With the popularity of our "Next Wave" article last offseason, we’ve decided to make this an annual tradition – and split it into two articles. This is a list of position players in the White Sox system to keep an eye on in 2014 that fell outside of the organization’s Top 25 players. The pitching prospect version will be released in a few days.
Why does this matter? Well, look at last year’s article, which had about 30 names on it. Five of the players from that list ended up ranked among the top 25 on our latest list, and one (Daniel Webb) even made the majors. Another few are on the cusp. How many of the players on these lists will become top prospects in the system? Or see the majors? Most will not, but a few will. Every year, a few players toiling in the background burst onto the scene.
Let’s look at this year’s position player candidates, and you can place your bets on who will “pop” in 2014…
Second baseman Joey DeMichele fell out of the Top 25 after struggling with the bat at Winston-Salem (.246/.323/.326, 20.5% K/PA), and a brief and unsuccessful trial run at shortstop. He did show impressive hitting in streaks, but then struggled a bit in Australia over the winter (.214/.246/.411, 30 K in 112 AB), and left there early due to a minor injury issue. The flashes of solid hitting and middle infield profile while at age-appropriate levels mean DeMichele is still on the radar, but he’s now behind Micah Johnson in the 2B stack.
1B Andy Wilkins has been among the Sox top 25 prospects on and off in his pro career, and he just missed the list this time around. This left-handed batter posted a .863 OPS in 285 PA repeating at Birmingham, and held his own but wasn’t quite as strong when he was promoted to Charlotte (.735 OPS in 234 PA). He’s hit 17 or more HR in each of his three full seasons, but his peripherals don’t stand out (21.2% K/PA, 10% BB/PA in 2013) and he’s playing at a position demanding big numbers. Under the right circumstances (i.e. Dunn being traded) he could see Chicago in 2014, but he needs to do some damage in AAA first.
SS/2B Cleuluis Rondon (acquired from BOS in the Peavy trade) gets huge plaudits for his defense, earning plus-plus tags at both middle infield positions. He’s got a very strong arm, big range, easy footwork and a pillow-soft glove. What’s keeping him away from top prospect lists is big questions about the 19 year old’s bat (.202/.279/.234, 24 K in 104 PA for Kannapolis). If he can hit just a little, he could fly up the rankings.
1B Dan Black has done nothing but hit his way up the system, posting an .881 OPS last year in Birmingham. He draws a lot of walks, shows good power, and is improving defensively. On the other hand, he’s going into his age 26/27 season having never been above AA, competing with Andy Wilkins, and behind a 3-man crowd in Chicago. If he can hit in AAA this season like he did in AA, he may get a look in the majors for someone, though it may not be the Sox.
It is sometimes hard to cull Pioneer League-inflated results to find notable performance, but SS/2B Christian Stringer did stand out a little bit. He hit .312 in 189 PA, and equally interesting, he was one of very few players in the system to walk (22 times) significantly more than strike out (12). This from a guy who was drafted in the 16th round based in great part on his strength defensively. There’s not much power there (yet anyway), but the plate discipline, contact rate and defensive profile in the middle infield make Stringer worth monitoring.
A former 1st round pick and once ranked as high as 4th in the system, Jared Mitchell had nearly fallen off the prospect radar by the end of his 2013 campaign (.167/.293/.257, 34.6% K/PA, injuries). But this athletic former two-sport star had an unexpected resurgence in the AFL, posting a .304/.425/.580 line with 6 stolen bases and walking nearly as often as he struck out in 20 games. The Sox front office seems insistent they still believe in his major league future, and at the least his speed, batter’s eye, strong outfield defense and that AFL burst should help propel him into a golden opportunity in 2014. If he can make decent contact and get on base at a valuable clip in his age 25 season, he may still have a shot.
Another once-highly ranked, athletic-but-raw outfielder, Keenyn Walker goes from a top 10 slot to off the top 25 in a year. This is partly a function of better overall system depth, but mostly because of a disappointing 2013 season with Birmingham (.201/.391/.277, 27.8% K/PA). He still walked quite a bit, and continues to show plus speed (38 SB), but he battled with contact issues and recovering from injuries. Like Mitchell, Walker’s athleticism, ability to get on base and speed mean he’s still on the radar. But a lack of power coupled with that contact rate are red flags, and he’ll need to up his offensive game quite a bit in 2014 at age 23, likely repeating AA.
One more outfielder to watch is Jason Coats. Signed late and missing his draft year recovering from a knee injury, Coats skipped rookie ball and held his own at Class A Kannapolis in 2013 (.271/.320/.426). He showed solid power (12 HR), a decent contact rate (15% K/PA), and some surprising speed (12 SB), while garnering positive reviews of his outfield play. A White Sox scout told us to keep an eye on Jason, though he’s a little behind the age curve. Coats finished the season with a strong August (.300/.342/.445), a good sign for a player who missed a year recovering from surgery and went straight to full season ball. He will likely be in Winston-Salem’s outfield to start his age 24 season.
The White Sox showed some desperation regarding their catching situation when they selected Adrian Nieto from Washington in the Rule V draft. The 24 year old switch-hitter immediately becomes one of the best catching prospects in the system (in fact he’s basically #26 on our list), but he needs to stay on the 25 man roster for a full season or be offered back to the Nationals at a loss of $25k. In modern baseball history, just one catcher has ever gone from A ball straight to MLB and stuck: Butch Wynegar in 1976 (and his numbers in A ball dwarf anything Nieto has done). Nieto is a long shot to make the Opening Day roster, though if his spring training audition goes reasonably well the Sox may work out a trade with the Nationals to keep Nieto in the system where he can develop.
Former Pitt quarterback Kevan Smith is being moved through the system slowly, owing to his rawness at the position, so he’s playing a couple years behind the prototypical age curve. He hit quite well in Winston-Salem last year as a 24/25 year old (.286/.370/.464), showing some power (10 HR) and a decent contact rate (14.9% K/PA). Reports are that his defense and game-handling skills are getting much better as well. The fact that the Sox invited Smith to their recent mini-camp for the organization’s best young talent is a signal that the club takes him seriously as a prospect. If he continues his improvement at AA Birmingham in 2014, he’ll be headed up the rankings.
Miguel Gonzalez has always shown plus defensive skills, but he hasn’t had a strong offensive season since 2009. This Venezuelan wasn’t even getting starting playing time in 2011 and 2012, but he had his best offensive season since rookie ball in 2013 (.254/.326/.349 across AA, AAA) and even earned a September call-up to the big club (2-for-9 in 5 games). If he can manage to hit a little better, he could find himself in the catching mix going forward, likely as a backup. He’s going to be 23 this season so he’s still young for AAA.
Taken in the 17th round in 2012 for 5th round money, Sammy Ayala was the only significant over-slot signing for the Sox in that draft. He’s a former three-sport athlete, has good tools but raw skills behind the plate and some power potential from the left side. So far in two seasons at Bristol, he’s not shown much with the bat (.206/.271/.270, 26.9% K/PA) and isn’t playing a lot either. It is hard to know what to make of all that, but the raw tools should keep him on the radar. Ayala will be 19/20 for the 2014 season, and this should be his first year in full-season ball, where we could get a much better read on where he stands.
The Next Wave article covering pitchers will be published in the coming days.