While the Charlotte Knights have that new prospect smell, Birmingham could benefit from the return of familiar faces. It’s a hard place to hit, which makes struggles understandable, at least to a certain extent.
Michael Kopech headlined the Barons’ press release, as he’s the one top-100 prospect starting the season in Birmingham. He’s making his Double-A debut after a career-high 79 innings between High-A and the Arizona Fall League, so the Sox are likely to put a governor on a steep ascent. Spencer Adams made the innings jump last year, throwing 163 as a 20-year-old, including 55 at Birmingham. He posted a respectable 3.90 ERA in his first attempt at Double-A, but he struck out just 26 batters. He fills up the strike zone, but he’s a little short on power.
Jordan Guerrero made 25 starts in Birmingham at age 22 after a breakout season in A-ball, but the lefty found it harder to throw strikes at Double-A. His walk rate jumped from 5.6 percent to 12.2 percent, which is why his ERA rose from 3.08 in 2015 to 4.83 in 2016. Thad Lowry is a year older than Adams, but his season follows the same storyline. Matt Cooper will get a chance to start at Birmingham after being relegated to bullpen duties upon a promotion last season. That might have been a way to control his innings, as he racked up a ton of innings and strikeouts at Winston-Salem during the first half.
Jordan Stephens is on the roster after striking out 155 batters over 141 innings in Winston-Salem last year, but he’s starting the season on the disabled list.
Double-A relievers have usually hit a ceiling of some sort, but Jace Fry is an exception. The White Sox drafted him in the third round of the 2014 draft, but his career was interrupted by a second Tommy John surgery that cost him half of 2015 and all of 2016. He’ll make his Double-A debut as a reliever in Birmingham, and hopefully everybody will get to see what he can do after a full season of work. Will Lamb and Colton Turner can also pitch their way into the crowded potential second lefty mix we talked about in the Charlotte preview.
Alfredo Gonzalez is the unchallenged starter — for now — and it’s worth giving him some run. He posted a .296/.358/.341 line over 152 plate appearances at Birmingham in 2016, and he had the best framing numbers in the White Sox organization. He’s 24, which is older for a true prospect, but not out of “late bloomer” range. Brett Austin will be backing him up at the start of the year. He’s 24, but has not yet played at Double-A, and he hit .205 at Winston-Salem last year.
Birmingham’s infield from 2016 returns largely intact, for varying reasons. Jake Peter doesn’t need to repeat the level, as he hit .304/.378/.407 over 130 games last year, but he’s crowded out of second and third base by Yoan Moncada and Nicky Delmonico. Eddy Alvarez didn’t quite match Peter on the whole (.263/.339/.367 over 104 games at Double-A), but he hit .311 over his last 50 games at the level. He earned a promotion to Charlotte in mid-August, and it’d be nice to see him get back there shortly.
Trey Michalczewski, on the other hand, could use another go-around with the Barons. he hit .226/.314/.363 with 153 strikeouts over 134 games. On the other hand, his 2016 splits suggest he’d rather be anywhere else:
- Home: .216/.306/.332
- Road: .256/.341/.462
The switch-hitter had a similar gap between his right- and left-handed hitting last year. He was far better as a lefty, with an OPS clearing .800.
Nick Basto will get a lot of starts at first base, and the fifth-round pick finally showed some hitting skills for the first time last year at Winston-Salem. He didn’t fare so well in 22 games at Double-A, but he just turned 23.
The Barons only have three outfielders listed on the roster -- Mason Robbins, Hunter Jones and Courtney Hawkins. The first two are organization players, and Hawkins looks like he wears that label now, too. However, Basto and Peter spent significant time in the outfield last year, so they might get some reps in order to open up reps in the infield for, say, a defensive specialist.
Who could join the party?
Zack Collins is the catcher who wasn’t named. His bat will probably demand more advanced pitching soon, but it’s worth seeing just what Gonzalez can do for a month before making the next depth-chart decision. Maybe Gonzalez goes up, maybe they split time. Otherwise, outside of some collegiate relievers in Winston-Salem, though, it’d be a pleasant if anybody else knocked down the door over the first couple of months.