Some of our readers and followers have been asking us on social media which prospects will open with which affiliates. We don't know for sure of course, nor does anyone yet, even the White Sox. Spring Training will shake out a lot of question marks, and there's typically a wave of releases and minor trades in March as well.
But it's February, the hot stove is room temperature, and we do have pretty good idea of where a large percentage of these players will end up. So let's give it a shot. We did the same thing last year around this time.
The White Sox went prospect shopping late last season and during this offseason, and as a result, 9 of the top 30 prospects in the system weren't in the organization six months ago. The system is loaded for bear, and it's a challenge to find a place to fit everyone. This is where the closet analogy comes in. Cleaning it out lays bare all your possessions and their accompanying back stories, which can be fun. But then comes the realization that not everything is meant to fit back in there.
Caveat: This all assumes that the Sox don't trade any more current MLB pieces before Spring Training. This probably guarantees that at some point right before or right after I hit "Publish", they will do so. But assuming they do not, here are my best guesses as to where everyone ends up assigned, and who was left without a chair...
MLB Chicago White Sox
I won't be diving deep into the MLB portion, as this post is really about farm system depth. The battles for MLB jobs going into Spring Training revolve around the last few bullpen slots, the last one or two of what are probably five outfield slots, and possibly a question about the catching tandem.
My best guess is that Ynoa gets a bullpen slot and more looks in 2017, and Covey gets the last slot as a swing man given his Rule 5 status. Liriano could very well be switched out for an added Garcia (see Charlotte below) in the outfield or Matt Davidson as a corner infielder, and as of now that call is coin flip. Assuming Soto is healthy, he very likely pairs with Narvaez in what will probably amount to an even split of time behind the plate.
Now let's dig into the farm.
AAA Charlotte Knights
*Others at level: RHP Chris Volstad, RHP Anthony Swarzak, RHP Blake Smith, RHP Terance Marin, RHP Gregory Infante, RHP Mayckol Guaipe, LHP Matt Purke, LHP Will Lamb, LHP Cory Luebke, SS Everth Cabrera, INF Jose Vinicio, 2B Joey DeMichele, 1B Cameron Seitzer, OF Cody Asche, OF Jason Bourgeois, C Chris O'Dowd, C Carson Blair
Let's do this backwards, starting with the 18 players best suited to this level but whom I couldn't cram onto the roster. There are enough pitchers here to field nearly a full second staff. Given that the rotation is mostly true prospects, and the bullpen has a number of key arms and some MLB-ready guys, there are probably about 15 arms contending for maybe 4 or 5 open slots. Some will end up on another team, released, put on the disabled list (or "disabled" list), or possibly pushed a level down or up. My guess is that Kahnle, Minaya and Beck win out on some MLB experience and readiness, and Soto represents the next best LHP option (though Purke or Lamb could just as easily be there). Holmberg gets the 5th starting slot, but Volstad or Marin are in the discussion. It seems like Swarzak needs to fit in somewhere, but barring injuries or other moves I just don't know where. Luebke could be a 2nd lefty for Chicago.
When it comes to position players, new Charlotte manager Mark Grudzielanek will get to play Maddon ball with all these role players. Delmonico and Leury Garcia are listed as bench players but in reality, they will both probably get nearly full-time play across multiple positions and DH. Engel and May will split time in CF. Peter is likely to take third base as a sort of home, but he will assuredly play all over the field with Davidson getting time at the hot corner and first base too. Davidson could also break camp with the big club, which would mean Liriano comes back to AAA.
The rotation has three Top 100 MLB prospects, plus Danish and a 5th starter. The bullpen is loaded with arms that should dominate in AAA, and all of them have a good shot to see the majors during 2017.
This looks like a team that should do very well against International League competition, though the likely in-season promotions of key prospects like Moncada, Giolito, Lopez and Burdi could pull the rug out from under the Knights.
AA Birmingham Barons
The lineup in Birmingham is an eclectic mix of once or current prospects trying to get their feet back under them and fringe or org guys. This was also probably the easiest lineup card to fill out, as there isn't much question about who will be on this offense. Hawkins is listed here as a DH, but as is true pretty much up and down the system, the DH is really an outfielder who will work in a rotation with the other three in the starting nine.
The pitching staff on the other hand is heavily prospect laden. That rotation could be filthy, with even the nominal fifth starter (Lowry) being a real talent. The bullpen has a number of intriguing hurlers as well. This caused a conundrum as I couldn't find a place for a number of once-highly touted pitchers like Brennan, Walters and Wheeler. Kopech could open in High-A instead of AA; that one was a coin toss.
Adding this roster to a pitcher-friendly home ballpark, and this is a team that should keep opponents off the board pretty effectively, but might struggle to score runs of their own. If some of the repeaters (i.e. Michalczewski, Hawkins, Barnum, Jones) make a bounce, this could be a competitive team in the Southern League.
This should be far and away the best offensive team among the affiliates. The outfield and DH rotation includes four legit prospects, three of which have put up big numbers in their pro careers. Collins is of course a very polished hitter. All the infielders have shown some pop in the minors, though only Cruz has so-far been tagged as a ranked prospect.
It's important to note that while Zavala is listed as a backup, this is only true because Collins happens to be best suited at the same level. Collins likely moves up quickly to make more room, and in the meantime they will find some way to get the second highest-ranked catching prospect in the system his reps too. For that matter, it's possible Collins opens in AA instead of A+, with Austin coming back to the Dash.
The pitching staff has some fun arms too. Dunning is the 10th-ranked overall prospect in the system, and the other four starters have all been on one of our Top 30's in the past year. Diaz is a big arm in the pen, while Dopico and Cherry have shown flashes of plus stuff. It's not impossible that Fry could end up in AA instead, with Kopech starting in Winston-Salem, which would make the staff even stronger. Easterling, Banks and Frebis all belong at this level and could end up here as well.
In a hitter-friendly environment, this should be a fun team to watch, likely putting up some big run totals.
This was not only one of the hardest teams to guess on, it's also the team that will be hardest to predict for on-field results. This Intimidators club could be renamed the Enigmas.
Lineup-wise, the four-player outfield rotation is a talented bunch, but all have major question marks about how they'll perform in full season ball in 2017. The middle infield has two very good defensive players with open questions about their bats. Zangari could be a big time masher, if he dials in a solid plate approach. The catchers are likely to be more of a 50/50 split than starter/bench player.
The rotation includes a very high ceiling arm in Hansen, and a pop-up prospect in Flores, but both have only a half pro season under their belts and college track records of inconsistency. Comito is a teenager who improved a lot in rookie ball in 2016, while Solorzano and McRee were nails in Great Falls but will face a challenge in Class A. The bullpen has some intriguing personnel but few who have established themselves outside rookie leagues.
And there are some questions about who will be on this club. Beatty and Rocha both seem to belong here and could be on the staff, as could a few of the pitchers listed in the next section on rookie assignees. A few of the higher ceiling catchers or infielders below could make the jump too.
Extended ST / Rookie Ball
RHP: Blake Hickman, Victor Done, Luis Ledo, Fernando Gallegos, Brandon Agar, Andres Sanchez, Sean Renzi, Lane Hobbs, Evan Bell, Brad Haymes, Yeuris Guerrero, Edinxon Arias, Eriberto Percel, Johan Quijada, Salvador Villarreal
These are the players who likely hold over in Extended Spring Training, for later assignment to a rookie affiliate (starting in June) or when a slot opens in Kannapolis in the first couple months of action. Don't make the mistake of thinking that players here are all at the bottom of the prospect stack - there are a number of legitimate prospects in this bunch. Most of them just aren't ready to make the big jump yet.
Blake Hickman is an interesting case. The 7th rounder from 2015 hasn't seen game action as a pro yet as he recovers from TJS, and it's tough to say where he ends up, but getting into some controlled games in Arizona first seems most likely. Carlos Perez and Jhoandro Alfaro are both on the radar for catching talent, but both seem destined for the Pioneer League this year. Same goes for Curbelo and Nunez, two of the highest-ranked infielders in the system. Once college-level draftees are added in June, the Voyagers should have a strong squad as usual.
I won't even try to guess at the DSL team. Also worth noting, there will inevitably be a few LatAm prospects I haven't listed here that will open 2017 with the AZL rookie ball team. But I think everyone else in the system is covered somewhere in this article. If I missed anyone, leave a comment and let me know!
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