2017 Charlotte Knights Season Preview

The Charlotte Knights opened their season at home on Thursday, April 6th, in dramatic fashion with a walk-off victory in 11 innings over Norfolk. Mark Grudzielanek is the new skipper in the team's historic 30th season. His staff includes Hitting Coach Andy Tomberlin, Pitching Coach Steve McCatty and Coach Garey Ingram. Expectations are high for Grudzielanek and the Knights as they begin the season loaded with talent that includes five of the top seven White Sox prospects on the roster.

Here is a look at the construction of the Knights roster, who to watch, and a preview of what to expect from the Charlotte squad.

Opening Day ages of the players are listed in Parentheses, along with position for non-pitchers. Players beginning the season on the disabled list have an asterisk.

Charlotte Knights (2016 Record: 65-79; 2nd Place South Division)

Top 30 Prospects: Yoan Moncada (1st), Lucas Giolito (2nd), Reynaldo Lopez (4th), Carson Fulmer (6th), Zack Burdi (8th), Adam Engel (16th), Brian Clark (24th) and Rymer Liriano (30th)

Pitchers

The starting staff should be one of the key strengths of the Knights with top prospects Lopez, Fulmer and Giolito leading the way. Giolito and Lopez came over from Washington in the Adam Eaton deal and are ranked #10 and #44 respectively by Major League Baseball among the top 100 prospects in all of baseball for 2017. For now, Danish and Holmberg round out the starting staff, however veteran Mike Pelfrey has been signed by the White Sox to a minor league contract and will begin the season at Charlotte as first reported by Jon Heyman. Fulmer looks to get some more innings under his belt and build on the progess from the end of the 2016 season. Along with former Pitching Coach Richard Dotson, Fulmer was able to fix some mechanical issues that plagued him during his short stint in the big leagues earlier in 2016. Lopez, Fulmer and Giolito are all options to be promoted to the big leagues at some point during 2017, especially if veterans James Shields, Miguel Gonzalez or Derek Holland are flipped for prospects between now and the trade deadline.

Other starting options include Volstad, who led the Knights in starts and innings pitched in 2016. He will begin the season as the team's long man out of the pen and spot starter. Returnee Purke and newcomer Soto will be the team's situational lefties out of the pen. Purke appeared in 26 games for the Knights in 2016, while Soto comes over from the Cubs organization where he spent 2016 with Iowa. Soto made his major league debut with Cleveland in 2015, while Purke appeared in 12 games for the White Sox in 2016. Rounding out the bullpen are returnees Beck, Goldberg and Burdi, while Infante returns to the organization after a five-year hiatus. Goldberg, who appeared in the recent World Baseball Classic for Team Israel, and Burdi, a first round pick in 2016, will be the main late inning options to close out games for the Knights. Goldberg led the Knights with 10 saves in 2016. Burdi was an All-American closer for at the University of Lousiville and appeared at four levels of the minors for the White Sox upon being drafted.

Infielders

All eyes will be on Cuban import Moncada, though his stay in Charlotte may not last. The prize of the Chris Sale trade to Boston, is the #2 ranked prospect in all of baseball and should claim the starting second baseman job in Chicago sometime during 2017 (likely after mid-May, so that the Sox gain an extra year of inexpensive control). Delmonico and Hayes return to Charlotte to man the corner infield positions and build upon strong 2016 campaigns and 2017 spring training performances. Both are candidates to be promoted to the big leagues if a need arises. Veteran Cabrera and newcomer Vinicio could split time at shortstop. Cabrera has played in over 500 big leagues games with San Diego and Baltimore in his career and could be looked upon to assist Moncada with his fielding. Vinicio was signed as a minor league free agent from Boston where he split 2016 between double-A and triple-A. Ladendorf was signed as a free agent from Oakland, where he spent part of 2015 and 2016 in the big leagues.

Outfielders

Engel, Garcia and Liriano will be the everyday starters, with the veteran utility man Bourgeois giving Grudzielanek options off the bench. Garcia comes over from the Pittsburgh organization where he spent the last two seasons at triple-A Indianapolis. Liriano is a former top prospect for San Diego that missed the entire 2016 season with Milwaukee after being hit in the face in spring training. The speedster Engel will man center and lead-off for the Knights. Career White Sox nemesis Raburn has been signed to provide depth. The versatile Ladendorf may also see some time in the outfield.

Catchers

Smith looks to build upon a strong 2017 spring training after an injury-plagued 2016 that saw him injure his back prior to his big league debut and could be instrumental in the development of many of the young pitchers. Pena could split duties with Smith as he comes over as a free agent from Houston who is a defensive standout behind the plate.

Overall Thoughts

This team should be exciting and compete for an International League title depending on how long the prospect-laden teams stays intact. The starting staff has the potential to be stellar and the back end of the bullpen combo of Goldberg and Burdi should be lights out. The offense could be potent with Moncada, Delmonico, Hayes, Liriano and Garcia providing power and Engel and Moncada speed at the top of the lineup. It will not be shocking to see several members of this squad at the mid-season triple-A all-star game (if they stay long enough) and at the big league level in 2017.

It's worth noting that not a single member of the Knights current roster is a promotion from AA, and in fact some players who came to AAA late in 2016 are back in Birmingham (Jake Peter and Eddy Alvarez are examples). More talent is close behind should the Knights need reinforcements during the season.

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