The ranking exercise this year is a massive departure from the past. I pride myself on having seen -- extensively -- the players in the White Sox organization. I think it gives me a (very slight) edge over the national rankers at Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com, ESPN, FanGraphs, etc. who have much better connections to industry observers and often have seen most of the players in person. At any rate, it at least gives me a different perspective where I track week-to-week, month-to-month progress -- particularly of the less well-known names -- usually over multiple years.
Rich Hahn determined an organizational direction that blew up whatever edge I may have when he made two blockbuster trades that resulted in an arguably unprecedented influx of outside prospect talent -- most particularly at the top level -- that totally re-shaped the farm and transformed the future of the franchise. The White Sox had a bottom-five farm on Dec. 6. By the end of the following day, they had a top-five farm. I no longer had much of a grasp on the top 10 prospects and, perhaps more importantly, on the very top prospects. As you will see and likely expected, only one of the top five is a homegrown player.
So for those players acquired this offseason, I did my best. I watched video. I read reports. Some of them I'd seen, without paying the requisite attention, while watching White Sox prospects. I've now seen what they've done so far this spring. I tried not to be swayed by others' rankings. Inevitably, however, those players are ranked by me based less on my impressions and more on others'. And you're going to see a few "I dunnos" in my capsules.
On to the list. The sole graduate from last year was top prospect Tim Anderson, who repaid my unwavering confidence in him with an even-better-than-expected debut in which he met or exceeded the high expectations I placed on him. In contrast, the remainder largely held steady or took a step or two back. The influx of talent makes many of these players look like they've dropped more than they have, but the rather disastrous 2015 draft, as well as 2014 and 2013 drafts that lacked depth, and the failure to convert their increased international spending into top- (or even middle-) level prospects were very likely the determining factor in Hahn's choice of direction. The White Sox now have arguably unrivaled elite talent in their system but the depth remains shallow with a lot riding on the most recent draft class.
1. Yoan Moncada
2016 MiLB line - Salem Red Sox (A+)/Portland Sea Dogs (AA): .294/.407/.511 in 491 PA. .411 wOBA. 14.7% BB, 25.3% K. 45-for-57 in stolen bases.
2016 MLB line - Boston Red Sox: .211/.250/.263 in 20 PA. .228 wOBA. 5% BB, 60% K. 0 stolen bases.
2016 AFL line - Peoria Saguaros: .292/.370/.485 in 27 PA. .382 wOBA. 11.1% BB, 37% K. 1-for-1 in stolen bases.
Last year's ranking: NA Midseason: NA
The clear No. 1 here and, arguably, the No. 1 prospect in baseball. The 21-year-old is about as close to a five- tool prospect as you'll find. The switch-hitter's speed is elite and, with some advances in technique and instincts, he could regularly put up around 40 steals a year early in his career. Defensively, he profiles as average to above-average at second base and, given some reps, third base, where his electric arm might have more use.
With the bat, he'll certainly hit for power. The biggest question is his hit tool, particularly from the right side. He kept the strikeouts under control in the first half of 2016 (21.1 percent at Salem) but, when promoted to Double-A, the wheels came off (30.9 percent at Portland). And it continued in the majors and in the Arizona Fall League. He has the speed and power to carry a higher-than-average strikeout rate, but not a rate approaching 30 percent. Most observers seem to think that he has the aptitude to increase both his pitch recognition and strike zone recognition to where he's a high average/high OBP/high slugging hitter. Are they right? I dunno.
There's been talk about moving him to the outfield, but I think it's best to play him at second base, the position he's played for almost all of his professional career, and let him focus on improving his offense. The White Sox intend to place Moncada in Charlotte to start the year, and I wonder a bit whether this may be another case of pushing a prospect too quickly. He logged just 207 plate appearances in Double-A to go with 20 in the majors and 27 in the AFL. It's important to remember that he had a more than yearlong break between his last game in Cuba and debuting in the US. It also generally takes longer for a switch-hitter to develop at the plate, particularly from the less-used right side, and Moncada appears to be no exception. Given the breadth of his tools, he's a comparatively lower risk to be a bust and the makings are there of a truly elite player.
Long-term role: Star-level second baseman. ETA: Already arrived but mid-2017 for good.
2. Lucas Giolito
2016 MiLB line - Hagerstown Suns (A)/Harrisburg Senators (AA)/Syracuse Chiefs (AAA): 22 G, 115.1 IP, 104 H, 44 BB, 116 K. 9% BB, 25.9% K.
2016 MLB line - Washington Nationals: 6 G/4 GS, 21.1 IP, 26 H, 12 BB, 11 K. 11.9% BB, 10.9% K.
Last year's ranking: NA Midseason: NA
He seems to me to be the clear top pitching prospect in the organization. The righty's got three pitches that could all be above-average. His heat is probably the surest bet and it averaged 94 mph with the Nationals. His 12-6 curve has the most potential to be a true plus pitch. And when he's right, his changeup comes from the same arm slot as his fastball and shows good movement and a nice 10 mph separation from his fastball.
Last season, though, Giolito wasn't right. He says that the Nats tinkered with his mechanics. The result seems to have been decreased command and, perhaps, a missing tick or two on his fastball. Tall pitchers -- Giolito is 6'6" - can get into trouble if they're not using their height to create a good downward angle. The 22-year-old says he was throwing across his body, which suggests he was falling off toward third base. The White Sox, who obviously have had success with some tall pitchers, are trying to get him back to staying upright and on a more direct line to the plate. Will it work? Who knows!
What I do know is that he has all the makings of an above-average starter. Even if he cleans up his mechanics, I'm not sure that his command will improve enough to become the truly elite starter many had him tabbed as. The thing to watch over the next couple years is whether he can consistently throw his curve for strikes or if it ends up being more of just a chase pitch. If he can toggle at will between dropping it into the zone and wiping it out in the dirt, he could be a really good one.
Long-term role: Above-average starting pitcher. ETA: Already arrived but for good in mid-June.
3. Michael Kopech
2016 MiLB line - Lowell Spinners (A-)/Salem Red Sox (A+): 12 G, 56.1 IP, 29 H, 33 BB, 86 K. 14.7% BB, 38.2% K.
2016 AFL line - Peoria Saguaros: 6 G, 22.1 IP, 18 H, 8 BB, 26 K. 9.1% BB, 29.6% K.
Last year's ranking: NA Midseason: NA
When I see Kopech ranked much higher than Giolito, I think it's another one of those situations where people are getting a little too cute. There's projecting and there's wishcasting. I'm pretty tools-whoresy but there's a whole lot of stuff you have to believe will happen to get ahead of a guy who already has made substantial progress towards a pretty high ceiling.
All that said, Kopech does indeed have the higher ceiling. His calling card is a four-seamer that reaches 100+ MPH and sits upper 90s. He has a power slider that shows a nice break and is upper 80s. He throws a circle change and it's low 90s; I'm not really sure what to think about that but it seems pretty below-average right now. That's a pretty unique repertoire and naturally draws comparisons to the only major leaguer who has something like it. While he does have makeup issues that suggest immaturity -- a PED suspension and a broken hand from fighting a teammate -- there aren't any doubts about his competitiveness.
The biggest issue he needs to overcome is a lack of control. You can chuck a baseball at triple digits in the general direction of home plate and A-ball hitters are going to swing and miss. As you move further up the ladder, though, you need to control it and put it in and around the strike zone. He probably won't ever have a great idea where it's going -- the command profile is not that promising -- but he did show some more refined control in the AFL.
Another issue is a simple lack of innings. His PED suspension limited him to 65 IP in Low-A in 2015 (though he was, of course, throwing before that in extended spring training) and his hand injury only allowed him to increase his innings in 2016 to 78⅔. Kopech has the build of a starting pitcher but he doesn't have the experience of consistently pitching beyond five innings per start, let alone pitching anywhere near a starter's season workload.
He's apparently going to Birmingham and a steadier stream of advanced hitters is just what he needs developmentally. There's a lot of risk in his profile and, for me at least, it's hard to say right now with his thin track record whether he can stick as a starter.
Long-term role: Starting pitcher/high leverage reliever. ETA: Late 2017.
4. Reynaldo Lopez
2016 MiLB line - Harrisburg/Syracuse: 19 G, 109.1 IP, 90 H, 35 BB, 126 K. 7.6% BB, 27.5% K.
2016 MLB line - Washington: 11 G, 6 GS, 44 IP, 47 H, 22 BB, 42 K. 11% BB, 20.9% K.
Last year's ranking: NA Midseason: NA
The Nationals initially brought Lopez along slowly, but in 2016 the righty rocketed from Double-A to the majors. After first using him as a starter, the Nats moved him to the bullpen in September where he worked multi-inning stints. I don't have really amazing insights about him at this point. Essentially it boils down to whether the 23-year-old can translate his solid-command-and-control minor league profile to the big leagues. If he can do that, he can be an average starter. If he can't, the bullpen beckons.
His four-seam is a plus pitch with decent arm-side run, and he comfortably sat around 96-97 mph with it in his major league starts. He flashes an upper-70s curve with plus potential but has trouble consistently locating it, though it's been a useful weapon against left-handed hitters. His changeup is mediocre, although has a nice 10 mph separation from his fastball. The main issue appears to be a tendency to get a bit sloppy with his mechanics, most notably a leaky front shoulder, and people seem to think fixing that will sufficiently improve his command to be a starter. Is that all there is to it? I dunno.
He's also been tagged with the durability concerns almost automatically put on any pitcher below 6'1". Missing almost all of 2013 with a sore arm (described as "bone weakness", whatever that is) certainly didn't help but he's steadily increased his innings without issue, culminating in 153⅓ last season. His build isn't ideal but he looks strong enough to me to handle a starter's workload. While he lacks the upside of the pitchers around him on this list, he seems to me the likeliest of the group to be some kind of useful major league contributor.
Long-term role: Average-ish starting pitcher. ETA: Already arrived but for good in mid-June.
5. Alec Hansen
2016 MiLB line - AZL White Sox/Great Falls/Kannapolis: 12 G, 54.2 IP, 24 H, 20 BB, 81 K. 9.7% BB, 39.3% K.
Last year's ranking: NA Midseason: NR
This is one that may raise the eyebrows of long-time readers who know that I'm reticent to highly rank recent non-elite draftees. When I first started collecting my thoughts on the farm during the offseason -- before the massive influx of elite talents -- I tried to wrap my arms around a system that appeared (to me) to not have a clear top prospect and was pretty meh depth-wise. In a departure from how I usually do things, I decided to sort out the top of the list first rather than sorting out the contenders for the ten.
I don't really follow draft prospects. When there's a less than 1-in-30 chance a guy will end up on the White Sox, I don't waste my attention. But I knew about Hansen because he was a guy talked about as a top pick, and for obvious reasons. Excellent raw stuff. Command was shaky but had shown significant improvement in his sophomore year as he transitioned to starter. Played in a big-time conference. Big frame. Looks like a starting pitcher. Good make-up. A further step forward seemed like a pretty safe bet.
Instead, the tall righty took a couple steps back as his command abandoned him and he was relegated to the bullpen for a spell. The White Sox took a bit of a flyer on him with their third pick after drafting the pretty safe Zack Burdi. It almost immediately looked like a steal.
As mentioned, one major thing the White Sox do well is developing pitchers. And one major aspect of that development is getting pitchers to "stay tall", which can be code for a few things. In the case of Hansen, it essentially meant staying over the rubber longer, staying in line with straighter posture towards home plate and breaking his hands earlier, particularly from the wind-up. The results were dramatic and near-instantaneous. After his promotion to Great Falls, his walk rate the rest of the season was 8.8%. Now able to set hitters up with mid-90s fastballs with life in the zone, he could knock them down with either his mid-80s slider or his upper-70s curve out of it. I think the slider is the more projectable pitch, as the curve isn't as biting as I like to see. As he rarely used a changeup in college, that pitch is currently decidedly below-average.
There are a few obvious red flags. First, 6'7" pitchers having difficulty with mechanics is a familiar story and usually does not end with an above-average starter living happily ever after (though as mentioned with Giolito, the White Sox have had success with it). Also, a pitcher from a big-time college conference beating up on rookie leagues is not particularly impressive, even given his poor junior year. I did, however, see video from his two Low-A starts which, even considering that the hitter acumen late in the season is not what it is earlier, I found impressive.
Finally, his history of elbow issues do give me some pause. Undoubtedly, the White Sox do a good job of keeping pitchers healthy and consistent mechanics are a big piece of that puzzle. Still, past elbow issues beget future elbow issues and I fully expect them to reappear. The question is how debilitating they'll be. Despite those big concerns, there is massive upside here that I cannot ignore. The 22-year-old has top-of-the-rotation talent and the White Sox appear to have begun unlocking it. My expectation is that he'll be a very fast mover in 2017 and, assuming his innings total don't get out of control, we'll see him at the major league level in September.
Long-term role: Starting pitcher. ETA: Late 2017.
Second half of the list goes up tomorrow.