The White Sox have had a terrible reputation for developing hitters for several years now.
The biggest reason for that reputation is that the last significant hitting prospect to come through the White Sox system and succeed with the big league club is probably Joe Crede. Major League regulars Chris Carter and Chris Young were White Sox-drafted players, but Carter was traded before playing above Low-A with the White Sox and Young was traded when he was 22 years old and hadn't played above AA yet. Maybe you can make the case for Marcus Semien, who had a decent season with Oakland, but the jury remains out on him.
Even as the Sox have brought up hitters from the minors in the past few years, many of those have struggled. None of Tyler Flowers, Carlos Sanchez, Tyler Saladino, Micah Johnson or even Andy Wilkins have been able to show they can hit consistently at the Major League level yet. Trayce Thompson gave Sox fans hope of a long-awaited breakthrough with a strong finish to 2015, but a reserved, wait-and-see approach is probably required with him.
However, there are other signs that might paint a prettier picture. The inspiration for this post is Adam Engel's breakout Arizona Fall League season. He won the league's batting title (.403) and was also tops in OPS (1.165), on-base percentage (.523) and slugging (.642) in addition to being second in stolen bases (10) and doubles (9). Engel has been known as a good centerfielder with plenty of speed so to see his hitting finally come around (even in a small sample size of 19 games in an offseason league) is exciting.
In college Engel was up and down. He hit .308 as a sophomore, but followed up with a .236 season in 2013, which was his draft year. After the Sox took him in the 13th round, he had an impressive professional debut by hitting .301/.379/.414 with 31 stolen bases for Great Falls. Since then, it has been more up and down for Engel. He posted a solid, but not great .744 OPS with Kannapolis in 2014 and then struggled with a .535 OPS with Winston-Salem after a late-season promotion. This past season, a full year with the Dash, he hit .251/.337/.369. He was drawing walks (62) and stealing bases (65), but had 132 strikeouts in 600 plate appearances, which is too many for someone without much power.
His Arizona Fall League stint showed improvement in contact against much better pitching. He was the featured interview in the MLB Pipeline podcast on Nov. 17 and had some interesting comments about what he changed to show such sharp improvement. Engel interview starts at 9:52, it's a recommended listen.
The biggest take away is here:
I've definitely made a couple adjustments out here. Nothing too crazy, but just my approach has been a little bit more consistent. I found something that's really helped me do a consistent pregame work before. Just getting the same feel everyday going into the games and it's helped me lock into the same approach. If your swing feels the same everyday it really helps you focus on an approach rather than a mechanical slot when you're at the plate. A couple of small adjustments, but I think they're really helping out.
Engel also mentions being more patient at the plate, chasing a bit less on borderline pitches and says his takeaway from the AFL will be his confidence against better pitching.
Who knows if Engel will keep this up in the spring and into the season, but if he does the White Sox have a legitimate outfield prospect who could be ready in 2017. Jim Callis also answered a couple reader questions about Engel, including one from a certain Matt C. that readers of this site should recognize.
Engel's improvement could end up being a significant victory for White Sox player development. Whether his improvement is self-made or had heavy influence from within the organization, it's a victory all the same. He was drafted as a talented, but raw and underachieving prospect. Maybe he's turned the corner into a legitimate top prospect.
In addition to Engel and perhaps even Thompson, players with similar profiles in Jacob May and Tim Anderson have also made strides. Yes, Anderson was a first round pick, but he was still considered raw when drafted and has displayed his improvement by handling himself well as he moves up the minors rather quickly. May is far from a success story yet, but held his own in AA Birmingham in 2015 despite dealing with injuries.
Maybe the White Sox are turning into an organization that can develop raw hitters. Wouldn't that be something?
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