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Colson Montgomery will see his 2023 delayed a bit by injury, but he’s easily the top prospect in the organization.
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Birmingham Barons 2023 Season Preview

The Barons have the top two prospects in the White Sox system, Colson Montgomery and Bryan Ramos

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Last season, Birmingham had quite a bit of talent to start the year, Lenyn Sosa and Davis Martin went from the Barons to the White Sox. With Project Birmingham in place for the final month of the MiLB season, most eyes for Sox prospects were here in Double-A again. This season will be a little different, with some top talent in Charlotte and, quite frankly, some prospect shine coming off guys that have been around for three to five years. Colson Montgomery will be there, and he is by far and away the best prospect in the system, so not all of those eyes will be elsewhere.

There’s a new coaching staff here, new to Birmingham but not to the organization. The Winston-Salem staff is now in Double-A, with Lorenzo Bundy at the helm as manager, Danny Farquhar as pitching coach, and Nicky Delmonico as the hitting coach. Farquhar and Delmonico are familiar names, because they were White Sox not that long ago. Bundy is a baseball lifer, all the way back to his playing days starting in 1981. Including his record with the Dash last year, Bundy has a 982-1,031 record in the minors and in Mexico. A lot of coaching experience at the top, with an inexperienced coaching staff.


Starting Pitchers

Matt Thompson has never fully progressed like a lot of White Sox prospect watchers have wanted. In truth, the above tweet and video illustrate his struggles pretty well, inconsistency from start-to-start. You can blame his lost year in 2020 for any setback he had in 2021, but he didn’t improve enough last year to offset those concerns. He made 18 starts with the Dash (4.70 ERA) and seven with the Barons (5.33 ERA). If he is going to make the majors, ever, this is the year he will need to prove it. The potential is there, he just does not miss enough bats (a combined 1.35 WHIP last season).

Cristian Mena had a breakout year in 2022 as he earned his way from Kannapolis to Project Birmingham. In 104 1⁄3 innings between all three levels, he had a 3.80 ERA and a 1.32 WHIP. It was a big improvement to his ’21 season in the Arizona Complex League where he had a 7.82 ERA. He will need to improve on his fastball velocity and add a third pitch, probably a change, but that curveball he has helped him garner a high 20% K-rate. He showed good control overall, and his successes entering his age-20 season are remarkable. He deserves to start in Double-A and could very well be the best pitching prospect in the system by the end of the year.

The next up here in the rotation should be Chase Solesky and Tommy Sommer. Solesky participated in the Arizona Fall League last year, where he didn’t pitch well, but he was there. He is another 2019 draftee, and should be an innings-eater for Birmingham. He finished his time in High-A with a 4.24 ERA. He is more of a command than punchout pitcher. He had a 6.7% BB-rate versus an 17.3% K-rate with the Dash in 110 1⁄3 innings. Sommer shined (it’s OK, you laughed) in his first full season of professional baseball. The lefty started with Kannapolis and ended his stint with the Dash for a combined 123 innings and a 2.71 ERA. There isn’t much potential here, but the results do speak, so here he is getting a mini-blurb.


Relief Pitchers

Caleb Freeman is coming off an injured year where his fastball velocity, per FanGraphs, was down in the lower 90s. We should find out pretty soon where that is once Birmingham’s season starts. If it is back to the mid- to high-90s, then Freeman could be in the upper half of Top 30 prospect lists. When he was cooking in 2021, his K-rate was close to 30% and the walk rate was pretty much at the 10% threshold. Those walks weren’t perfect, but the K-rate was undeniable. In Freeman’s limited Double-A time in 2022, the strikeouts were down (21.1%) but the walks were terrible (near 20%). It was a small sample, but the deep drop in velocity tracks with the lack of command. If he can be back to old form, Freeman is a back-of-the-bullpen pitcher. If he is what he was in 2022, then he is out of professional baseball.

Luke Shilling is another often-injured pitcher who needs to stay on the mound in 2023. He was drafted in 2018, but did not get his first taste of pro ball until 2021. Since he was drafted, he only has 31 2⁄3 innings pitched in the organization. He has good velocity on his fastball, but he hasn’t really pitched enough, so he has little to no control. In 13 1⁄3 innings in ’22, he walked 16 batters — not very good. He struck out 20, though, so you can see why he has an intriguing arm. We just have to hope control issues are more about him not being on the field.

Edgar Navarro was a White Sox non-roster invitee this past Spring Training and spent most of his time in Double-A last year. In 43 1⁄3 innings with the Barons, he had a 3.53 ERA, but there was a bit of luck in that. His BABIP was a low .252, which helped lower his batting average against to .181. If that BABIP had been more near normal (.300), Navarro’s ERA would have skyrocketed because he had a 17.7% BB-rate. He had a healthy 26.6% K-rate, so what will be needed is better command of the strike zone to put him in MLB.

All the above are righties, and there are a lot of question marks with them. Birmingham will not be the best place for bullpen arms, unless some former top prospect starters convert to the bullpen this year. Some lefty options here are Garrett Davila and Gil Luna Jr. Both of these guys would need to have big years to get more eyes on them. Maybe Davila will be better if he only works out of the bullpen. Luna is another pitcher coming off of an injured year. He barely played last season (6 1⁄3 innings). This is a system that is bereft of left-handed talent from the mound, so Luna should be on people’s radars.


Catchers

Adam Hackenberg had a good 2021 showing in Kannapolis, but his time with the Dash and then Barons was less than ideal. The production fell mostly because of a steep dip in BABIP, .422 to .279. Walks were up an encouraging amount, but his strikeouts really ballooned, especially in Hackenberg’s 46 Double-A plate appearances. He is all right defensively, much better than some of his peers, but not enough to project him as a future major-leaguer.

Catching is not really a strong position for the White Sox system overall, but especially with the Barons, at least to start the year. The backups here might be a hitter-only guy like Tyler Osik. He probably would just DH, though, and really barely catches. Xavier Fernández is an option here, as well as Keegan Fish.


Infielders


Colson Montgomery is starting the year late due to an oblique injury per Chris Getz. That gives José Rodríguez time to start with the Barons before heading to Triple-A. Montgomery is the undisputed best prospect the Sox have, so it is a-OK to slow-play him. Among the top trades, Montgomery is in the 30s for top prospect in all of baseball. In Fegan’s article (linked), Montgomery mentioned how tired he was to end the year, and that was pretty evident from the stats. He ended in Project Birmingham with a 19 wRC+ over 52 plate appearances. Before that, he had just been on a two-month on-base streak in A-ball.

We do want to see more power from Montgomery, but the plate discipline is off-the-charts good, so it should just be a matter of time that power comes through. A good stat to look from him this year is how much his fly-ball rate increases.


José Rodríguez is coming off a year of three distinct stretches. In the first two months, Rodríguez had a 67 wRC+ with bad bat-to-ball results, and an even worse power showing. In his next 38, the power was still lacking, as Rodríguez didn’t hit any homers over that time. However, he did produce a .331 batting average to get him to a 108 wRC+. After the All-Star break is when the power came: In his final 25 games before injury, Rodríguez hit 10 home runs, for a .367 ISO. The batting average fell, but his walks more than tripled, so he had a 159 wRC+ for about a month’s worth of games. This stretch included homers in five straight games (August 12-17). You just hope Rodríguez can put it all together, or something close, over a full season. There should be a quick hook for him to go to Charlotte, especially when Montgomery starts the year.


Bryan Ramos isn’t right behind Montgomery in terms of skill, but he is in terms of White Sox prospect rankings. The third baseman had a breakout year with the Dash in 2022 and was an early arrival for the Project. He finished with a 122 wRC+ in High-A but did run into some trouble in about a month’s worth of games in Double-A. The walk rate is what fell, but I trust the entire season’s body of work more than a one-month sample to end the year. Ramos had a really good spring, for whatever that is worth to you. Baseball-Reference tries to gauge the type of talent players face, and Ramos’ opposing pitchers were Double-A level — and he finished with a .955 OPS in 21 plate appearances! Montgomery will probably move to third eventually, but for now, it is Ramos’ position. Though, Ramos should see some time at second this year, more than the eight games in ’21.

There are intriguing options in the infield beyond these three, but maybe not MLB-quality prospects. Moisés Castillo, a sort of AFL hero last fall from the Sox, should play second base. First base should be more or less a rotation among players like the aforementioned Osik, Tyler Neslony, and Luis Mieses — basically guys who will also DH.


Outfielders


Yoelqui Céspedes can play all three outfield spots, has decent pop, and has good speed. Why is he not on an MLB roster? Well, he strikes out too much and does not really walk. Plate discipline is his Achilles heel and there is no way in knowing whether he can fix it at this juncture. With the Barons last season, Céspedes had a 5.7% BB-rate and a 30.1% K-rate, truly abysmal. He did have a noticeable split against lefties (.866 OPS) versus righties (.730 OPS). Most of that difference is power-related, so that means he sees lefties way better than righties. That is where is future MLB sweet spot could be: A fourth outfielder who is a defensive replacement and starts against southpaws.

To start the season, the rest of the outfield will be a group of players who have good results in the past but are they really good prospects. Luis Mieses and Duke Ellis lead that group, and should get the most playing time. Mieses improved, overall, from his ’21 to ’22, but not enough to rise in the Top 30 prospect lists. He needs to show more pop and really eke out more walks to be considered a legitimate future OF option. He did get time at first last year, and that could happen again this season.

Ellis is a speedster who came away with 57 stolen bases last year. He is a high-BABIP guy who needs to bring down his 26% K-rate as he moves up the system. Striking out that much in High-A is not a great sign, but the walks (around 10.5%) are there.


Birmingham has the top two prospects in the system — will the rest of the team play up to them?


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