The overall health of the farm system has taken a sizeable hit since the start of 2015. Graduations/departures from last year's top ten are Carlos Rodon, Frankie Montas, Micah Johnson, Matt Davidson and Carlos Sanchez.
Montas and Johnson, as well as Trayce Thompson, Yency Almonte, Zack Erwin, J.B. Wendelken and Myles Jaye, were all traded away this offseason. Tyler Saladino also lost his eligibility.
Notables entering the system were draft picks Carson Fulmer, Jordan Stephens and Corey Zangari. This wasn't anywhere near enough to counteract the above losses. The system has gone from comfortably mid-tier to probably not much more than top 25. A decline was basically inevitable with the graduation of Rodon but GM Rick Hahn trading away seven prospects who would have been among the top 30 in the organization made it rather precipitous.
Perhaps most worrying for the White Sox is that their near and major league ready prospect depth has been largely eviscerated. Unlike last season, when Rodon and Sanchez were available right from the start as back-up plans, there probably isn't much internal help available until near midseason.
1. Tim Anderson
2015 MiLB line - Birmingham: .312/.350/.429 in 550 PA. .360 wOBA. 4.4% BB, 20.7% K. 49 for 62 in stolen bases.
Last year's ranking: #2 Midseason: #1
After a year away thanks to Rodon, the shortstop returns to the top spot in the annual rankings. He continues to reward my confidence in him with a very good season in Double-A and I remain a firm believer that he will be a star. While his ISO took the inevitable hit from moving from hitter-friendly Winston-Salem to power-unfriendly Birmingham, we saw Anderson really learn how to translate his double-plus raw speed into double-plus game-useable speed. I suggested last year that Vince Coleman would have a big impact and he certainly appears to be man deserving of the credit for the 22-year-old's jump from 10-for-14 to 49-for-62 in stolen bases. Anderson was generally more confident and aggressive on the basepaths, as he took extra bases with impunity.
His hit skill continues to improve and the right-handed hitter looks like he's on his way to above-average there. The power is still well below-average and hope that it'll ever develop into anything more than average continues to fade, though his legs will prop up his slugging with plenty of extra-base hits that stay in the yard. His low walk rate continues to be one of the major concerns aired about Anderson. When I asked him about it, though, he had the appropriate answer: "Hitters are in there to hit." Sure, it's simplistic, but it is emblematic of his confidence (and the White Sox' confidence) in what he's good at, which is being aggressive and making contact. I think he'll refine his approach a bit more (like a lot of guys, breaking ball away is a problem) as he moves up the ladder but his OBP will live or die with his batting average.
Defensively, those who have said a position change is inevitable have become less vociferous. He's still a below-average shortstop but his steady improvement means he's now light years from where he was when he was drafted. His bat will be well ahead of his glove when he arrives in the majors but, eventually, I think he'll get to averageish. Even in a reasonable best-case scenario for Saladino's production, the expected opening day starter isn't going to be much of a roadblock to Anderson. Coupled with the existence of Sanchez, the White Sox are probably hoping that there won't be any need to get Anderson to the majors until at least July, as he can absolutely can use more reps at Triple-A.
ETA: Mid 2016. Future role: Starting shortstop.
2. Carson Fulmer
2015 MiLB line - AZL White Sox/Winston-Salem: 9 G, 23 IP, 17 H, 9 BB, 26 K. 10% BB, 28.8% K.
Last year: Not in organization Midseason: #4
The team's top 2015 pick, Fulmer probably has the present ability to be a decent big league reliever, which is a pretty good floor to have. Of course, both the team and the righty want him to be at least a mid-rotation starter. As always, where one thinks he ends up on that spectrum is the rub. I'm a bit more sold on the starting potential than I was after the draft but there's still a lot of uncertainty.
Let's begin with where he's at right now. The 22-year-old routinely gets above-average grades put on his fastballs and his curve. Because I don't grade command as a separate category and instead bake it into each pitch (after all, command is more often not a static grade for each of a pitcher's pitches), I see them as average pitches. Both his four-seam and two-seam fastballs have good movement. The four-seamer sits mid-90s and can get into the upper-90s. The two-seamer sits low to mid 90s. He's shown the ability to locate the curve both in and out of the zone. His changeup is a below-average pitch. His motion adds deception, as hitters see the ball late, but his very quick arm speed noticeably slows on his changeup.
Better command, of course, would make each of his pitches better. The fastballs and curve would be plus and his change would be pushed more towards average. As is usually the case with better pitching prospects, he's got a few ways to be a starter. Even if his changeup doesn't develop into anything, he'd be a solid starter if his fastballs and curves become plus. If it's just his changeup that improves, three average pitches can be enough to be a starter. If he does both, well, you can do the math. I'll spare you the lusty quotes but Fulmer gets very high marks for makeup.
The biggest knocks on Fulmer are that his short(er) stature and violent delivery won't let him be a starter. For me, the height isn't an issue. The delivery, however, does have a lot of moving parts and it looks like it is high-effort. I'm sure it's possible to refine his delivery around the edges but it's never going to look close to smooth or effortless. And his motion is likely the main reason for his loose command. And while he garnered praise for holding his velocity late into starts, that was against college lineups where he could usually coast against large portions of lineups.
We won't see him pitch as a starter until April so, for me, it's difficult to project how he'll respond to it until he actually does it. The well-fortified bullpen should mean that there's no need to rush Fulmer to the majors and that he'll have the opportunity to develop as a starter for potentially the whole season. Until he's made a dozen or so starts in the upper minors, I'm firmly on the fence as to his future role.
ETA: Late 2016. Future role: High-leverage reliever or No. 3/4 starter.
#3 Spencer Adams
2015 MiLB line - Kannapolis/Winston-Salem: 24 GS, 129.1 IP, 142 H, 18 BB, 96 K. 3.3% BB, 17.4% K.
Last year: #5 Midseason: #3
Fulmer and Adams present the classic floor versus upside argument. Adams won't turn 20 until April and has just the one full season under his belt as a starter. The righty hasn't pitched above A-ball. That one season was excellent considering his age but, objectively, was not overpowering. He's got four pitches but none are plus. Basically, he's long on projection but short on present results.
But it's easy to see the upside and it is indeed high. Adams made 24 starts, all but five at Kannapolis, and showed no ill effects from the increase in workload. Both his fastball and slider are average to fringe-average presently and improvement should be expected for both, with the slider showing very legitimate plus potential. His fastball is low 90s, and he can get into mid. He commands both well. The curve and change are behind but both can reasonably project as average pitches, with the change the likeliest of the two to develop into an above-average pitch. Thanks to his command, it's not difficult to envision a scenario in which he has two plus pitches with two above-average pitches. And various permutations down from that still would project as an average starter.
Adams shows a higher ceiling than Fulmer. But he's a long way from the majors and a lot more could go wrong, so his floor and greater outcome variability slots him below his fellow righty. Adams probably would be best-served by another couple months in Winston-Salem but, as we all know, the White Sox are particularly aggressive with pitchers, so don't be surprised to see him in Birmingham as soon as April. Surviving one full season as a starter was very important. Now it's very important to do it again.
ETA: 2018. Future role: Starting pitcher.
4. Trey Michalczewski
2015 MiLB line - Winston-Salem: .255/.359/.395 in 532 PA. .339 wOBA. 9.4% BB, 21.4% K.
2015 AFL line - Glendale: .244/.395/.366 in 44 PA. .302 wOBA. 6.8% BB, 34.1% K.
Last year: #10 Midseason: #6
This high ranking is essentially a bet on his power potential. The soon-to-be 21-year-old is one of those dangerous prospects who doesn't have a carrying tool but is pretty average-ish across the board. An increase to above-average in one skill pushes him into a starting third baseman role. But a decrease to below-average in one skill could spell AAAA.
One thing that goes in his favor is that he's a switch-hitter, which theoretically should make him playable regardless of the pitcher's throwing hand. He's shown decent contact skills from both sides of the plate but he's yet to show home run power, as he left the yard only seven times in a home run friendly park. Some point to his approach at the plate and/or swing path to illustrate that the power isn't likely to develop. I think his swing is fine but would agree that currently his approach is geared towards contact. However, I think that's largely a function of the fact that he isn't strong enough yet to do things differently. He also had a back injury in May that may have limited him. Regardless, I think he'll add that strength and we'll see that translate into game power, particularly from his left (non-natural) side.
There is some swing-and-miss in his game and it's not just outside the strike zone. He's got enough of an eye and contact skills that pitchers haven't wanted to challenge him inside the zone, which may not carryover at the higher levels if he doesn't add power. His speed is below-average.
Defensively, he's improving. His range is likely to always be below-average but his hands are solid and his strong arm can paper over some shortcomings. With more improvement to his footwork, his arm would easily rate above-average to plus. He's unlikely to be anything more than average, though, which puts more pressure on his offense, particularly if he has to move off the position. After a full season at High-A, he's going to start the season with Birmingham, where he'll again be one of the younger players in the league.
ETA: 2018. Future role: Third baseman.
5. Jordan Guerrero
2015 MiLB line - Kannapolis/Winston-Salem: 25 GS, 149 IP, 124 H, 31 BB, 148 K. 5.3% BB, 25.1% K
Last year and Midseason: NR
This high ranking is a bet on the organization's ability to develop pitchers. As a left-hander, he's already ahead of the game because he's got an above-average changeup, which means he can legitimately be tagged with "potential starter." The 21-year-old's four-seam fastball sits around 90-91 mph, which is about average for a lefty starter these days, and has good run on it. He also uses a cutter against righties. The 2012 15th-rounder rounds out his repertoire with some kind of slurvy thing that likely isn't going to be anything better than average. However, as he's already got one excellent weapon against righties, as well as a cutter, the development of a solid breaking ball isn't imperative. All of his pitches play up because he repeats his delivery well no matter what he's throwing. He's a strike-thrower with decent command of all his pitches.
While he's had high strikeout rates in his career so far, don't expect that to continue all the way to the majors. Lefties with a changeup can pick lower-level hitters apart. He should maintain at least an average walk rate, though. Another issue is that he has had shoulder problems in the past, which meant that 2015 was his first full season as a starter. Another full season of starts would go a long way towards allaying injury concerns.
With further improvements across the board, he's got the ceiling of a mid-rotation guy. More likely, he'll only make improvements sufficient to fit into the back of a rotation. Guerrero will start the year at Birmingham. He's the kind of guy who could quickly jump to the head of the sixth-starter line and be in line for a spot start. Even if not, I think we'll see him in Chicago by the end of this season.
ETA: Late 2016. Long-term role: Starting pitcher.
For those with questions about what I consider when doing my rankings, go here and read the two comments that are green and lengthy.
Second half of the list goes up Saturday.