White Sox Spring Training Preview - Prospect Perspectives

Camelback RanchPitchers and Catchers report for Spring Training this weekend, and some players (minor and major leaguers) have already arrived at Camelback Ranch.  Aside from a little tinge of jealousy of players who get to run around on green grass in seventy degree temps, there’s quite a bit to get excited about for White Sox fans, some of which involve prospects.  Here’s an overview of what to watch for in Arizona between now and late March, with a focus on storylines involving rookies and minor leaguers…

A CROWDED INFIELD

With the three-man crowd at 1B/DH (Abreu, Dunn, Konerko) being pure first baseman defensively, and four starting-grade outfielders on the roster (Garcia, Eaton, Viciedo, De Aza), there will likely be only four roster spots available to cover the three skill infield positions.  Alexei Ramirez will start at short, and barring an unexpected March trade, Gordon Beckham will get one more shot starting at second.  And that sets up the battle for third base and the backup spot, with six players in the pot.

Conor Gillaspie started at third last year, and started well but finished with a somewhat disappointing but serviceable .695 OPS paired with mediocre defense.  He’s under cheap team control for another two seasons before arbitration, and is a corners-only guy who is still developing.  Then there’s Jeff Keppinger, who is primarily a 2B but can play 3B or 1B well enough to not embarrass himself.  He opened the season horribly, improved as time went on but still only managed an even .600 OPS, and the Sox are on the hook for his $8.5M remaining salary over the next two seasons.  These are the two guys who have inside tracks, and have the experience, not to mention little or no trade value at this point.

Leading the group of youngsters hoping to shoe-horn into the infield is 3B Matt Davidson, acquired from Arizona for Addison Reed.  Davidson is a Top 100 MLB prospect and almost assuredly the third baseman of the future for the Sox, but the club has indicated he may start the year in AAA to “work on some things” (South Side Sox suggested service time may be a factor).  Marcus Semien, whose long term path is more likely to be at 2B or SS, can also play 3B and did so in September for the big club.  Semien is near major league ready but on first glance, he looks like the odd man out for Opening Day and will likely be in Charlotte (though not likely for long).  Both these players seem to be part of the youth corps that will lead the infield in 2015 and beyond.

Two other true utility players have a shot at the roster.  Defensive wizard Leury Garcia, acquired for Alex Rios last season, plays plus defense all over the infield, but he’s never shown he can hit for much.  Another year in AAA improving his bat seems prudent and likely, though his speed and defense put him in the discussion for Chicago.  Jake Elmore was claimed off waivers from Houston, where he played all nine positions during 52 games for the Astros.  Elmore gets on base and makes contact, but has no power and he is a long shot to make the team out of Arizona.  He does have at least one minor league option left.

Best Guess: No doubt Hahn and company are still trying to trade someone from this bunch, but that scenario is unlikely prior to about June.  The most likely scenario has Gillaspie and Keppinger getting the contested roster spots to open the season, though the danger is that no one other than Ramirez can play shortstop competently.  Davidson, Garcia and Semien split time with Carlos Sanchez in Charlotte’s infield waiting for an opportunity, and probably there will be a few during the season.  Davidson has the best shot to break this mold and replace Gillaspie (who could be DFA’d) with a strong spring.

CATCHING COLD

Offensive production from the catching position was abysmal last season, and Hahn missed on his big fish in the offseason (McCann).  The Sox did make one surprise move, picking up Adrian Nieto from the Nationals in the Rule V draft.  Add in defense-oriented Miguel Gonzalez, who made a brief September appearance, and you have four guys vying for the chance to improve on awfulness.

Tyler Flowers hasn’t lived up to his offensive potential or minor league numbers, except in a few short bursts.  But his defense is improved (though still not great), and the team’s pitchers speak highly of his game handling.  Josh Phegley’s background and development are too complex to describe in short form, but in 2013 he raked in AAA Charlotte offensively but was pretty terrible in Chicago.  His defense was always a question, and reports of his improvement in the minors were apparently exaggerated, given his struggles catching things in Chicago.

Nieto has to stay on the 25 man roster for the season or be offered back to the Nationals for a $25,000 net loss to the Sox.  As an addition to the system he’s a good prospect to have if they can find a way to make a deal and keep him, but he’s a very long shot to make the team, as he’s never played above Advanced A ball.  In modern history we can find only one example of a catcher who went from A ball straight to the majors, and Nieto is not Butch Wynegar.  Gonzalez seems ticketed for Charlotte, barring some combination of injuries, trades and/or extreme performances in Cactus League play.

Best Guess: Flowers and Phegley get another shot, splitting time and trying to show one of them is an acceptable major league starter.  The Sox try to make a prospect-for-prospect trade to keep Nieto and send him to AA, and Gonzalez is in AAA.

FILLING OUT THE ROTATION

Four of the rotation slots appear to be spoken for: Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, John Danks and prospect Erik Johnson are all penciled in.  That leaves one open spot, and there are three pitchers who seem to have a shot at it.

In the pole position is Felipe Paulino, signed by the Sox to a 1+1 deal this offseason from the Royals.  Since posting a strong but brief 7-start stint in 2012, Paulino has had two surgeries and pitched just 27.2 rehab innings last year, so his health is the big question.  He’s got very good stuff when he’s on and healthy.  Right there with Paulino is Andre Rienzo, who flashed both strong stuff and problems with control and inconsistency in 10 starts with the Sox last year.  There’s a lot of talent there, but no one seems sure if he can stay consistent in control and delivery, or if he’s better off as a starter or reliever.  The final contender is Eric Surkamp, claimed from the Giants off waivers.  This lefty had posted very strong numbers and was a highly ranked prospect in the Giants’ system not that long ago, but he missed much of 2012 and 2013 after having TJ surgery.  Getting in just 90 rehab innings last year, starting for a full season may be a challenge, and he’s likely going to be in Charlotte’s rotation getting back to form.

Best Guess: If Paulino is healthy and looks like his 2012 self, he’s got the job.  If not, Rienzo will grab it, but he may also get a look for the bullpen.  Surkamp in AAA.

BULLPEN BATTLES

There are 5 bullpen slots that appear to be set, barring unforeseen circumstances: returnees Matt Lindstrom and Nate Jones, and newcomers Scott Downs (L), Ronald Belisario and Mitchell Boggs.  That leaves two open slots in the pen, and a pretty long list of candidates.  More than likely, one will be a 2nd lefty, and the other a right-hander.

Daniel Webb went rocketing up the system in 2013, and his triple digit fastball (more typically high 90’s) and effective offspeed stuff give him the inside track.  Given none other than Don Cooper was talking him up as a closer candidate, his chances of getting that last RH slot are probably very good.  Another late-season call-up with a big fastball, Jake Petricka has a case to make and he may have a shot, especially if anyone previously listed is injured or if Webb struggles enough in March (or if Belisario implodes, as he is wont to do).  Andre Rienzo may be a future reliever as noted earlier, so he is in the group photo here as well, especially since his starter background makes him a good long man and 6th starter when needed.

From the left side, the “Who can LOOGY” show is much fuzzier.  Donnie Veal has held the LOOGY role with the Sox in parts of both the last two seasons with mixed results, but when he’s throwing strikes he is very tough on left-handed hitters.  Charlie Leesman got looks as a starter and reliever in 2013, and he was much tougher on lefties than righties in Charlotte, so this may be an ideal role for him.  He also has the added benefit of being able to do long relief when necessary.  Acquired from the Rays for a PTBNL in September, Frank de los Santos has two partial seasons in AAA and is likely headed back there again, but being on the 40-man roster he’s going to get a look for Chicago.

Best Guess: Webb takes the righty spot, and call it a toss-up between Veal and Leesman for the LH spot.  Both the lefties are on the 40-man roster, Veal has the experience, but Leesman has the flexibility.  This one likely comes down to performance in camp, though Veal may not have any minor league options left and would have to pass through waivers.  Petricka likely closes for Charlotte, Rienzo is in the rotation there, and De Los Santos plus Leesman or Veal will be in the AAA bullpen.

SIDE COLUMN MATERIAL

--If the Sox manage to move one of those four outfielders (or if there is an injury), Jordan Danks has the inside track for the 4th OF spot.  He brings above average defense to all three positions, has some speed and a little pop from the left side of the plate.  Pretty much the ideal 4th OF profile.

--There are a number of prospects who have no real shot at the Opening Day roster, but who are looking to bounce back from bad 2013 performances, and they’ve got a lot at stake this year.  The list includes Jared Mitchell, Trayce Thompson, Courtney Hawkins, Keenyn Walker and Carlos Sanchez.  All are still prospects worth monitoring, and they’ll be trying to show the club their most recent seasons don’t show their potential.  How they look in the spring may influence their assignment and trajectory for the season.

--2B Micah Johnson will be in camp, and he's an exciting prospect.  He's not headed for Chicago just yet, but after having a second surgery on his elbow (this one said to be a permanent fix), it will be reassuring if he is 100% healthy in camp.

--Finally, if you want a look at some other guys who will see time with the major league team in Cactus League play that aren’t on the 40 man roster, here’s a link to the list of non-roster invitees.

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Pitchers and catchers, report!

 

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