2016 Birmingham Barons Season Preview

Birmingham opens play on Thursday, April 7th, along with the other three full-season clubs. Ryan Newman takes over as Manager of the Barons for 2016, replacing Julio Vinas (who moved up to Charlotte). He's joined by Hitting Coach Jamie Dismuke (who is returned to the club) and Pitching Coach J.R. Perdew (who moves up from Winston-Salem). Their first series is on the road at Jacksonville, before coming home to Regions Field on the 12th for their home opener.

Here is a look at how the Barons 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.

Birmingham Barons (2015 record: 69-70, no playoffs)

Top 30 prospects: Carson Fulmer (2nd), Trey Michalczewski (4), Tyler Danish (5), Jordan Guerrero (6), Adam Engel (8), Courtney Hawkins (9), Brian Clark (13), Eddy Alvarez (14), Jake Peter (17), Peter Tago (20), Omar Narvaez (25)

Pitchers

While an exact starting rotation has not yet been announced, it appears likely to be Fulmer, Danish, Guerrero and Holmberg for sure - which should be a very good group. Fulmer is the 2nd ranked prospect in the system, and given the way the team has talked about him and his performance thus far, he may not be long for AA. Danish is repeating the level after, for the first time in his career, hitting some struggles in 2015. He'll return to the Southern League with a new cutter and a modified change-up, and remember that he's still very young for AA at just 21 years old. Guerrero is the third Top 10 prospect in this rotation, as he makes the big jump to AA after just 16 (very effective) starts in A+. Holmberg returns to the team that drafted him, at a level he's had no trouble with before.

Then there are two candidates for the 5th slot. Clark has emerged as a legitimate prospect after a solid 2015 campaign and could be in this rotation, though there is some question of whether he may be a reliever in the long run (plus the bullpen needs a lefty, and the Sox need lefty relief depth). Brennan performed well in Winston-Salem last year, and is looking to book his first truly full season of starter innings (he's missed time due to TJS and a couple other injuries).

Speaking of the bullpen, it looks like it also has a number of arms with major league potential. Peter Tago returns to Birmingham after a breakout 2015 that saw him succeed at three levels, post-overhaul. Robin Leyer and his big fastball is now in the bullpen where he's best-suited, looking for just one of his secondary pitches to reach a playable level. Speaking of big fastballs, don't write off Brad Goldberg due to his age - he was in vastly better shape last year and his heater reached 98 in Winston-Salem. Michael Ynoa missed some time to minor injuries but still has a lot of potential and performed well last season. Hansen and Barnette are both hard-throwing righties returning to AA, with Lollis the only truly new name.

Position Players

Looking at the likely starting lineup, there are six players among the current Top 30 overall prospects, and another two have been ranked at some point in the past year or two. You may also note something odd here - the team has two starting-grade second baseman, and no first baseman. We got some info from the club on their solution, as you're about to read.

Starting with the infield, Michalczewski will be challenged at this level for his age and development, but scouts continue to see a probable starting major league third sacker here. Alvarez  has done nothing but beat expectations to a pulp in his quick ascent, and AA will be a challenge for him as well despite being 26. His defense at short will be under a microscope. Joey DeMichele repeats the level, and his glove isn't in question, but he'll need to hit at this level to stay on the prospect radar. Which brings us to Jake Peter, nominally a second baseman, likely a future utility player, and... first baseman for the Barons this year.

The outfield has three names that should be familiar. Engel looks to show his 2015 breakout is sustainable in AA, and Hawkins continues his search for better zone judgment while repeating the level. Both have big tools and something to prive. Walker is in a position similar to DeMichele, in that he needs to hit at a level he hasn't yet in order to be part of a major league future.

Behind the plate, Narvaez has been a late-bloomer, and is finally starting to get some prospect pub going into his sixth year of state-side pro ball. He's already shown strong defensive skills and a knack for contact and getting on base - now he needs to show those abilities at a higher level and maybe add a little power. As far as the DH role goes, you'll probably see a lot of Richmond here, as he returns from missing all of 2015 to injury.

Overall Thoughts

With six of the organization's top ten prospects, and eleven of the top thirty, the Barons are without a doubt the most prospect-laden Sox affiliate to open 2016. It is also a pretty young ball club: 19 of the 25 names on the active roster are a league-average 24 years old or younger, and the oldest starting player (Eddy Alvarez at 26) is developmentally much younger. Aside from the last couple bench players, there is very little in the way of filler on this team.

Birmingham should be very competitive in the Southern League, and there is a wave of talent here that the South Siders are hoping to lean into in 2017 and/or 2018 for major league roster needs. Combined with a still fairly new and first class ballpark, the AA affiliate should be entertaining for fans in Chicago as well as Alabama.

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