by 2016, it was too little, too late, and after two seasons in indy ball he finally hung up his cleats for good.

But at least we didn’t take: Bubba Starling
The fifth overall pick in 2011, a LOT more was expected of Starling. The center fielder had a slow ascension up the minor league ladder, but as a prep pick, time was very much on his side — until it wasn’t. The result of Starling’s long rise up the food chain resulted in two partial MLB seasons, netting a whopping -1.8 bWAR. Entering his age-29 season, Starling is looking like a AAAA player at best.

2012: Courtney Hawkins

Picked 13th overall, the back-flipping Hawkins was a physical specimen, combining power, agility, speed, and athleticism into a rare package. Arguably the best athlete at the time of the draft, Hawkins was considered a very raw but equally promising prep prospect. Sadly, yesterday’s five-tool stud slowly morphed into today’s one-tool wonder, as Hawkins went from a speedy and powerful center field prospect to a beefed-up left fielder with unlimited raw power but contact issues that prevented it from being realized to any degree. Hawkins stalled out in Birmingham, where his performance continually regressed, before winding up in the Reds’ system, where his decline steepened. Hawkins subsequently became a prolific slugger in the Independent Atlantic League, where pretty much everybody is a prolific slugger.

But at least we didn’t pick: Mark Appel*
The only pick ahead of Hawkins who never ascended to the MLB level, Appel was picked eighth overall by the Pirates, but didn’t sign because he expected to be picked higher or at least be offered a signing bonus commensurate with a higher pick (something the Pirates would never do). While the Pirates sorta made good with their compensation pick the next season (Austin Meadows), Appel made out even better, returning to Stanford for his senior year and getting drafted first overall in 2013. While Appel breezed through the low minors, by the time he reached Triple-A serious control issues were popping up and injuries cut into the quality of his offerings, prompting him to retire after the 2017 season. His 2021 comeback did not result in any real positives, and it’s looking more and more like Appel will stand as one of the biggest draft busts of all time (arguably twice over).

2014: Carlos Rodón

I don’t think anybody’s second-guessing this one, but if you think he fell short of his No. 3 overall draft status ...

But at least we didn’t pick: Tyler Kolek and Brady Aiken
... neither of the first two picks made it out of A-ball.

2015: Carson Fulmer

The Vanderbilt ace was taken No. 8 overall and was universally regarded as a slightly risky but high-upside pick. With a fastball that sat 94-95 and one of the best curveballs around, the only thing that scouts disliked was Fulmer’s herky-jerky delivery, which even the biggest skeptics assumed would relegate him to high-leverage relief work at worst. Unfortunately, Fulmer’s fastball velocity dipped and his command of his secondary pitches completely cratered. While he did manage to earn an MLB callup, Fulmer never made any sort of impact (-1.1 bWAR) and even a couple changes of scenery have not been able to turn around the career of this once-promising arm.

But at least we didn’t pick: Tyler Jay
While Fulmer was a collegiate starter who many foresaw being relegated to high-leverage relief, Jay was a high-leverage collegiate reliever who the Twins thought they could convert into a starter, and three picks ahead of Fulmer they decided to give it a go. After a full season of starting with mixed results, Minnesota tried to put Jay back in the bullpen, but the damage was done, as he would spend the next three seasons struggling with injuries and diminished stuff before washing out at the Reds’ Double-A affiliate. Maybe Jay could have managed a major league career had the Twins not been over-ambitious with his development — but then, who uses the fifth overall pick on a reliever?

2016: Zack Collins and Zack Burdi

Two collegiate picks (Burdi being a comp pick for Jeff Samardzija signing with the Giants) who both were considered finished products, Collins and Burdi extended the White Sox strategy of attempting to find near-term reinforcements in the first round to a third consecutive year. The one thing scouts figured Collins (10th overall) would do was hit, but few thought he could stick as a catcher. As it turns out, he can’t hit, either. Well, qualifying that, he can technically hit to an acceptable degree ... were he a catcher (which he most decidedly is not). As for Burdi (26th), the fireballing reliever rapidly ascended to Triple-A before needing Tommy John surgery, after which he spent years regaining (most of) his velocity and never re-establishing his command. But hey, at least we didn’t waste the 18th overall pick on ... oh.

But at least we didn’t pick: Nick Senzel
This draft’s Top 10 has been a minefield of broken dreams. While top pick Mickey Moniak has been disappointing, he was rushed into MLB at age 22 after skipping Triple-A. Between the missed/skipped development time and the weirdness of the COVID season, at age 24 Moniak’s book is still being written. Riley Pint (fourth) and Corey Ray (fifth) have been disappointments in their own rights, but at second overall, Senzel has to take the cake right now. A collegiate pick, Senzel ascended to MLB in good order but has been unable to contribute meaningfully to a contending Reds team across parts of three seasons. While a move to center field from second base may not have done him any favors, at age 27 he’s running out of time to avoid the bust label.

It’s hard to argue that the White Sox have not done particularly well drafting over the last 10+ years. While they did have two big hits in Chris Sale and Tim Anderson in recent memory, their misses have been numerous and catastrophic. But, as we have seen, PLENTY of teams miss the mark in the draft, even with higher picks, which would be the equivalent of watching Andrew Vaughn or Nick Madrigal wash out in Winston-Salem.

It would be one thing if the White Sox were getting cute and drafting players way ahead of industry consensus, but nobody they’ve chosen really fits that bill. Most of their collegiate picks were almost universally considered relative locks to be positive MLB contributors at a minimum, and possibly even stars, while their high school picks were well-regarded despite needing lots of development.

And development may be more the crux of the problem. Success stories like Anderson have been very much the exception and not the norm, and while the current roster is full of products of their farm system, Anderson is basically the only traditional draft-and-develop story. Everybody else was either an advanced prospect from another team’s system (Eloy Jiménez, Yoán Moncada, Dylan Cease, Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech), a collegiate Top 5 pick (Vaughn, Madrigal, Rodón), or (in the case of Luis Robert) a one-off, big-bonus international signing that cannot really be duplicated. While unquestionable successes, these are not sustainable sources of prospect depth.

So the question then becomes, have there been sufficient changes in the organization’s minor league system to improve their success rate in developing impact players internally?

  • Will somebody like Romy González be able to keep improving into a full-time regular, or even a Leury García-type of regular utility player? Or is Romy just another Danny Mendick, with a low ceiling and short shelf life?
  • Can the White Sox matriculate players with double-plus tools like Oscar Colás or Yoelqui Céspedes to a point where they are realizing their potential, or are we going to have to continue to settle for players with lower ceilings like Yolmer Sánchez hitting their marks?
  • Will prep picks like Colson Montgomery, Wes Kath, Matthew Thompson, Jared Kelley, and Andrew Dalquist manage steady rises through affiliated ball, or quickly be overwhelmed in the low minors and forgotten?

These are the questions that require more positive answers moving forward. The team, compared to the rest of the league, has done a fine job of identifying talent — but its capacity to realize said talent seems to fall well short of the industry standard.