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Tim Elko started his miraculous season all the way back in Kannapolis.
Tiffany Wintz/South Side Sox

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Kannapolis Cannon Ballers 2023 Season Review

The only team better than .500 in the system relied heavily on the past couple draft classes to get there

The Kannapolis Cannon Ballers finished this season with a 67-64 record. There was no playoff berth for Pat Leyland’s team, but they did finish with the fourth-best overall record in the Carolina League. The first wave of players (for the most part the 2022 draft class) did better in the first half than their 2023 counterparts in the second, and you can easily see why. A big part of that came from college bats in their first full season of pro ball; guys like Tim Elko did not disappoint.

Promoted Bats

The bat that made it the farthest from a start in Low-A was Tim Elko, and deservedly so. He showed fantastic pop, with 28 homers on the year: 17 in Low-A, five in High-A, and six in Double-A. All that power came out to help get him 108 RBIs. Now, by the time Elko got to the Barons, the contact issue he has did creep up, a 35.8% rate up there. It showed in the wRC+ numbers, with an offensive performance 13% below average. Still, it was Elko’s first pro year, and he was magnificent in A-ball — you cannot take away anything from his 2023. However, if Elko wants to see MLB time, his plate discipline has to improve. Getting that K-rate down to his A-ball stats (high 20%) is a must. So is getting his walk rate up to 8% again.

Elko made it all the way to Alabama, but Jacob Burke and Brooks Baldwin are next up, with a healthy amount of time on the Dash after starting their years in Kannapolis. Burke had the most, with two months in High-A after a fantastic Low-A campaign. What Burke did in Low-A and to some extent in High-A, was reach base. He left Kannapolis with a 163 wRC+ thanks to a good amount of extra-base power and a .416 OBP. Burke’s power fell in High-A, and he didn’t walk as much, so the wRC+ dropped to 118, but that was still a really special year for him. Burke proved his month’s worth of games last year was real; it just stinks he started the year on the IL, or maybe would have started with the Dash and reached Double-A with Elko.

Baldwin didn’t reach base as often as Burke, but he showed more home run pop and still walked a healthy amount. Baldwin stayed in Kannapolis longer than Elko or Burke, and only had a month in High-A, but he did better there. In Kannapolis, Baldwin walked more (12% vs 7.1%) and showed more power (.200 ISO vs .168). Where he improved most was the batting average, thanks to a near 100-point rise in BABIP with the Dash. One point of emphasis I want to make here was he pretty much switched positions from Kannapolis to Winston-Salem: Baldwin mainly played third in Low-A, with some time in the outfield as well, and with the Dash he only played shortstop.

A couple players who started in Kannapolis are worth mentioning, as both guys get on base but are older college bats who don’t have a ton of pop. Bryce Willits was promoted around the same time as Baldwin after sporting a 124 wRC+ in Low-A. Willits reached base quite a bit, .356 OBP with a .168 ISO to get to that wRC+ mark. He still relied heavily on singles, and once he saw better pitching in High-A he didn’t hit a single home run in 27 games for the Dash. Willits improved his plate discipline, though, for an OBP just shy of .400, so he still graded out as an average bat. Mario Camilletti is not a power hitter by any definition, but his knack to reach base is better than anybody else in the organization. He walked (98) more than he struck out (79) this year, and at both levels of A-ball. It will be interesting to see how Camilletti does next year; because he just doesn’t hit the ball hard, slash lines like .200/.410/.267 from his 14 High-A games might be his norm.

Full-Year Kannapolis Bats

If you spent all year in Kannapolis, starting in April (or whenever a season started as a 2022 draftee or 2022 international player from the ACL), that’s not a great sign of growth or performance. The most disappointing was the highest-rated bat from the 2022 White Sox draft, Jordan Sprinkle. There were some injuries, and we knew his defense was the better portion of his game, but an 80 wRC+ for the fourth round pick was a failure. It was known that Sprinkle had no power, but the bat-to-ball skills should have been better. A .228 batting average isn’t acceptable here for the caliber of player. Sprinkle’s plate discipline was not atrocious, and that is harder to fix, so at least that’s a building block at the plate.

To a lesser extent given prospect hype, but an even worse year came from Drake Logan. He received a decent bonus last year ($125,000) so there was some hype, but it should be gone after this year. A 43.5% K-rate in Low-A is abysmal, and something a player won’t be able to come back from.

Promoted Arms

The arms will be a different rundown, as injury meant the best prospects needed to stay in Kannapolis. But there were two Top 30 prospects (per MLB Pipeline) who did earn promotions after starting with the Cannon Ballers: starter Tyler Schweitzer, and Eric Adler from the bullpen. Schweitzer showed flashes every so often, but as the season went on (especially with the Dash) he clearly got tired and was coming up on an innings limit. The lefty showed better command early in the year with Kannapolis (7.3% BB-rate) compared to when it doubled with the Dash (13.6%). Schweitzer doesn’t have much velocity to his fastball, so the command needs to be closer to his Low-A mark to do well.

In the bullpen, Adler did not work as the closer, but he probably should have with the way he performed. He appeared in 12 games in Low-A and 16 in High-A, for a 2.87 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 31 1⁄3 innings. Adler’s issue out of the draft and as was evidenced in his handful of pro innings last year, was command. It greatly improved this season and got better as the year went on, with a 15.6% BB rate in Kannapolis versus 12.6% in Winston-Salem. It needs to get better, but Adler could be a late-inning bullpen option if he can keep that BB-rate low given the stuff he has.

There were other guys who got promotions, Connor McCullough was one, Manuel Veloz is another, but they weren’t prospects to watch at the start the year, and nothing happened in 2023 to change that.

All year in Kannapolis Arms

This is where the fun begins with the pitching. If Noah Schultz, Tanner McDougal, and Peyton Pallette were not limited due to injuries, they probably get to the Dash in 2023. Alas, they remained with the Cannon Ballers.

Schultz pretty much confirmed people’s priors, fantastic stuff, with a really good fastball and slider. The 36.5% K-rate showed just that, but he only got through 27 innings in 2023, so he is not coming to MLB anytime soon. What was a little surprising was how good Schultz’s control was. Maybe his pitches are too good for low-A bats, and they were just going up there and swinging at spots, but a 5.8% BB-rate was a nice surprise.

McDougal was drafted out of high school way back in 2021 and missed the 2022 season after Tommy John Surgery. With that in mind, going 69 1⁄3 innings is impressive. McDougal started out with control issues (28 walks in his first 33 innings), but his 45 strikeouts limited the damage enough for a 3.27 ERA. That was his first 10 starts: Shaking off rust, but the stuff really showed. In the next 11, McDougal had a 4.95 ERA. The control was better (15 walks in 36 1⁄3 innings), but the strikeouts fell as well (35). That makes me think he ran out of gas by the end of his season.

Pallette was in a similar situation as McDougal. Pallette missed all of last year in college and after he was drafted due to TJS. So again, his 72 innings he pitched were exactly what the Sox needed. The actual performance was different, though. Pallette’s first half saw fewer strikeouts (34) than the second half (44), so he seemed to get stronger or had a better feel as the season went on. Maybe that is because Pallette has more innings, having been a college pitcher, than McDougal. The ERA and the walks were the same, though, and Pallette ended with a 4.13 ERA to end the year, with a 12.8% walk-rate.

There were quite a few arms who stayed in Kannapolis, most of them we don’t need to worry about right now, as college arms in Low-A should be better. One to note from the starting rotation was Aldrín Batista. He was acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers for international bonus money and came from their ACL team to start five times for the Cannon Ballers. He looked good, showing solid control as the strikeouts fell compared to his rookie-league numbers. Still, it came over just 23 2⁄3 innings, so not much to read there.

Also a name from the pen, Billy Seidl. Now, his 5.06 ERA and six blown saves look awful, but he was the closer, with 20 save chances. Positioning a player as such usually means an organization likes that reliever. Seidl relied too heavily on batted balls to get outs, with only a 21.7% K-rate, and walked too many (11.9%) for such a low strikeout total. Maybe a second full season is where Seidl breaks out — the organization seems to think he is a critical minor league bullpen arm.

2023 Draftees

Again, there’s not much can be read from a player from the 2023 draft class this year, as they did not play enough. Calvin Harris and Jacob González played the most with 30 games, not enough to forget about the college tape and reassess. Same thing on the pitching side with Seth Keener and Lucas Gordon combining for five games.

Next year, all the takes can commence, and there will surely be plenty of them.

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