The Pioneer League’s 2017 season opened play on Monday, and the Great Falls Voyagers unveiled a roster that’s still likely subject to change as last week’s draft picks get signed into the organization.
It’s a popular landing spot for college players. Last year, collegiate picks like Jameson Fisher, Joel Booker, Bernardo Flores and Jake Elliott topped out in Montana during their pro debuts.
This time around, at least four second-day picks will start their careers in Great Falls. Jake Burger and Gavin Sheets have yet to sign, and Lincoln Henzman, Kade McClure and Evan Skoug are being held up by the College World Series. Once they’re in the fold, the complexion of the lowest levels could change. For the time being, here are some of the notable names:
*Tyler Johnson is a fifth-round pick out of South Carolina who closed games for the Gamecocks. He has the typical fastball-slider combination with no real third pitch, and while there was talk about the White Sox wanting to look at him as a starter, he made his first appearance in relief.
*J.B. Olson, a 10th-rounder, joins Alec Hansen and Jake Elliott as an Oklahoma Sooner on a low-level White Sox affiliate’s pitching staff. He closed some for the Sooners and has what appears to be a ROOGY profile with a sidewinding delivery.
*Chris Comito fared well with the Voyagers last season, going 8-1 with a 3.43 ERA and 89 strikeouts to 15 walks over 86 2⁄3 innings, so it wouldn’t seem like the White Sox’ 15th round prep pick out of Iowa needs to spend much more time here.
*Other 2017 draft picks: Will Kincanon (11th round), Blake Battenfield (17th round), Joe Mockbee (29th round) and Parker Rigler (31st round).
*Franklin Reyes is the youngest player on the Great Falls roster, just 18 years old and won’t turn 19 until September. The Dominican started his pro career in the Arizona Rookie League after signing with the White Sox for $1.5 million and struck out 71 times to just five walks over 217 plate appearances. As you might expect, he didn’t hit well when he made contact (.171/.189/.251). He’s a big guy who is apparently already confined to first base, so he’ll have to hit. Based on this assignment, the White Sox might be more optimistic than the numbers indicate.
*Luis Curbelo was drafted in the sixth round back in 2016, and the White Sox signed him away from a commitment to the University of Miami by going well over slot. He didn’t set the Arizona Rookie League on fire last year (.226/.303/.323), but his plate discipline numbers were encouraging. He played more second base in 2016, but he made his 2017 debut at shortstop. If he sticks at any middle infield position, he figures to be a bat-first one.
*Luis Gonzalez is, for the time being, the highest draft pick playing in Great Falls. The White Sox picked him out of New Mexico on the third round, and the center fielder should be a quick study in the Pioneer League given his collegiate performance.
*Craig Dedelow was selected out of Indiana in the ninth round, where he hit .258/.336/.563 with 19 dingers during his senior season as part of the White Sox’ pow-pow-power approach to this year’s draft.
*Carlos Perez is the most interesting of a catching group that also includes Nate Nolan and Jacob Cooper, mostly because he never strikes out. He fanned just four times over 123 plate appearances split between Arizona, Great Falls and Kannapolis. He didn’t hit much (.198/.218/.259), and now that he’s 20, he’ll probably need to start now, assuming he starts. Nolan handled the opener, and Cooper figures to get some time, as he hit .248/.315/.407 in the AZL as a 20-year-old drafted out of JuCo in the 20th round.
*Felix Mercedes signed out of the Dominican for $250,000 back in 2014, and he’s shown a good eye during the start of his pro career, with a .353 OBP over two seasons in the Arizona Rookie League. He showed better bat-to-ball skills when repeating the level, raising his average from .209 to .276. Now he has to find a position. He played third base in 2015, first base in 2016, and now he’s listed as an outfielder.
*Hanleth Otano came to the White Sox from the Dominican after signing for $550,000 in 2012, but the power hasn’t materalized thus far in 891 plate appearances, 80 percent of which have taken place in the Dominican Summer League. He turns 21 next month.
*Other 2017 draft picks: Tate Blackman (13th round), Tyler Frost (15th round) and Times Union 2013 Player of the Year Justin Yurchak (12th round).