Season in Review: 2015 Charlotte Knights

The White Sox AAA affiliate Charlotte Knights concluded their season on Labor Day, with a final overall record of 74-70, tied for 3rd and 4 games back in the International League South Division. That's a big improvement from last season's ugly 63-81 showing, good for last place in the division and the entire league. And the Knights were in playoff contention until near the end, but a roster in constant flux seemed to prevent them from staying hot. It was the team's second year in beautiful BB&T Stadium, where their attendance once again led all of minor league baseball (and if you haven't seen the ballpark, really, you should).

As is typical in this organization, the AAA club had a mix of true prospects (mostly among the hitters) and a substantial bunch of 'AAAA' players whose purpose is to be ready as emergency back-fill for the major league club. Let's take a look at the individual performances of some key prospects and players.

OFFENSE

The three most prolific hitting performances came from non-prospects. First baseman Dan Black fairly tore up the IL to the tune of a .324/.457/.568 line and more walks (27) than strikeouts (24) in 140 plate appearances. It was obvious though that with Jose Abreu and Adam LaRoche above him, the brawny 28-year old wasn't likely to get a real shot at a job in Chicago, so he signed with KT Wiz of the Korean Baseball Organization. 32-year old catcher George Kottaras was impressive at the plate as well (.908 OPS), but barring an injury he was purely insurance. Outfielder Dayan Viciedo (you may have heard of him) re-joined the organization late in the year and bashed IL pitching, but that doesn't mean a lot in his case (that's what he should do).

In terms of true prospects, the stand-out performance came from second baseman Micah Johnson. He hit .315, drew some walks, and even showed some power (8 HR in 353 PA) in stints around his demotion and another hamstring injury. Johnson put in substantial work to improve his defense, though reports on the results of those efforts were mixed. The speedster also stole 28 bags in 35 attempts. Carlos Sanchez, his 2B dancing partner, did very well in his short stint before they flip-flopped, hitting .344 (though with minimal walks or power) and showing the strong defense we've now all seen with the big club.

There were others who played their way onto the major league team. Tyler Saladino started late and slow as he recovered from TJ surgery (.633 OPS in his first 26 games), but then turned it on (.778 OPS in the next 26) as he got back into a routine and earned a promotion. Trayce Thompson improved on his contact rate (18.9% K/PA, vs the mid to upper 20's he had usually posted), which was the biggest question for him coming into 2015, and he's taken his considerable athleticism and defensive skills north. Leury Garcia had the best offensive season in his minor league career (.736 OPS, 30 SB) and has been called upon for emergency bench presence.

A couple other prospects worth noting are Jason Coats and Kevan Smith. Coats may not have gotten much attention playing alongside Thompson, but he's only a year older and put up similar or slightly better numbers (.270/.313/.438, 17 HR, 11 SB). He did that in AAA in just his third year in the minors, and like Thompson is very good defensively, so he's one to keep an eye on. Catcher Kevan Smith was seen as a possible 2015 contributor to the White Sox, but he didn't excel against AAA pitching (.260/.330/.370), though he did heat up as the year went on (.810 OPS in August) and his reputation for game calling and pitcher handling is strong. He's 27 now but he is on the 40-man roster and the team faces a decision on him.

Finally, there's Matt Davidson. The season opened with optimism, as he worked on a new hitting approach. But the end result was no better than last year's disastrous campaign: .203 average, plenty of power (23 HR), and a scary whiff rate (31.7% K/PA). He did improve defensively, but everything about his hitting suggests he is ill-equipped to handle major league pitching.

PITCHING

The number of prospects among the contributors to this pitching staff was pretty low, and some of those weren't long for minor league ball. Carlos Rodon was there only briefly, as was Daniel Webb. The no-doubt highlight of the pitching was the full-on re-emergence of Erik Johnson, who not only appeared to return to his 2013 form, he may be even better. Velocity returned to his fastball (back to 92-94, T95 range), the breaking pitches are sharper, his delivery is cleaner. The statistical turnaround tells the story in this case. In 2014 he had a 6.73 ERA, 1.80 WHIP, 5.4 K/9 and 4.6 BB/9. In 2015: 2.37 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 2.8 BB/9.

The only other prospect of note who worked exclusively as a starter was Chris Beck. His numbers were some of the best he's posted in the minors (3.15 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 40 K vs 14 BB in 54.1 IP), but he's been injured since around mid-season and missed the second half entirely with an arm injury we don't have much detail on. Most of the rest of the rotation innings were taken by a parade of org guys and renovation projects (Kyle Drabek, Brad Penny, Shawn Haviland) and designated 6th/7th MLB starters (Scott Carroll, Hector Noesi).

There were a few guys who worked from the bullpen that could contribute in 2016. Junior Guerra has good command of a pretty big fastball and a nice change-up, Onelki Garcia was competent and has major league off-speed stuff, and Terance Marin was a pleasant bolt from the blue who has taken quite a unique path from A-ball release to potential major league contributor. JB Wendelken, Blake Smith and Miguel Chalas all arrived in Charlotte during the season with some promise, though only Smith put up good numbers at the level.

SPECIAL NOTE

There's a light-hitting bench infielder on the Charlotte roster by the name of Ethan Wilson. He may be the furthest player on the team from prospect status, but he also probably had more feature press written about him than anyone else on the roster. We talked with Ethan and were the first to bring his amazing story to public light back in April, and numerous newspapers and other publications (including Baseball America) have picked it up and run with it since. Wilson overcame a potentially deadly kidney condition and years of tribulations to return to the diamond, and it looks like his ambitions of a future in coaching may be close at hand. The fact that he's been able to play pro ball again is fantastic, and we're all happy he was able to get there.

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