The White Sox have eight players on the roster of the Glendale Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League. The AFL serves as a showcase of sorts, where all 30 MLB teams send a handful of prospects to get in some fall reps against enhanced competition. This season, play begins on October 8th.
The players are typically (but not always) on the higher end of the prospect spectrum for their given team, and usually have played AA or above (or at least Advanced A ball). Teams select players to go for a variety of reasons: some may have missed time during the season and need the work, others are fringey and need to be pushed to show their true colors, and yet others are being showcased for others to see. Each team takes a different approach.
Let's take a look at each player the White Sox are sending, why they may have been given a slot, and what to watch for in their play.
- Marcus Semien had possibly the most impressive season of any minor leaguer in the Sox system, as evidenced by his presence on Baseball America's Minor League All Star Team. The just-turned 23-year old went from AA Birmingham (where he was the Southern League MVP, and walked more than he struck out), to AAA Charlotte (where he finished his brief stint by going 8 for his last 19), to the White Sox (where he hit .261 but also struck out in 22 of his 71 PA). Semien is in the AFL for likely the same reason he got a September call-up: the Sox are seriously considering him for a role on the 2014 club, and they want him to finish the job of convincing them he's ready. Watch where Marcus plays on the infield in Arizona - he's played all three skill infield positions this season, and it isn't clear where the Sox want him to ultimately land. The Sox may tip their hand here.
- Second baseman Micah Johnson went three levels as well, tearing up SAL pitching with a .952 OPS at Kannapolis for 77 games, before being promoted to High A Winston-Salem (a less spectacilar .670 OPS but still held his own), and then to AA Birmingham just before their playoffs and Southern League Championship (posted a .367/.467/.474 line). Oh and, by the way, he led all of Minor League Baseball in stolen bases (84), which doesn't even include his 7-for-7 performance in the post-season. Micah is going to the AFL because the White Sox see a potential leadoff hitter in the future, and they want him challenged and tuned up quickly so that he can make an impact as soon as possible. Watch Johnson's defense (where he had his struggles this season), and his ability to get on base consistently, as the best indicators of how he's doing against tough competition.
- Acquired from Boston in the Matt Thornton trade, outfielder Brandon Jacobs is in some ways from the same mold as some other toolsy outfielders in the Sox system (i.e. Trayce Thompson): a combination of athleticism, speed and power, but with some big question marks (in this case, defense and contact). The 22 year old didn't post great numbers in his stint at AA Birmingham (.237/.291/.327), but his tools still indicate potential upside. The Sox want this relatively raw hitter to get in more at bats against tough competition, in order to accelerate his learning curve. Watch Brandon's contact rate and power numbers to see how he's adjusting.
- To say Jared Mitchell had a disappointing 2013 would be an understatement, and it is a bit of a surprise he was added to the AFL. Defensively he still gets high marks, and he certainly needs the work if he is going to develop into a MLB ballplayer. But in a season pock-marked with more injuries, Mitchell posted a .167/.293/.257 line in 356 PA across AA and AAA, struck out 34.6% of the time, and only stole 17 bases. The former 1st round pick is barely clinging to fringe status at this point. He needs to show some contact ability in the AFL to give the Sox any hope of seeing him in the majors. His 40 man roster spot is in significant jeopardy.
- RHP Chris Bassitt had a breakout 2013, going from a fringe bullpen arm old for his level to a legit starting prospect in AA. Across A+ and AA, he posted a 3.08 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, .226 AvgA and was actually better against the higher level competition for Birmingham (this doesn't even count his very strong post-season appearances). He's over 160 IP now, including his playoff games, so one of the key things to watch for is how his arm handles approaching 180+ innings in a season after throwing just 91 in 2012. If he can maintain strength, and get relatively elite minors hitters out in the AFL, he looks like a very nice SP prospect going into 2014.
- LHP Charlie Leesman has always been a bit of an enigma. His stuff has never been considered special, and has battled on and off control issues. But he can hit mid-90's at times with the fastball, he's always induced ground balls at a good rate, and was especially tough on lefties this year (.192 AvgA). Despite starting most of his career, he's likely being groomed as a LOOGY or middle reliever. Leesman falls in the fringe category, and the team likely wants him to get further work against tough hitters, and show them if he's got more to offer than what his 5 games with the MLB team showed this season (15 hits and 15 walks against 10 K in 13.1 IP). Watch for how he handles left handed batters, and what his walk rate looks like. He'll be 27 in 2014, so it is decision time for the Sox on Charlie.
- Talking with a scout about RHP Kevin Vance, the impression was given that reports on his stuff are mixed, with some seeing a future MLB reliever and others seeing nothing to rave about. At AA this season he had an impressive strike out rate (11 K/9) and kept bats in check (.213 AvgA), as a somewhat young-for-level 22-23 year old. But he also walked a few too many (4.7 BB/9), and his core results (3.91 ERA, 1.32 WHIP) were pedestrian as a result. He's still young and doesn't need 40-man protection yet, so his AFL appearance is mostly a test: how does he handle relatively advanced hitters? Keep an eye on his walk rate, and to see if he can keep his fly ball rate down.
- RHP Stephen McCray wasn't even on the fringe of the prospect radar before this season, but he posted a 3.25 ERA in 22 starts with Birmingham before earning a promotion to Charlotte. He got hit around in 6 AAA games (8.10 ERA, 2.03 WHIP, .333 AvgA), and his peripherals have never been strong (81 K, 56 BB in 132.1 IP this year). With the promotion to AAA and his AFL bid, the Sox obviously see something there. He's about to turn 26 and will need to be on the 40 man roster to be protected from the Rule V draft. Watch to see if he can strike out a few more hitters than he has previously.
We will update the FS Twitter account (@FutureSox) with daily results for the Sox players who see action that day. And we'll post a recap at the end of the AFL season.