2015 Charlotte Knights Season Preview

 Charlotte Knights BB&T Ballpark

UPDATED 4/9/15 9:19: to reflect slight changes to initial roster

Charlotte opens play Thursday, April 9th, along with the other three full-season clubs. Joel Skinner returns to manage the top affiliate in the system. The White Sox' AAA team begins International League play at home for their second year in new BB&T Ballpark, hosting the Norfolk Tide, first pitch at 6:05pm CT.

Here is a look at how the Knights' roster is constructed, who to watch and what to expect from the club.

Opening Day ages of the players are listed in parentheses, along with position for non-pitchers.

Charlotte Knights (2014 record: 63-81, no playoffs)

Top 30 prospects: Carlos Rodon (1), Chris Beck (11), Matt Davidson (12), Tyler Saladino (16), Trayce Thompson (17), Kevan Smith (21)

Pitchers

Repeats: Carlos Rodon (22), Chris Beck (24), Scott Carroll (30), Maikel Cleto (25), Jarrett Casey (27), Daniel Webb (25),  Erik Johnson (25)

From Birmingham: none

New to Org: Brad Penny (36), Shawn Haviland (29), Jairo Asencio (31), Arcenio Leon (28), Zach Phillips (28), Matt Lindstrom (35)

*On Disabled List: Jesse Crain (33)

The Knights' starting rotation of Penny-Beck-Rodon-Carroll-Haviland should be pretty strong. Carlos Rodon is of course the top prospect in the entire system (and likely not long for AAA), and given how he looked last year in Charlotte and this spring in Arizona he should make quick work of IL hitters as he improves his change-up and refines command of his fastball. Chris Beck is another significant prospect, and if stories from Camelback of a greatly improved slider/cutter are true, he could see Chicago in 2015 as well. Brad Penny and Scott Carroll have major league experience and should both do well at this level. Haviland is a newcomer and somewhat of a wildcard, being 29 with virtually no experience above AA due to injury time (perhaps similar to what Carroll was last year).

The bullpen is a little messier. Maikel Cleto has a big arm but continues to be evaded by consistency, and if he clears waivers he'll be in Charlotte again trying to put it together. Daniel Webb is back in Charlotte after spending all of 2014 in Chicago, where he just couldn't get his command to where it had been the year prior. He's still got a live arm and probably the most potential on this crew. Jarrett Casey is a lefty specialist who rocketed up three levels to AAA last year, but his peripherals weren't pretty and his hit, walk and K rates all slid backwards in his brief look there. Jairo Asencio (who has pitched in 43 MLB games) and Arcenio Leon are newcomers with some intrigue but represent unknowns, though Leon did have among the highest average fastball velocities in the Cactus League this spring. Matt Lindstrom is another reclamation project and former MLB'er who makes for good depth to Chicago (just think, he started last year as the Sox closer). Lefty Zach Phillips rounds out a bullpen that can be best described as a whole lot of question marks.

Two key names begin the year on the DL or delayed in starting. Erik Johnson was derailed a bit in his bounce back mission with a side strain, which doesn't sound too serious and should put him in Charlotte fairly soon (he's still in Arizona at last report but not on the official DL). Jesse Crain was a smart offseason freebie pickup who was looking decent in his injury comeback until he also suffered a temporary setback - if he comes back healthy and looks good with the Knights he could immediately become the next-reliever-up for Chicago.

Position Players

Repeats: Matt Davidson (3B, 24), Tyler Saladino (SS/2B, 25), Jared Mitchell (OF, 26), Leury Garcia* (INF, 24), Dan Black (1B, 27), Matt Tuiasosopo (OF, 28)

From Birmingham: Trayce Thompson (OF, 24), Kevan Smith (C, 26)

New to Org: Engel Beltre (OF, 25), Neftali Soto (3B/1B, 26), George Kottaras (C, 31), Juan Diaz (INF, 26)

*On Disabled List: Rob Brantly (C, 25)

The starting lineup for Charlotte should provide lots of power, especially in the very hitter-friendly confines of BB&T Ballpark. The regular card should include six or seven players who could hit 15, 20 or more long balls with half their games in that park - Matt Davidson, Trayce Thompson, Kevan Smith, Dan Black, Neftali Soto and possibly Tyler Saladino and Jared Mitchell. More speed-dependent players Leury Garcia (who likely plays 2B for now at least) and outfielder Engel Beltre round out the likely starting nine. Davidson and Mitchell fall into the make-or-break year category, while Thompson, Saladino and Smith make a continuing case for a role in Chicago.

George Kottaras will be the backup catcher, and Rob Brantly is there on the disabled list as well. That leaves infielder and minor league vet Juan Diaz, and just plain veteran outfielder Matt Tuiasosopo, to cover the rest of the field, as the Knights (like the rest of the full season teams this year) are using a 3-man bench.

Some DL names on the MLB side will likely effect the AAA roster early on. Carlos Sanchez is in Chicago to begin the season, but likely he's back to Charlotte when Chris Sale returns, and that probably puts Leury Garcia or Juan Diaz on the block. Reliever Jake Petricka should be back with the parent club early on as well, which could mean another reliever headed down. Eric Surkamp could go either way when he returns.

Overall Thoughts

Power in the starting lineup and the front four of the rotation should be the strengths of this team. It's worth noting that just two of the 25 names are true promotions from last year's AA squad in Birmingham (Thompson and Smith), as the club elected to fill many of the non-repeating roster slots with newcomers who make up nearly half the overall group. The bullpen looks like the weakest area. Defense is a mixed bag across the field, and speed will be a non-factor for all but maybe three of the starting lineup entries.

The key names to watch for potential Chicago impact this season include Thompson, Davidson, Saladino and Smith from the position players and Rodon, Beck, and whomever steps forward from the pen on the pitching side. Turnover may be pretty minimal barring a lot of injuries on the big club, so this should be a more competitive club than they fielded in 2014.

***Special thanks to Seth Lakso of the Charlotte Observer for his help on locking down some names

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