The Birmingham Barons are coming off of a division title — kind of. They led their division, but missed the playoffs in a colossal final-week collapse, as a losing streak and rainout end their season.
Coming in to 2022, they should have better bats than the start of last season, although the pitching will be suspect. Like Romy González from last season, some of these players have the ability to make a two-level jump to MLB, but they will need to put the work in to do it. Odds are, the big jumper will be a hitter, but one reliever has a legitimate chance as well.
Lenyn Sosa is still a longshot to be a major leaguer ,with a bat that needs work, but he has shown to be a fine second baseman. His struggles defensively are mostly when he is at shortstop, but that has actually improved over the years; he is still a second baseman, though, and with the talented infield in Birmingham, he should spend his time there. Sosa started in Winston-Salem last year and had the best offensive stint of his pro career. In 82 games, he had a 103 wRC+, thanks to a .349 BABIP. He does not show much power and does not walk, really, at all, so his offensive production is BABIP-based. When Sosa was promoted to the Barons, that BABIP fell to .273, thus his production fell as well — all the way to 44 wRC+ in 33 games.
On a happier side, Luis Mieses looks to be on the Barons after an overall productive season in 2021. It did start out poorly when he was with the Dash — in his first 19 games, he had a 41 wRC+ because of a paltry .155 batting average and a 25% K-rate. He was demoted to Kannapolis, and once there actually turned his season around. It is not every day a prospect takes a demotion in stride, but this one really helped Mieses. The K-rate fell down to about 15%, while he started to show more pop in his bat. By the time Mieses was recalled to the Dash, he had a 116 wRC+ and was back on the prospect radar. In his second stint in Winston-Salem, Mieses had a slash line of .275/.319/.510 in 39 games. He finally showed the power scouts thought he had over an extended period of games, with a .235 ISO, and he even had more extra-base hits than singles. Mieses is not going to walk often, but if he can continue to keep his K-rate in the 15%-18% range, he should be a-OK in Double-A.
Yolbert Sanchez extends hitting streak to 15 games with single in bottom of the first inning pic.twitter.com/7RqyPtxIoU— Winston-Salem Dash (@WSDashBaseball) July 6, 2021
Yolbert Sánchez is the most likely of this group of hitters to reach Chicago, due in part of his age (25), how successful he was to end the year with the Barons and into the Arizona Fall League, and the good defense he can provide up the middle. After having a pretty much average campaign as a hitter with Winston-Salem, Sánchez blossomed with the Barons. Most everything improved, from a decrease in strikeouts to an increase in power and batting average. There was a clear difference in Sánchez’s approach as a hitter, too. He swung more often as his walk rate fell in half — which is usually a bad thing — but he was able to produce more contact overall, and it worked out very well for him with a .366 BABIP along with the decrease in strikeouts. Sánchez’s success continued over to the AFL, where he slashed .400/.533/.514 — yeah, that’s pretty good. He only had 45 plate appearances but it was some sort of confirmation his time in Double-A was for real. Now, Sánchez needs to keep that success going into this season.
Yoelqui Cespedes nukes one to left pic.twitter.com/OAeSxRyOAZ— White Sox Talk (@NBCSWhiteSox) March 17, 2022
Another player who could make the jump to MLB if things go well early this year is Yoelqui Céspedes. Now, if the outfield is as injured as it was in 2021, that could also force Céspedes up to MLB because he is right there in the depth chart. Overall, Céspedes had a successful 2021: He was an above-average hitter with the Dash and ended up being an average hitter to end the year in Double-A. By the end of the 2021 season, he had lost a lot of power, and then the batting average plummeted in the AFL. This is easily explainable though: He simply had not played that amount of games since 2017-18. On a different scale, this happened to José Abreu in his rookie season, where he had a power outage in the last month(s) because his body was not used to more games over a longer period of time. However, Céspedes will not have that excuse this season, and needs to make fundamental improvements to his approach at the plate. With Birmingham in 2021, he had a 3% BB-rate and a 27% K-rate; that approach will not cut it if he expects to make it to the White Sox one day.
The best prospect on the team to open up the year is José Rodríguez, and he will be until he gets a promotion to Charlotte. Rodríguez is coming off of a breakout year that started in Kannapolis and led to a cup of coffee with the Barons, and ultimately in the AFL. He is a low-walk and moderately low-strikeout hitter with great bat-to-ball skills, and showed some pop last season. He really got noticed once he got going in Winston-Salem, slashing .361/.381/.538 for a 141 wRC+ there. That production is impressive enough, but even more so because it was his age-20 season, which was about three years younger than the average hitter in High-A. The defense is suspect and with the glut of infielders on this team, it will be interesting to see where Rodríguez spends most of the time on the diamond. But the bat is definitely there, it just needs to continue to play as he gets promoted.
The pitching staff for the Barons is definitely the weak point, though. Sure, it could get better if the pitchers coming from the Dash perform the way they are supposed to, but for Opening Day, the arms are rough.
Caleb Freeman is the best pitcher on the staff and best reliever in the system — especially after McKinley Moore was traded away. Freeman was drafted back in 2019 and has a pretty good fastball-curveball combo. In 44 innings between High-A and Double-A last year, he had a 3.27 ERA with nine saves. The K-rate was right around 30% and the walks decreased as the season went on; remember, there was no minor league baseball in 2020, so early struggles for pitchers was understandable, and Freeman’s the walks going down by year’s end is a very good thing. The South Side bullpen is pretty deep already, but if Freeman continues his success, he could be an option to reach Chicago late this season.
On the other side are some non-top prospects who are at least a little interesting. Luke Shilling might be the best of that bunch, with a pretty good fastball, but coming off another season-ending injury makes it tough to see where he is at.
Davis Martin is the first starter we are going over, and he might not seem that interesting but was touted as a guy to watch after he was drafted in 2018. Last season was not good, but he ended well with the Barons with a 3.54 ERA in six starts. Jerry Burke also fits the Marti mold, but is coming off a year with only 45 innings pitched; he really could move to the bullpen to maximize velocity.
None of the Birmingham pitchers outside of Freeman are top prospects, but keep an eye on them — there’s a surprise every year, somewhere.