With all the attention on the signing of Jose Dariel Abreu (to the largest international signing to date), the waiting game on Paul Konerko's possible retirement, and calls for trading Adam Dunn, a question goes unasked: are there any first basemen in the Sox minor league system who could play a role in the near future? Dunn's contract is up after 2014, and Konerko is unlikely to be around in 2014 let alone 2015. Keon Barnum is likely three years away, if he gets there at all. Who could potentially fill the offensive gap in the next year or two?
The White Sox have a 1B prospect who posted a .290/.411/.470 line in AA last year, and helped lead the Birmingham Barons to a Southern League championship. In fact he's posted OPS numbers of .831 in rookie ball, .850 in A, .875 in A+, and .881 in AA on his way up, so this is not out of the blue. He's shown advanced plate discipline (nearly as many walks as strikeouts in 2013), has hit 17 or more home runs in each the last three seasons, and even steals a few bases every year.
His name is Dan Black.
So why doesn't Dan show up on organizational top 10 prospect lists? For one thing, conventional prospect analysis says, at age 25 in AA, he was a year or two behind the prototypical college draftee age curve. For another, he plays a position where premium offense is a basic expectation. But what if Paulie isn't around in 2014, and Adam Dunn is traded, say, midseason? If Black continues his trend and rakes in AAA Charlotte in 2014, it isn't too crazy to think he might show up at The Cell to get a look. And at that point, how much does it matter if he's 26 instead of 24?
FutureSox had the opportunity to have a conversation with Dan, who is currently playing for Aguilas Cibaenas in the Dominican Winter League (where he leads his team in home runs and walks, and is 2nd in OPS). Here is Dan talking about the Abreu signing, his hitting approach, and what it's like playing in the DWL...
FutureSox (FS): What is the day-to-day routine like, playing in the Dominican Republic? Both on the field and off.
Dan Black (DB): Day to day routine in the Dominican Republic is not that different from most days that I have had in the U.S. I normally wake up and eat breakfast at the hotel, followed by the gym and then spend some time at the pool. The pool in Oct-Dec is a big change however. Being form Indiana I am used to snow at this time of the year. After the pool I head to the ballpark around 3pm. Around 4 I go to the batting cage to do some tee drills and keep my swing in tune. Then comes our stretching program and batting practice, during which I will take ground balls and pick plays trying to improve my footwork around the bag. After BP we have time to get some food and recharge the batteries for the game. The Dominican games are most times more intense than the average minor league game. Every game matters; making the playoffs is all that matters. It is more like a major league atmosphere or playoff baseball. The games are televised and the entire country takes notice. Have a good game and you are the toast of the town, have a bad game and everyone from bellhops to cab drivers are giving you hitting advice. After the game it is a cold shower (not by choice) and a quick meal. Then head back to the hotel. If it is not too late, and if the hotel wifi is cooporating I try to talk to my friends and family before bed.
FS: Any fun stories to share from your time in the DR so far?
DB: The best story I have so far is not anything wild and crazy. Our first game against our rival team Licey was in their park. The capital, Santo Domingo, 4 million avid baseball fans. They show up in force to see their team face off versus Aguilas. 18-20 thousand fans strong, and everyone has a horn to announce their presence. Very different from the states where anyone with a horn would be escorted out of the park. The on field entertainment is mired with cheerleaders and wild mascot antics, along with music being played the entire game sometimes over the loud speakers, and sometime a band in the crowd. Even after the game had ended thousands of people waited just to get a glimpse of the team as we boarded the bus for our trip back to Santo Domingo. The atmosphere was exhilarating, I had never been part of such a packed stadium. I can only imagine a packed major league stadium!
FS: What was your reaction to the Jose Abreu signing? Do you keep tabs on player movement with the big club, especially at your position?
DB: I found out about the Jose Abreu signing after a game. One of my teammates knew about it and did not tell me because he feared it would mess with my psyche before the game started. Talking with my father about the matter helped me a lot personally. I realized that no one player will keep my from my ultimate goal of the Major Leagues. I am truly happy for Jose. He signed a tremendous contract with a good organization. It doesn't mean that the White Sox do not see value in my abilities, it is just another opportunity to prove my worth to the organization.
I try to not keep up to date with the movement of players from club to club or level to level. I am not a GM, and trying to play out what will happen with promotions or demotions can only drive me crazy. My job is to simply get better each day and prepare to help my major league club win another championship.
FS: Have the White Sox given you a blueprint or any sort of plan for your future? Will we see you in Charlotte next year?
DB: The White Sox have not given me a blueprint of what they plan to do with me. When I have had opportunities to speak with front office personnel they have only had good things to say. They helped guide me into winterball this year in hopes that it would help advance my career. I am sure they will be keeping tabs to see my progress in an advanced level such as the Dominican winter ball league. It should be an interesting offseason for me with rule 5 eligibility and trade rumors due to the Jose Abreu signing. All I am focused on is getting better and preparing for another championship season with one of the White Sox affiliates.
My season in Birmingham has been my favorite place to play thus far. We managed to win the Southern League championship and I will have fond memories of it for the rest of my life. Having said that, Charlotte would be an excellent place to wind up this year. They will have a new park in the heart of downtown Charlotte, and I would love to be there opening day. Where i wind up next season is out of my hands at the moment. The organization will evaluate their players and put me where they see fit. From that point forward I will do my best to improve and advance.
FS: What part of your game are you most proud of, or perhaps feel goes unnoticed?
DB: The part of my game that I am most proud of is not what most would assume. My defense has come along way since signing in 2009. I got drafted having only played a few collegiate games at first base. It was slow going at first, but I have made great strides in all facets of defense. Everything from pick plays to positioning has improved and I hope that the organization has taken notice.
FS: What are you focused on improving?
DB: As of right now I am focusing on improving my consistency. The best major league players are not the ones who go on extreme hot and cold streaks. The best players are consistent and even keel day in and day out. Not just making game to game adjustments, but pitch by pitch adjustments. Being more consistent lets upper management know that you are ready for the next level, and gives them more faith in your abilites along with adding value to you as a player.
FS: Can you describe your hitting approach?
DB: Gary Ward, my hitting coach for the past two seasons has preached hands and the ability to hit the ball to all fields. To go along with him Charles Poe, my low A hitting coach, has helped me understand the importance of being balanced along with using my legs to generate power and strength. Their advice has helped mold my approach in the box. I always look for a fastball and naturally react to off speed pitches. If your body is in the right position you can adjust to breaking balls and still keep a good level swing. Guessing pitches is not part of my approach. When I have tried it in the past I have not been able to lay off pitches that I should not swing at. The ability to take walks has helped my average. It shows the other team that you will not swing at balls out of the zone and makes them bring the ball into a more favorable location.
FS: Have you gotten to speak with any of the major leaguers on the White Sox? Particularly first basemen, like Konerko or Dunn?
DB: This season was my first chance to meet Paul Konerko. He spent a few days in Birmingham on a rehab assignment. He could not have been better to the young guys on our team. Always willing to talk about hitting and the mental side of the game. I was also able to witness his routine and what it takes to play in the big leagues. Along with Paul I had a chance to sit and talk with Jim Thome. Jim and I discussed how to beat the shift. He gave me some helpful advice in that I should always play to my strengths, and not give into what the defense wants. Jim helped me see that if I play my game and hit the ball hard where it is pitched the defensive positioning will not be as big of a factor.
FS: Who is the toughest pitcher you’ve had to face, and why?
DB: Many names come to mind when I think of the toughest pitchers i have had to face. Zach Lee, David Holmberg, and Gus Schlosser are a few of the more challenging pitchers to face. Anyone who can command the zone with multiple pitches is tough to face. All of these guys have good fastballs along with multiple out pitches to compliment. Every at bat against them is a challenge.
FS: If you weren’t playing baseball professionally, what would you be doing?
DB: If I was not playing baseball I would be pursuing my career as a college coach. I have always wanted to return to the collegiate level and help players on their path to the next level. Along with coaching I am currently developing two training tools to help kids develop their swing. It would be really neat to see kids using my equipment in the future.
FS: Open microphone: if you could tell White Sox fans anything about you, any topic, what would you want them to know?
After the Dominican League I plan on returning to Birmingham to offer hitting lessons. I think it would do the community good to have a Southern League champion return and help the next generation of players not only with hitting advice, but general baseball knowledge.
Thanks to Dan (follow him @THE_DANBLACK on Twitter), BHS Council and the Birmingham Barons for helping arrange this interview!