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Charlotte Knights 2022 Season Preview

The first pitch, from Kade McClure, comes tonight!

Jake Burger is back in Charlotte, after proving he was MLB ready last year.
Laura Wolff/Charlotte Knights

The Charlotte Knights and the rest of Triple-A start up on April 5, as Minor League Baseball is officially back — and for the first time in a long time, is starting before the MLB season does. And there will be more players to preview and feature, because each team will now sport 30 players on their active rosters.

For the Knights specifically, this year’s team comes with many of the same storylines, the most prominent one being that best White Sox prospects are not playing there. The prospects who are good enough for MLB, for the most part, are in Chicago. The ones with the most potential are in the lower levels.

What IS slightly different is that there are actually some prospects in Charlotte who would have been on the White Sox in the recent past. Leading the charge in that department: Jake Burger.

MLB Depth (40-man roster players)

Burger split time between Charlotte and the Sox last season and quickly proved anybody wrong who said starting in Triple-A would be too much for him. Just a quick refresher, Burger had not played competitive baseball since 2017, and his last at-bats were in Low-A. Burger went out and had a 122 wRC+ with the Knights (82 games) and a 120 wRC+ in Chicago (15 games). These are great overall numbers, especially because he had some struggles that anybody playing for the first time in four years would.

Burger ended the season on a low note, as in the last month plus of games he had an 84 wRC+ and struggled with plate discipline. He walked 7.1% of his plate appearances, not terrible, but that does look much worse because he struck out just less than 27% of the time. He needs to work hardest at cutting down strikeouts, because the power is there and he did have a decent enough batting average to make his OBP look good. Burger’s defense also needs to improve; he should start as often as possible at third, although knowing the Sox, he might play more second, after getting a handful of starts there in 2021. In really any other year, Burger would be on the Opening Day roster.

The newest edition to the squad and one of the most likely to get the call to MLB is Adam Haseley. He was recently acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies for McKinley Moore to provide outfield depth — and by outfield, he is a natural outfielder (!), not a person who happens to play out there for whatever reason. Haseley is a former first round pick and top prospect, so he was a perfect White Sox addition. In 116 MLB games, Haseley has an 83 wRC+ but he was far worse in 2021. He had a 10 wRC+ in nine MLB games, then a 57 wRC+ in 41 Triple-A games. Haseley did get time in rookie and High-A ball, but it was just 15 games — the real story is that he is coming off of a terrible season against comparable talent. There was a significant drop in BABIP from 2020 to 2021, so maybe Haseley’s offense gets better on its own ... but his value was clearly low, as evidenced by the fact Haseley was traded for a pure reliever who last pitched in High-A.

Danny Mendick (who appears to have made Chicago’s Opening Day roster) and Romy González will make impacts with both the White Sox and Knights this season because of the flexibility they provide on the diamond. Mendick plays mostly middle infield and even got 56 innings in the outfield last year, but he is more of a guy that the Sox just “put” in the outfield. Mendick’s bat has gotten steadily worse since 2019, which is why Josh Harrison was signed.

González was the surprise from last year on multiple fronts. First, the fact they he actually played 10 games for the White Sox is remarkable, but so was his overall offensive performance with a 136 WRC+ (78 games) in Double-A and 192 wRC+ (15 games) in Triple-A. It was led by a very healthy power surge (24 homers) though González does still swing-and-miss a little too much. He also officially became a super-utility player, getting action in 2021 at every single position besides first base and catcher. By no means is he as good defensively as Leury García but after last year, González should have a better bat.

Jimmy Lambert has been around for a long time, long enough that he really is not a “prospect” at this point but more of a top minor league option to get MLB starts when an injury comes calling. Last season was not successful for Lambert at all. He struggled with injuries and to pitch well, to say it nicely. He had a 4.62 FIP in 64 13 innings with the Knights, and then a 6.48 FIP with the White Sox in 13 innings. He did have one good ML start against Oakland in September last year (five innings with just one run allowed), but that was really it for successes. To put in perspective how much the Sox did not want him to break camp with the new 28-man rosters: They signed Vince Velasquez.

The Charlotte bullpen is where the actual depth exists on the pitching side, and one of the better options is Matt Foster. Going in to the 2021 season, Foster looked like he could be a staple of an MLB bullpen for a long time, with a 2.20 ERA and 2.88 FIP in 28 23 innings back in ’20. Last season was a different story. Foster allowed more people on base, with a 29 point increase in batting average against, while striking out 5% fewer batters. His BABIP shot up 100 points, but it went up to a more average number, so maybe he was just lucky in 2020 after all, or he was just giving up better contact after scouting reports were written up. The home runs shot up along with the hard hit rate, which led to a decrease in ground balls induced.

This all sounds bad, but at least Foster has shown what he could be, a very good middle reliever on a playoff team. This year will be big to prove what he really is, and Foster should be in contention to get those late-inning opportunities in Triple-A and one of the first up when injury happens. With Lance Lynn sidelined for two months, Foster could see some action right away, but he should be more of an AAAA type player this year.

Anderson Severino might be a quick add to the Sox if Bennett Sousa does not produce, because Severino is coming off a successful year. The Sox added him from the New York Yankees and got him started with the Barons. He struggled with command, a lot, with an 18.5% BB rate. Somehow, Severino had a 3.13 ERA, which is pretty remarkable with that walk rate. But Severino did end the year well with Charlotte. The strikeouts went up to 34% and walks went down to 12%. Severino is Chicago’s 20th-rated prospect according to MLB Pipeline, because of a high 90s fastball.

Yoan Aybar was a late-spring add, and it looks more prescient now with Garret Crochet headed to Tommy John surgery. However, it might be a stretch to say Aybar is MLB depth because he only reached Double-A last season. But Aybar, a converted outfielder who had his first pitching-only season last year, is on the 40-man. That first season was not great, with a 6.22 ERA and a walk rate only a tick less than 15%. Walks have been Aybar’s problem, which does make sense — he had not even put all his playing effort into pitching until recently! Aybar did have good strikeout numbers at 33%, he just has a long way to go to refine his skills on the mound. Hopefully, for Chicago’s sake with the lack of lefty bullpen arms, their player development staff has the answers.

Jason Bilous had three quick games in High-A and was brilliant with a 2.45 ERA, but he really suffered in Double-A (6.51 ERA). His strikeouts there went down and walks went up, so he was probably just not ready for better hitters. It remains to be seen if Bilous will actually get time in MLB, but he does have better stuff than most of the pitchers in the system. He just needs to put it all together. Honestly, the bullpen might be the place for him.

Prospects (not on the 40-man, yet)

For this category of player, at this point in the White Sox organization, these guys are not on the 40-man because there are other players on it that are better, plain and simple.

The obvious case is Blake Rutherford, who snuck through waivers after being designated for assignment with the Adam Haseley trade. Old friend Luis Basabe is also back but on a minor league deal, he has been DFA’ed by both the White Sox and Giants now, so he already is on the outside looking in after not living up to his previous prospect hype. Dwight Smith Jr. is your “MLB experienced minor league free agent add” who has an outside shot at MLB time if a White Sox outfielder has another one of those 60-day IL stints. Smith is a career 90 wRC+ hitter, so there’s really not much upside — but then again, he is a minor league free agent for a reason.

The infield is led by long-time Sox prospect Laz Rivera. Rivera started in Double-A in 2021 and did pretty well, with a 104 wRC+. It was an injury-riddled season, so he still has much to prove. He finished the season with a 130 wRC+ in 15 Triple-A games, so that’s something good to build on. Nick Cuiffo is another recently-acquired former first round pick (this front office loves those kind of guys). He has 21 MLB games under his belt, with middling offensive success. He is a much better defensive catcher than Seby Zavala, so Cuiffo may have the inside trek on playing time compared to other players in Charlotte. The downside, and why he has not stuck with a team, is that Cuiffo has a terrible bat — the anti-Zack Collins, if you will.

On the starting pitching side, Knights Opening Night starter Kade McClure leads the pack of arms who could make it to the bigs. Like Bilous, McClure started out very well — but once he got a promotion, he hit a wall. McClure went from a 3.82 ERA in Birmingham to a 6.81 ERA with the Knights. John Parke also makes this list, but McClure is ahead of him on the depth chart. Parke is a soft-tossing lefty who will eat a lot of innings. He is 27, so on the older side of a career MiLBer, but did well in his time in Charlotte last season with a 3.62 ERA in 54 23 innings. He will never be a strikeout guy, but will induce quite a few ground balls and keep runners off the bases with decent command.

Emilio Vargas and Johan Dominguez are the last two to take note of. Both are Top 30 White Sox prospects per MLB Pipeline, but that is more because there are so few quality pitching options in the system. Also, both hurlers could work out of the bullpen. Vargas pitched in 83 23 innings last year, mostly as a starter but some out of the bullpen as well, to great effect. He had a 2.90 ERA with the Barons. Meanwhile, Dominguez had his first full season as a starter, starting in High-A to and ending in Charlotte for a cup of coffee. It was not as successful as his previous seasons, with a 5.30 ERA. Dominguez also appeared in the AFL, and was even worse.

For the relievers — and odds are you will see some of them — there are a couple notable guys. Tyler Johnson is returning from injury, but he needs to prove he can bounce back after two injury-riddled years. The rest are lefties, which the Sox do not have much of now. Andrew Perez is generally a good reliever but was passed by Sousa. Brandon Finnegan is the other option, mainly because he had 260 innings of MLB experience. He is coming off a year in Triple-A with a 5.53 ERA, so it is not like he is some secret weapon.

To round it out are two guys who don’t really fit any category, because they are injured: Jonathan Stiever and Yermín Mercedes. Both are on the 40-man, but it is hard to see what impact they will have once they come back from the injured list. For all we know, Mercedes might finally be an outfielder, and Stiever could make a full transition to the bullpen. Time will tell, but whatever shine they had on their futures is most certainly gone at this point.