Last year, I observed that the depth in the White Sox farm had shown a dramatic increase, in large measure because of more top-end talent. This year, that trend continues. Pitching, albeit mostly still in the lower minors, is the major influence for 2015's list.
Graduating from last year's list were Erik Johnson (No. 2) and Marcus Semien (No. 5), neither of whom are projected to have a direct effect on the 2015 club. Semien, of course, was traded to the Athletics in the Jeff Samardzija deal so his value will be indirectly felt this year. Johnson, on the other hand, saw his velocity and value drop significantly in terrible performances at both the MLB and Triple-A levels. With a questionable back-end of the starting rotation, he'll have the opportunity to work his way back into the conversation, but he'll need to rediscover that lost velocity.
Overall, as I anticipated last year, the White Sox now have a farm that ranks solidly in the middle and, in my estimation, is a top-half system -- though just barely. With the expectation that the top prospect will graduate while the other top half prospects will largely retain eligibility, I would not expect a further rise. A slight decline would be a good bet, but that shouldn't be seen as a bad outcome.
1. Carlos Rodon
2014 MiLB line: 24.1 IP, 20 H, 13 BB, 38 K. 12% BB rate, 35.2% K rate.
AZL White Sox/Winston-Salem/Charlotte.
Last year's ranking: Not in organization.
An eminently reasonable projection for the No. 3 overall pick in last year's draft is a No. 2 or No. 3 starter. And he's near-major league ready. While at least one publication out there thinks that doesn't translate into the top spot, I can't follow its logic and it seems like an attempt to be a little too cute. The lefty has a mature body with a build that suggests a capacity to handle a starter's workload. His arsenal showed significant improvement once he signed with the White Sox. The development of his third pitch, a changeup, benefited from the directive that he minimize the use of his superb slider. It may end up becoming an above-average offering, but the 22-year-old really only needs it to be average for him to be an extremely valuable pitcher. If ends up with three plus pitches, the above projection will obviously be light.
The reason is that his other two pitches are easily above average. His fastball can get into the mid-90s, but I'd expect it to sit closer to 93 mph going forward. Command and control of his fastball is looser than you'd like and predominantly led to that elevated walk rate. A mitigating factor, however, was the tweaking of his delivery.
It's reasonable to expect further improvement going forward. His slider is devastating and he can add or subtract from it with nearly equal effectiveness. His harder, upper-80s version makes life very difficult for righties when he gets it inside. His mid-80s version has more depth and tilt and results in hitters weakly flailing their bats through it. His aggressiveness and makeup play up his repertoire.
If one so desired, he could pitch effectively in a major league rotation on Opening Day. But there's almost no chance of that occurring if for no other reason than the desire to ensure seven seasons of team control. Once that service time concern passes after the first few weeks of the season, however, the baseball reasons for keeping Rodon in the minors diminish rapidly. Barring the unforeseen, he'll be with the White Sox no later than June. While that would find his value best maximized in the rotation, a bullpen debut should not surprise.
ETA: Mid-2015. Long-term role: Above-average starting pitcher.
The Next Five
The Next Five
2. Tim Anderson
2014 MiLB line: .302/.330/.470 in 463 PA. 2.8% BB rate, 23.8% K rate. 16 for 23 in stolen bases.
AZL White Sox/Winston-Salem/Birmingham/AFL Desert Dogs.
Last year's ranking: No. 1
My top prospect last year, Anderson only bolstered his prospect case in 2014; however, there's nothing he can do about his competition. I was somewhat more bullish on him than the consensus last year and I said his 2014 season would convince everyone else to catch up on him. He didn't disappoint me.
I absolutely love Anderson. He's a future star, in my estimation. But, because he didn't focus on baseball until junior college, he remains raw, so there's a good amount of risk. The primary determinant of his future value is whether he can stick at shortstop. The 21-year-old looks bad in the field -- both to the eye and to the stat sheet -- largely because he is raw and lacks experience (and the instincts that go with it), which makes him look worse all-around than he actually is. He has the talent necessary to react and to range but he's held back by a lack of recognition of tendencies and situations that slows his first moves/positioning. Unfortunately, while he has a strong enough arm for shortstop, his accuracy is not, so he can't use that to cover those shortcomings. I think he'll make it work at shortstop with more repetitions but he can easily fall back on second base or center field.
That would have the knock-on effect of raising the offensive bar, though he should produce more than enough to be above-average at either. He's a plus-plus runner who accelerates quickly and uses it to excellent effect on the basepaths, though his base-stealing technique needs work (enter Vince Coleman). The right-handed hitter has all the physical tools necessary for plus hit and maybe even plus power skills. Pitch recognition is still a major issue but more experience should help there, too. That, coupled with his good contact skills and aggressive approach, likely means an average walk rate probably is not in his future. But the rest of his profile should make that not matter.
ETA: Late 2016. Future role: Starting shortstop.
3. Frank Montas
2014 MiLB line: 104 IP, 74 H, 32 BB, 99 K. 7.7% walk rate, 23.9% strikeout rate.
AZL White Sox/Winston-Salem/Birmingham/AFL Desert Dogs.
Last year's ranking: NR.
Those of you who follow what I write about prospects closely are probably surprised to see Montas this high. I have previously been quite cautious with Montas, in large part because of the two meniscal repair surgeries he had in 2014 (one on each knee). Since the right-hander is a rather large guy with a bit of a messy delivery, and these occurred when he was just a 21-year-old, I took this as an indication that he would lack the durability to be a starter. Without the realistic potential to be a starter, Montas is far less interesting.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to publishing this list. I asked Rick Hahn about Montas' surgeries, and what he said didn't square with my conclusion. Montas' surgeries were to remove cysts on both knees. These cysts were the result of a congenital condition. While baseball activities surely aggravated the issues with his knees, they weren't the root cause. Hahn told me that, now that they've been removed by the surgeries, they aren't expected to recur.
While not completely eliminating the durability concern -- surgery is still surgery, even if it's arthroscopic -- this certainly greatly alleviates it. The other concerns regarding his capacity to start still remain, however.
The first I alluded to above -- he's inconsistent with his delivery, causing his release point to wander, and he doesn't use his legs as much as I'd like to see. A pitcher who can't repeat his delivery often has to move to the bullpen. The Dominican did make strides cleaning up his mechanics last season, which manifested itself most prominently in his greatly reduced walk rate and dearth of wild pitches. The second is whether he'll develop the third pitch necessary for him to get through a lineup multiple times. His fastball is mid-90s (and could easily sit close to 100 mph in shorter stints) and the White Sox have developed his upper-80s slider into an above-average pitch. His changeup is coming along but I'd like to see it reach an average grade.
If starting doesn't work out for him, he has a closer profile with elite potential. If one is being reasonable, I still think you have to project him as most likely a reliever; however, the makings of a mid-rotation starter are there and, if he gets through a full season as a starter in the upper minors, that projection would flip.
ETA: Late 2015. Long-term role: Mid-rotation starter or high leverage reliever.
4. Tyler Danish
2014 MiLB line: 129.2 IP, 115 H, 33 BB, 103 K. 6.3% BB rate, 19.7% K rate.
Last year's ranking: No. 9.
He changed the opinions of quite a lot of people with his 2014. Let's address the elephant first: Danish is short, has a body that may well be physically maxed out, is a right-hander who throws around 90 mph, has a funky delivery and throws from a ridiculous low arm slot. Understandably, one is going to immediately place him in the 'reliever' bin, which is hard for a pitcher to get out of once he's been put in it.
I, too, was initially skeptical. While I had him in my top 10 last year, and I gave the White Sox the benefit of the doubt on his eventual role, since he hadn't actually pitched as a starter yet, there was a lot of uncertainty. His performance, though, eased my doubts by midseason and, after a full season, I'm fully on board with his potential as a starter.
The 20-year-old has a three-pitch repertoire. His upper 80s/low 90s sinker is an above-average pitch, getting excellent movement by virtue of his release point. His slider is also above average. Throwing it from the same release point as his fastball, it's got the nasty bite of a classic two-plane slider and leaves righties helpless. He sometimes floats it up there and he'll need to reduce those occurrences as he moves to the upper minors. Finally, his changeup is a work in progress. While it flashes the potential to be above average, it's his most inconsistent pitch and, without it, he's not going to have anything to trouble lefties who get a great look at him (the downside of using that low arm angle). While his delivery is indeed odd, he doesn't have much trouble repeating it.
Danish gets off-the-chart raves on his makeup and he's extremely aggressive on the mound. He knows what he's doing and gets high marks for pitchability. It's pretty amazing to realize that he was the 13th-youngest player in all of the High-A leagues at the end of the season -- and most of those ahead of him didn't play 3½ months there. Just like for Montas, his first taste of the upper minors will tell us a lot about his future.
ETA: 2016. Long-term role: Average-ish starting pitcher.
5. Spencer Adams
2014 MiLB line: 41.2 IP, 49 H, 4 BB, 59 K. 2.2% BB rate, 33.0% K rate.
AZL White Sox.
Last year's ranking: Not in organization.
I wanted to rank Adams higher. Other evaluators tend to have the right-hander higher and seem to rate the 2014 second-round pick closer to the above players. But when a pitcher is just 18 and hasn't pitched above rookie ball, that's a long way from the majors and a long time for stuff to happen.
The Georgia prep product has the makings of a very good fastball, sitting low 90s with good movement. He throws both a curveball and a slider but concentrated on the latter in the videos I saw. His slider is low 80s and can show good bite. It looks like it would induce lots of whiffs but, understandably, is still pretty inconsistent. Same story with his mid-80s changeup. His delivery generally looks good but could use some tweaks. His present control is good and his arm action suggests he's capable of above average command.
Unlike Danish, Adams is far from maxing out physically. A major development key for him in 2015 is to add some muscle to his frame, which hopefully would contribute to the durability and consistency necessary for a starting pitcher. A related issue is that he doesn't use his lower half optimally and added strength could help there, too. Like nearly every teenage pitcher, he needs to tighten up his secondary pitches, which should come with repetitions and added strength. There's a whole lot of risk here, some of which would be assuaged by a full year spent as a pro starter.
ETA: 2018. Long-term role: Starting pitcher.
The second half of the list will be up Tuesday morning.