The way the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers started and ended were very different. They started with a younger team, but the best of the bunch was promoted over the season. Top 2021 draft picks Colson Montgomery and Wes Kath both started there and were promoted over the course of the season. They also showed the two types of top prospect promotions that happened in both A-ball teams: One deserving, coming much earlier in the season (Montgomery), the other straight to Project Birmingham, without merit (Kath). Norge Vera also had a sterling Low-A campaign in his first innings Stateside.
Montgomery and Kath getting promotions this season should not be a surprise, with the prospect pedigree they had going into 2022. But a few other players did surprise us. Kohl Simas and Wilfred Veras both had good years, with Simas being more of a surprise since he was a UDFA. Cristian Mena and Jared Kelley both had their issues in 2021 year and overcame them this summer to some extent, to have much better sophomore campaigns.
All of these players were promoted at various times, and by the end of the year with the influx of 2022 draft picks and UDFA, Kannapolis basically became an advanced-rookie league team in the spirit of the Great Falls Voyagers. That is what Project Birmingham turned this Low-A team into from the final weeks of August and into September. Will this be the norm going forward? Not sure, but it is a new idea that had an effect on teams all the way from the ACL to Double-A. Was it for better or worse? Not sure, either, but something new from the White Sox front office is refreshing.
Position Player Prospects
Colson Montgomery— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) April 21, 2022
The top @WhiteSox prospect goes opposite field for his first @Kcannonballers homer. pic.twitter.com/B3QBRssXSx
For a player review, let’s start here with the top hitting prospects. Going into the year, there were a clear two above the rest, Montgomery and Kath. Veras’ success with his power put him near there eventually. By the end, the notable guys were all from the draft.
Nobody was better than Montgomery from the batter’s box or the mound, though. Kannapolis is where he started his rise to top White Sox prospect and then Top 50 or 100 prospect in all of Minor League Baseball. His 45 games for the Cannon Ballers were his best stint this year, for a 152 WRC+. The first month of his two-month on-base streak started in Kannapolis, and that helped him get all the way to Birmingham. He did that by showing great poise at the plate that improved throughout the season — at least until he faced Double-A pitching.
Wes Kath with a smooth stroke to LCF for his 13th HR on the year. He is having a very good day. 2-3 w/ 1B, HR, and 2 BB’s. #Ballers up 3-0 going to the bottom of the 9th. #WhiteSox pic.twitter.com/xjgSxwnIYi— White Sox Daily (@dailywhitesox) August 21, 2022
From Montgomery to the other hitters is a big drop to be sure. Kath’s wRC+ was 109, which is fine considering this was his age 19 season. He showed some pop (.159 ISO) but it should be better. The walks are there, but striking out one-third of the time is not good, and needs to improve. As a player gets promoted, one would think the K-rate should go up, and if Kath’s Low-A number is 33%, then that is a big issue. For him, the walk rate saved his season this year, generating a good-looking OBP (.343).
Wilfred Veras double #WhiteSox pic.twitter.com/PRRxAuh3nA— Josh Norris (@jnorris427) August 7, 2022
Veras falls into that Kath category of too any strikeouts in Low-A. In his very small Double-A sample, it hasn’t moved much, so that will be something to watch in 2023. Veras left Kannapolis showing more pop, less strikeouts, less walks, and better bat-on-ball skills. However, that 6.2% walk-rate only got him to a 110 WRC+ by the time of promotion, and getting on base is the name of the game. If the power continues to improve (Veras is 19 so, in theory, it should improve), then a 6.2% walk-rate is fine. He and Kath have a long way to go and obvious things to improve; thankfully they are teenagers.
A couple afterthoughts from this team had good years, though there are question marks still. DJ Gladney moved up to Project Birmingham because of some great power numbers from this year: 18 homers and a .194 ISO. He also strikes out a lot. Colby Smelley was promoted to the Dash because of his bat: a 123 wRC+ in Low-A. He is supposed to be a catcher but DHed more than that, so it is possible Smelley changes positions next year to find him a spot if the bat is real.
For the other guys, the 2022 season was also a place for some names of years past to pretty much get the nail in the coffin of their prospect-dom. Benyamín Bailey played a lot and was better than last year, but an 86 wRC+ with measly power numbers is not great. Misael González, James Beard, Wilber Sánchez, Logan Glass, and Chase Krogman, guys from the past few drafts who were on the younger side, all hit worse than .200 this year for the Cannon Ballers, with Krogman getting demoted to the ACL.
The top two 2022 drafted bats in terms of bonus given out played about a month for Kannapolis, 22 games each for Jordan Sprinkle and Jacob Burke. Burke had a better go of it with a 126 wRC+, but Sprinkle is supposed to be the better prospect at this point. There should not be much stock put into either player’s small stint in pro ball this year, good or bad, but it is still a data point for next year when they are back with the Cannon Ballers.
Norge Vera pitches 4 scoreless on 66 pitches (43 strikes) and K’s 7. He surrenders 1 H and 2 BB’s. #Ballers #WhiteSox pic.twitter.com/gPuf9rTgsr— White Sox Daily (@dailywhitesox) July 24, 2022
Vera is the big name here, but he was always going to move up after he got some innings under his belt returning from injury. In 24 Low-A innings, Vera had a 1.88 ERA with a fantastic 35.4% K-rate. What was and continued to be concerning as he moves up the system is the command. His walk-rate in these 24 innings was 15.2%, and that got worse as the season progressed. It is not a huge sample size, and Vera got a late start to his season, but that many walks are not going to cut it.
Cristian Mena sits for 45 minutes of the #Ballers hitting and a rain delay, so his outing is shorter than normal, but he got in some good work anyway. 40-64 for strikes, 8 K’s, 2 BB’s, and 3 H’s = 0 runs. Straight up nasty yakker. #WhiteSox pic.twitter.com/g7Q37mhhFn— White Sox Daily (@dailywhitesox) May 13, 2022
The two biggest surprises, maybe of the whole team instead of pitchers, were Mena and Simas. Both of these players went on to become Project Birmingham members after their great starts with Kannapolis. Mena had the better year, and stayed healthy through it. He did start to falter once he saw promotions, but he more than doubled his career high in innings pitched. Mena improved on strikeouts in Low-A compared to the ACL last year, which is great. The command did get worse down the stretch but, hopefully that improves next year now that he has a 100+ innings-season under his belt.
Kohl Simas 5.0 IP, 5 K’s, 5 H’s, 2 R’s, 1 BB. He looked pretty sharp all things considered. A couple nice swings put on him on good pitches. 51/75 for strikes. #Ballers #WhiteSox pic.twitter.com/oAwgzgCvJu— White Sox Daily (@dailywhitesox) May 4, 2022
Simas was a starter for Kannapolis for most of the year, but after getting back from a brief time off his innings were limited and prompted a move to the pen. He was a UDFA, so Simas got some work with Kannapolis last year, but he was a full-fledged starter for them this year. Until June 3, his last start for a month, he had a 2.41 ERA with a K-rate near 35% and a small 8% BB-rate. That is what he is capable of, but next year will be big. Is Simas more the pitcher before injury, or post? We should find out quickly in 2023.
Jared Kelley with 5 scoreless IP today. He allows 1 H, walks 1, and strikes out a career high 8 on 71 pitches (41 strikes). Change was close to untouchable today, and velo was good. #Ballers #WhiteSox pic.twitter.com/5oD8Vs46hD— White Sox Daily (@dailywhitesox) July 31, 2022
The last of the top pitchers was one who bounced back enough to keep himself interesting was Kelley. His command was much better, and he was much healthier, getting in 64 2⁄3 innings compared to 23 2⁄3 last year. The walks went from near 20% to about 15%, so still a lot, but improvement was needed and he showed it. Kelley has even done well enough in his Barons’ starts. The next steps for him are similar to what his goals were this year: Continue to bring the walks down and stay healthy, to pitch more.
Like Gladney and Smelley, Tommy Sommer had a good year in A-ball though he is also not much of a prospect at the moment. He had a 2.75 ERA with Kannapolis and improved on that with the Dash. He is a good command pitcher, but his strikeouts have fallen each time he gets a promotion.
The Sox spent a lot of draft capital on pitching and more money on UDFAs, but the top two picks did not pitch this year. Jonathan Cannon, Eric Adler, Shane Murphy, and Billy Seidl did make it to Kannapolis after getting drafted. They all should start in Low-A next year, but Adler and Seidl could have an outside shot at Winston-Salem early in the year because they are relievers.