Coming into 2021, the White Sox had what was generally considered a middle-tier farm system. There was exceptional talent at the top that could match most any other franchise, but a very steep drop after which was going to require a lot of actual development and results from the second tier.
Now that Andrew Vaughn, Michael Kopech, Nick Madrigal, and Garrett Crochet have all graduated from prospect status (and, in the case of Madrigal, been traded), we are left with something of a barren wasteland.
As of now, the White Sox are arguably the only team that does not have a single prospect with Top 100 status, and it might not be a stretch to say none of their prospects even enter Top 150 status. Heck, even Top 200 from their best prospect might be something of a stretch. Their best chances at replenishing the top tier of talent have all fallen flat so far this season. Now, with plenty more minor league baseball left to play still, obviously some narratives can change, but some of the failures have been so overwhelming that it might take the rest of the season just for some to regain most of the ground they’ve lost.
Additionally, while the White Sox had a very good draft, they did not add much in the way of immediate impact value to the system. Top picks Colson Montgomery and Wes Kath both have long developmental paths ahead of them, and while there is upside in both, they’ll probably need to show results in at least Low-A before potential trade partners (and fans) start buying in. Likewise, their collegiate picks have a very short period to establish their value before they age beyond where they are much valued as assets.
That said, there are absolutely some names worth watching in the system still. Some have already begun contributing to the team, some are likely to within the next year, and some, well, if they aren’t contributing soon, it means they’re probably toast. So let’s dive in and see!
TOP GUN: JOSÉ RODRÍGUEZ
At the outset of the season I thought it was going to be a three-horse race among Jared Kelley, Matthew Thompson, and Yoelqui Céspedes. Unfortunately, none of the three has distinguished himself in any way, leaving semi-sleeper prospect Rodríguez to take the prize. While not a nobody prospect (most lists I’ve seen ranked him clearly in the Top 20 before the season), he definitely was at a point where he needed to put up real numbers and not simply flash potential in order to raise his stock. While the numbers don’t exactly pop off the page (.278/.323/.443 as of this writing), Rodríguez has been fairly consistent around that performance level all season, without significant peaks and valleys. And, in the context of a shortstop in Low-A who only just turned 20 years old in May, that’s pretty impressive. Unlike almost all of his fellow prospects, Rodríguez is well ahead of the curve, and is not only probably their most valuable prospect right now, but one who can afford to hit a snag or two in his development and still be on a solid timeline to an MLB debut.
(NOT) THE PRINCE WHO WAS PROMISED: JARED KELLEY
Kelley was, at the outset of the season, presumed to be the next ruler of our prospect lists. Considered a first round talent on par with instant-success story Garrett Crochet with almost unmatched upside, Kelley was universally considered their No. 5 prospect behind the big four, with a fastball/changeup combo that was going to allow him to dominate A-ball hitters in the first step of his rapid rise through the system. Instead, Kelley was absolutely rocked before suffering a minor injury that kept him out of action in June. Returning in July, he was sent to the Arizona Complex League, where he did not fare any better. Nonetheless, he was brought back to Kanny only to again be rocked in his first two appearances. While 19 strikeouts in 15 2⁄3 IP is encouraging, the 19 walks are even more discouraging. Opponents are posting a .933 OPS against Kelley, and he has not exceeded three innings in any outing, which belies the pedigree he came into the league with. Still only 19 years old, there is plenty of time for Kelley to harness his arsenal against professional competition, but there’s no denying his stock has taken a hit.
NAME-BRAND TALENT: YOELQUI CÉSPEDES
While Céspedes has not had the meteoric impact some fans were projecting, he has not been an outright disappointment. Showing the rawness that should be expected of a player making his professional debut Stateside after years on the shelf (a product of his fleeing Cuba), he hasn’t given anybody reason to doubt the tools or the potential. The biggest issue for Céspedes was always that he was starting out as an older prospect, which gave him less time to actualize on his potential before his stock started to drop. Think about it this way: José Rodríguez has three years to advance one level to be in the position Céspedes is in right now. Still, anybody hoping to see Céspedes as the 2022 (or even 2023) right fielder really needs to dial back expectations. He’s currently hitting well enough in High-A, but approaching age 24 it’s more of the “expected” variety than anything else. Also, while Céspedes’ triple slash is decent across the board, the underlying peripherals are concerning. He strikes out nearly a third of the time and his walk rate is a pathetic 3.3%, which makes Juan Uribe look like Joey Votto. However, the quality of the contact Céspedes does make has been good enough to keep him productive, and given how rusty he is, the aggressiveness could just be a function of him trying to find his groove. The talent is still there, and while I expect a slow rise through the system, I would not put it beyond him to just hit a switch and force the issue out of nowhere.
THE LOST BOYS: MATTHEW THOMPSON AND ANDREW DALQUIST
Recent prep picks with solid upside, Thompson and Dalquist were, like so many others, victims of the lost 2020 season. The 2019 second and third round picks represented a refreshing change in draft strategy, as the White Sox began targeting younger talent with higher upside rather than raiding the college ranks for maxed-out players with little to no room to develop. Expectations were high as the two made their affiliated debuts at Kannapolis behind Kelley in what was expected to be a deadly rotation, with some projecting Thompson as a sleeper Top 100 candidate. Instead, both suffered falls of their own, with Thompson getting injured/demoted/promoted like Kelley, while Dalquist has mixed a handful of disaster outings in among a series of adequate-not-dominant ones. To his credit, Dalquist has hung in there healthy all season and increased his workload steadily, which is not bad coming from a 20-year-old in Low-A. As for Thompson, he’s coming off his best outings of the season. So look for them to build from there as they get deeper into their debuts in full-season affiliated baseball.
HE GOT OUR HOPES UP: JONATHAN STIEVER
After a dominant 2019 season that saw the velocity on his rising fastball increase, Stiever shot through the minor league ranks and into conversations alongside Dane Dunning as a legitimate part of the team’s starting pitching depth. Unfortunately, it was not to last, as the velocity gains disappeared and Stiever was made to look decidedly mortal in his few MLB appearances to date. While by no means out of the picture, he has not been able to keep up steady performances even in Triple-A, dropping him from sleeper Top 100 candidate to fringe sixth or seventh starter.
WAIVER BAIT: BLAKE RUTHERFORD
In case you didn’t already think so, it’s probably about time to acknowledge that the Kahnle/Robertson/Frazier trade was a complete bust. The last remaining player received in that trade, Rutherford never developed the game power needed to make good on his former Top 100 status, and the rest of his profile has begun to crater as well. Scuffling most of the season in Triple-A as a 24-year-old who has never really raked across his minor league career makes it likely he will not survive the next 40-man shuffle, though some rebuilding team may yet decide to snatch him for their roster in the hopes of striking gold.
WHO THA FOOK IS HE? NORGE VERA
Despite signing in February, we still have basically no idea what Vera is. Brought in with a significant amount of hype given his $1.5 million signing bonus, Vera has a solid reputation but basically nothing in terms of raw results to hang his hat on. Still not yet 21, he has a few years to show how real the hype is, but until then, his value is more theoretical than anything, as he is currently rostered but inactive on the lowest rung of the system, the DSL.
EARLY RETURNS: DJ GLADNEY AND BRYAN RAMOS
Kannapolis began the season with a bevy of talented 19-year-olds on somewhat aggressive assignments, but while the more heralded Benyamin Bailey was completely overwhelmed in High-A, fellow teenagers Gladney and Ramos have managed to hold their own. Gladney is something of a Micker Adolfo type, though without the extremes in raw power and with an even worse K rate. However, Gladney has managed to show off enough plate discipline to remain a name to watch. Ramos, however, has not only held his own, but done so with far fewer red flags. His K and BB rates are respectable and then some, and despite his youth he has been one of the more productive members of the team, currently flirting with a possible 20-20 season. And he is doing so while absorbing a new position of second base (he, like Gladney, is a natural 3B). If Ramos can maintain or even improve upon his current rate stats, his stock will go way up.
PRINT THEIR DIPLOMAS: JAKE BURGER AND GAVIN SHEETS
I owe an apology to Burger, a player who I’d completely given up on and considered a waste of time even ranking on prospect lists. Even though I was very impressed by the sort of shape he’d returned in, I still considered the time he spent on the shelf crippling, and his chances in Charlotte minimal. He made me look pretty stupid, and the team is all the better for it. While his defense is still very rusty, the bat looks like it’s gonna play after all. In contrast, I was one of the few people buying Sheets stock for the last few years, as I always believed in the quality of the swing and figured the raw power would eventually show up enough to play. I don’t think he’s a solution for right field, but I do think he can be a quality hitter for years to come.
RAW TOOLS: BENYAMIN BAILEY
Bailey may have one of the more impressive ceilings in the entire system, but to say he was outmatched in Low-A would be an understatement. Still, at his age failure is more an expectation than a real problem, and he has another year or two to conquer the level before he starts becoming a real concern.
UP THE MIDDLE TALENT: YOLBERT SÁNCHEZ, LENYN SOSA, JAMES BEARD
Playing a premium position will carry a prospect further than their bat might otherwise justify, and keeps their value high because of the floor/ceiling potential. Sánchez was a bit long in the tooth for a typical international signing, but his glove is considered MLB-ready right now, while his bat has been a bit of a pleasant surprise, earning him a nice promotion to Birmingham recently. Sosa is nipping at Sánchez’s heels, though with a bit more of a suspect glove and a Tim Anderson-esque walk rate. Beard has screaming speed that will carry him through the system, though we’ve seen the limits of that profile before (Jacob May, Micah Johnson). Still, an elite tool is an elite tool, and Beard has plenty of time to crawl his way through the affiliates to round out another skill that can make him a legitimate contributor.
GIVE THE LIST A LITTLE ZAPATA BUTTER: MICKER ADOLFO
Adolfo’s been around for so long but has been seen so little, it’s easy to forget how awesome his raw power is. Already having set his professional high for home runs and on track for a 30+ homer season, the power is so good it is carrying a profile otherwise almost devoid of positives. Adolfo strikes out well over a third of the time, he doesn’t walk at a rate that would make him a real three-true-outcomes type, and his defense is not an asset. But man, when he connects, the ball looks destined for orbit. While Adolfo earned a promotion out of Birmingham to the hitter-friendlier confines of Charlotte, it isn’t liable to count for much if pitchers continue to exploit his aggressive approach and poor contact skills. Adolfo’s the sort of guy who has such extremes that it’s hard to believe in him being an MLB stalwart, but if everything clicks for even so much as a single season the returns will be extraordinary.
THE DARK HORSE: ROMY GONZÁLEZ
I could put González in the same category as Norge Vera and he would fit just as well. A relative unknown, especially after the lost COVID season, the former 18th round pick had never really distinguished himself outside of a good showing in rookie ball in his draft year. However, when a 24-year-old shortstop is maintaining an OPS of more than .800 in Birmingham, one has to stop and take notice. And keep in mind, his 2019 season was spent all over the field, but as a primary left fielder, so like Ramos, González has stepped up production while also attempting to master a new position, and a challenging one at that. Seen by some as more of a utilityman than an everyday shortstop, if González keeps hitting like he has he’s liable to give fellow late-rounder Danny Mendick some competition as the heir apparent to Leury García.
TROOPER GALACTUS’ VERY NON-SCIENTIFIC TOP-10
1 - JOSÉ RODRÍGUEZ
2 - YOELQUI CÉSPEDES
3 - COLSON MONTGOMERY
4 - MATTHEW THOMPSON
5 - ANDREW DALQUIST
6 - JARED KELLEY
7 - MICKER ADOLFO
8 - BRYAN RAMOS
9 - NORGE VERA
10 - ROMY GONZÁLEZ
I’m a sucker for young players who perform well at a level occupied by older, more experienced players — particularly if they play a premium position. Rodríguez deserves the top spot, as I believe there is still untapped potential and he could spend the next three years sputtering his way through Kannapolis to Winston-Salem and be in basically the same position that Céspedes is in now. He’s one of their few prospects ahead of the aging curve. Similarly, Ramos is performing beyond his years and is poised to break into the Top 5.
As for Céspedes, I still consider him second just because much of what he’s struggled with was to be expected. The tools and talent are still for real, and if/when things start to click for him, he will move very quickly. Similarly, while Adolfo has a shorter leash in terms of development path remaining, there’s no denying there is major league makeup there.
The three prep pitchers might have struggled out of the gate, but are still all noteworthy prospects. Some might consider Kelley falling from presumed No. 1 to out of the Top 5 a bit harsh, but let’s face it, he’s been brutalized this season and he can’t find the strike zone. If he’d even managed a mediocre line similar to Dalquist’s I’d have considered him for the Top 3, but I can’t ignore a walk rate reminiscent of the battered Alec Hansen. As for Vera, while his lack of performance prevents him from being ranked higher, his lack of failure keeps his hype train on the tracks for the time being. The same could be said of Montgomery.
I gave González the final spot in recognition of his achievements, and the understanding that Burger and Sheets (who would both be on this list otherwise) are liable to not be eligible for prospect lists soon. I did consider second round pick Wes Kath for that spot, as there isn’t necessarily a whole lot of ground between him and Montgomery (they were generally ranked 20-30 spots apart before the draft). But Montgomery has middle infield potential that Kath does not seem to, placing more pressure on Kath’s bat to carry him, and he’s no more heralded as a hitter than Montgomery. Still, if Kath shows even the slightest capability to hang against professional pitchers, he will break into my list pretty quickly.
Bottom line: this is one of the worst, if not THE worst farm system in baseball right now. There is no premium talent, and I’d hazard to guess that FanGraphs may not consider the White Sox to have even so much as a 45-grade talent (something most systems feature in three or more players) if they dial back Kelley’s outlook. Still, several players have taken solid steps forward, and I’d be surprised if Montgomery doesn’t get a solid initial ranking from most pundits. But whatever Hahn’s plans for 2022 are, they’d best involve spending money, because elite returns are not liable to come from a trade.