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Charlotte Knights 2023 Season Preview

This team will be better than last year. There is no way it can be worse

Truist Field in Charlotte, where Triple-A action gets underway on Friday night!
| Charlotte Knights

It is that time of year again, where MLB and Triple-A start their respective seasons while the rest of MiLB gets one more week until they start play. Last season was atrocious, on and off the field, for the Charlotte Knights. Wes Helms was put on leave and eventually fired. This was most likely because he was named in a lawsuit against Omar Vizquel, from a former batboy of the Birmingham Barons.

After that, they were just an awful team on the field, going 58-92. They were the worst team in the International League, by 6 1⁄3 games. The offense was not the culprit, though, as the Knights have a very hitter-friendly park. What did them in was the pitching — in particular, lack of starting pitching. They basically bullpened almost every game for the final couple of months, and for their year, they bullpenned 67% of starts. Knights pitching allowed 129 more runs (957) than the second-worst mark in the IL (828). That sort of ineptitude is not all about the park!

This year, Charlotte will be led by a familiar White Sox MiLB manager, Justin Jirschele. He is coming up from Birmingham, and sports a career 337-326 record. Cam Seitzer is the hitting coach, a former Sox minor-leaguer who coached with Kannapolis last year. Matt Zaleski returns to his pitching coach duties, to round out the notable staff.

Though, with the new staff in Chicago, we can finally forget about internal options from the minors for the big jobs. So, we can concentrate on MLB depth here in Charlotte, and hope for some breakouts for the first time in a while in Triple-A.


Starting Pitchers

Davis Martin is the first guy up if and when an injury to the Chicago rotation occurs. He was not anywhere close to that at this point last season when he started with Birmingham. He has a four-pitch mix (fastball-slider-change-curveball) with nearly 80% his fastball and slider. In MLB, Martin’s fastball looks good at Baseball Savant ranking, but were more like meatballs for MLB bats. Batters slugged .514 against it, and if you cannot deploy the fastball in the majors, well, you’re in Charlotte. Martin’s slider, on the other hand, was really good. He used it against righties and lefties, but is his main breaking ball facing righthanders. He had a 41.4% whiff rate and a much more manageable .349 slugging percentage. His curve is the pitch he uses against lefthanders more often, to great effect as well. It garners a similar slug to his slider, at .333. Hopefully, Martin’s K-rate looks more like it did in Triple-A last season (28.3%) than in MLB (17.8%) once he is back in Chicago.

Sean Burke is not on the 40-man roster yet, but he might as well be labeled as the seventh starter for the organization. He did not exactly have a breakout year, but his pitch mix is really good when it is on and getting strikes. Yes, that is self-explanatory, but Burke walks too many batters (10.4% rate in Double-A last year, with a too-high rate of homers given up, at 1.36 HR/9. This is why his ERA was 4.81 in his 73 Double-A innings. Things did get better, results-wise, in Burke’s last seven starts (2.54 ERA with a 32.4% K-BB% rate), so he did earn his two starts in Charlotte. He just needs to show that stretch was the real Sean Burke. If he can, then we will certainly see him on the South Side this year.

AJ Alexy was selected off of waivers from the Minnesota Twins in January, but the Sox already used one of his options due to not making the Opening Day roster. I list him as a starting pitcher because it looks like that will be his role; the White Sox have more depth at righty reliever than starter. We should find out early enough what Alexy’s true role will be. He has appeared in 30 MLB innings over two seasons, for a 6.30 ERA and more walks (26) than strikeouts (23) with the Texas Rangers. He had a good 2021 in-between Double- and Triple-A (1.66 ERA) that earned him some MLB innings. He really faltered last year in Triple-A over 96 innings, split between starting and relieving. He allowed an astounding 2.34 HR/9, with 23% of his flyballs going for a homer. The Sox are pretty much hoping that being away from the PCL fixes that problem, but his near-13% walk rate needs to improve as well. Chris Getz and Co. must think they can solve a lot of command issues.

Jonathan Stiever is a household name among Sox prospects at this point, as he has been with the organization since 2018. He hasn’t pitched much in the last three summers, with two injuries and the 2020 pandemic. Stiever could very well move to the bullpen, as he will surely be on an innings limit. He appeared once this spring, but he is going to be a wait-and-see type of pitcher this year. We really do not know where his fastball can be. He is starting out this year healthy, at least, and he was really good the last time we saw him have a full season (2019). That was just a long time ago, in baseball years.

There will be other starters, but the odds of them reaching MLB are low at this point. Friendly face, John Parke, should be back to Charlotte again. He had a 6.70 ERA in ’22. New signees Jesse Scholtens and Nate Fisher should see some starts as well, with Fisher working out of the bullpen, too.


Relief Pitchers

Franklin German was acquired last month in a trade with the Boston Red Sox. The White Sox sent Theo Denlinger over for German. German mostly has a two-pitch mix, his high-90s fastball and a slider, but FanGraphs does note that they like his improvement with the change this spring. Depending on how the final decisions shake out for the White Sox bullpen, he could be the first right-handed option up. The fastball will be the pitch that take him places, but he really needs to home in on at least one more reliable option. That should be his slider, but maybe the pitching infrastructure in Chicago created something out of his change. He spent the majority of 2022 in Triple-A, where he had a 2.58 ERA and seven saves and was Boston’s MiLB Pitcher of the Year. It was his first year as a primary reliever than a starter, and it was much better. German does need to improve his control, but don’t be surprised if he is light-out in Charlotte but struggles in MLB appearances if his secondary pitch isn’t working that day.

I won’t spend a ton of time here on Tanner Banks. He surprisingly made the Chicago bullpen last year, and even more astonishingly, he was pretty good. He made his MLB debut at age 30, which is a really fun story. In 53 MLB innings, Banks had a 3.06 ERA with a 3.57 FIP to back it up. 44 2⁄3 of those innings were in low-leverage situations, so he wasn’t really used in important spots, and it is too small a sample size to mention his high-leverage stats. If there is an injury to Aaron Bummer or Jake Diekman does not improve, Banks should be up. He is the only lefty option on the 40-man roster until Garrett Crochet is healthy. After now two years working only out of the bullpen, it might not be realistic to expect Banks to make any spot-starts.

Nicholas Padilla is another 40-man option who pitched in Charlotte last season. He was DFA’ed by the Chicago Cubs in September 202, and the Sox scooped him up. His lone appearance in the bigs was last year, and that is where the video above is from. He’s been in professional baseball since 2016, when he was drafted by the Tampa Rays. He started in High-A and made his way up to his lone (27th-man) appearance for the Cubs, which is a remarkable feat. Padilla had a 2.21 ERA in the minors las season with a healthy 29.5% K-rate. Where he struggles is command, as a 13.5% BB-rate is not very good, but his .171 batting average against keep any troubles he had with walks at bay. Only allowing one homer in those 53 innings will help that, too. (That homer, of course, came in a game in Charlotte.) Padilla’s ERA in Triple-A was actually his high mark of his season, but the strikeouts did dip to 26.7%. That is still really good, but the walks are really concerning, and is the reason why he is not making the Opening Day roster and behind a couple other righties in the depth chart. Padilla is mostly a cutter-slider reliever.

Other options here are led by Matt Foster, though his strained forearm will surely find him starting the season on the IL. He would be in play for MLB innings after an OK 2022, with a 4.40 ERA in 45 innings with the Sox. He will technically start on the MLB injured list, so not really an Opening-Night Knight.

Next up is a trio of pitchers who not only received non-roster spring training invites, but also appeared in the Arizona Fall League. They are not on the 40-man roster, but it is likely at least one of Sammy Peralta, Declan Cronin, and Lane Ramsey see some MLB time this year. Peralta might have the inside edge, because he is a lefty. He saw a significant increase in strikeouts from the latter half of the ’21 season to ’22 and was around 29% with the Barons and Knights. Cronin is not a high-strikeout guy, but produces a lot of grounders. He could work on his command, but he ended his time in Charlotte well with a 5.2% BB-rate. Ramsey was coming off injury, but his 6´9´´, 245-pound frame produces a pretty decent fastball. Ramsey is healthy now, and he had a good spring. Command is what needs to improve, but again, that looked better this past month.

There are obviously other names here, but in terms of guys who could reasonably see innings in Chicago, the above seem the most likely. Other relievers like Andrew Perez, Fraser Ellard and Kenyan Middleton could see time in Chicago, but are coming off of lackluster 2022 seasons.


Catchers

Carlos Pérez is the third catcher in the depth chart for the Sox. He should catcher there pretty much every day with a combination of Sebastian Rivero and/or Evan Skoug backing him up. Pérez got a cup of coffee in MLB last year after multiple injuries for the White Sox at catcher in ’22, but played the majority of his games in Charlotte. He had a 100 wRC+, which was right around his offensive performance in the Barons in 2021. Pérez’s power has shown more of late, but he is more known for his bat-on-ball skills from an offesnive standpoint. His K-rate was only 8.6% for the Knights with a BB-rate at 7.3%, so a lot of his plate appearances end with a batted ball. From a defensive side, Pérez is a better receiver than what the Sox have in the organization. However, his arm grades really low, as FanGraphs gives it a 30 grade (really awful) but MLB Pipeline does note he has a quick release. Regardless, with the new rules that makes stealing bases easier, Pérez isn’t the best option behind the plate.

If the Sox somehow have to go deeper than Pérez to get some MLB innings in, then something went horribly wrong. Rivero would probably be the fourth guy, as he has previous MLB experience. Skoug proved he had a decent bat last year, but the strikeouts are too high for Double-A and would surely worsen in the majors. He could get some DH time in Charlotte as well.


Infielders (these guys can play a lot of places)

Lenyn Sosa is coming off of a breakout season in the minors, and the White Sox should expect big things from him. He is the highest-rated hitting prospect on the team and should be one of the first position players up to Chicago. In 119 games, basically split between Double and Triple-A, Sosa slashed .315/.369/.511. The strikeouts went down from the low-20s to the mid-teens, while the BB-rate went up to 7.3%, a rate not seen since he was in rookie ball. The most encouraging aspect of Sosa’s ’22 season was the power surge. That is why he went from a Top 20-25 Sox prospect to the Top 5-10 prospect he is today. He was clearly overwhelmed in 11 MLB games, and that is something to monitor. He should start at shortstop until José Rodriguez gets the call to Triple-A.

Jake Burger is back in Charlotte for one reason: He is not a good defensive third baseman. He has a 114 wRC+ in MLB with a .209 ISO. If he could handle his position, he would be on the White Sox. He just cannot, and first base is filled with Andrew Vaughn, with Gavin Sheets as the lefty bench bat. Burger should be the everyday third baseman in Charlotte to improve that defense as much as he can. He still hasn’t played in more than 100 games in a season, so that will be his second key here, staying healthy. If he stays on the field, he can better field his position. Burger will probably play some first base as well, because Vaughn is already having back issues, but hopefully Burger can take that next step. It could be the last year he is in the White Sox organization, as this is his last option year.

There really is not a first base option in Charlotte this year. It is more of a conglomerate of not really fantastic players. Burger should play there some. Zach Remillard, Chris Shaw, maybe even Erik González will get innings at first. Yolbert Sánchez should play almost every day in the middle infield, wherever Sosa isn’t playing that day.


Outfielders

Victor Reyes, Billy Hamilton, Jake Marisnick, and Adam Haseley are quartet of former major-leaguers who could see time with the Sox for various reasons.

Reyes spent time with Detroit from 2018-22 for 394 games. He came away with a 0.6 WAR and an 83 wRC+. He is a switch-hitter who is better against lefties (91 wRC+) than righties (80 wRC+). His is an OK defensive outfielder, probably more of a left and center field type guy, but he can play all three spots. Guaranteed Rate’s center field is much easier to manage than Comerica Park’s so if you are looking at defensive stats, they probably would be better if those center field innings were mostly for the White Sox.

Hamilton, well, with the new rules, he should steal a lot of bases. His bat is still terrible but his performance on base, when he can actually get on or pinch runs, plus his defense, helps him stay near a replacement-level player.

Marisnick has been a center fielder for most of his career, and a pretty good one at that defensively. His bat is not very good, if it was, he probably would play for another team, to be honest. Marisnick is better against lefties in his career, and that makes sense because he is a right-handed bat.

Haseley is the only repeater for the organization from last season. He spent most of his time in Charlotte, where he had an 83 wRC+. The power was improved, but that could be a result of playing in Charlotte. Haseley was almost exclusively in center and left, though without many people playing in right on the team, somebody will have to. When Haseley was with the Sox, he showed a decent knack for getting on-base (.333 OBP) but showed no power in his 25 plate appearances.


That’s the team, at least so far. More guys will come from Double-A throughout the season, and even one or two from Winston-Salem. Some will go to Chicago in stints, maybe a couple for the long-term, but this is a better team than last year’s Knights. Nobody should expect playoffs, but definitely not the far and away worst team in the league.


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