Season Preview: 2017 AZL White Sox

***UPDATE June 26th, 4:25pm CT: Just after this article was posted, the Sox announced to media that both Jake Burger and Gavin Sheets will indeed make brief appearances on the AZL club before going to full season ball.

The Arizona Rookie League (AZL) started recently and it is home to the White Sox' younger or typically less advanced rookie league affiliate. FutureSox contributor and scout.com writer Kim Contreras offers some very useful perspective on The Fire League. The White Sox left their rookie league affiliate at Bristol, Tennessee back in 2014 and re-joined the AZL after an 11 year hiatus. The complex league is a rookie level league played in spring training facilities of member clubs in the Cactus League.

The White Sox play their home games at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Arizona which also doubles as their spring training facility. Unlike Extended Spring Training, this is a league with official score-keeping and recorded statistics. It is often called "The Fire League" because the temperature is often in triple digits at first pitch.  The games are free to attend and there is generally no concession area as the games usually are played on the back fields. AZL games are sparsely populated and it's usually team officials, family members of the players and scouts in attendance.

The White Sox typically send recent high school draftees, prospects rehabilitating injuries, and international signings from the Dominican Summer League to play at their AZL affiliate but there are some recent college players on the roster as well. There are 15 players from the 2017 draft class on the AZL roster to go along some repeat performers, international prospects, and players new to the organization. Ryan Newman is the manager after a stint as the Birmingham Barons manager. Gary Ward returns to Arizona as the Hitting Coach and Felipe Lira returns as Pitching Coach.

Pitchers 

Pitching in the AZL is different than in some other leagues because of how the ball travels in the Arizona heat. It's also a rookie league and the staff isn't setup in a traditional manner when it comes to starting and relief roles. 19 year-old RHP Edinxon Arias was 2-7 with a 6.50 ERA for the AZL White Sox last season. Righties Pat Cashman, Eriberto Percel, Andres Sanchez, Bryan Saucedo, and Salvador Villarreal are also back in the AZL for another stint with the White Sox Rookie Level Affiliate. Palos Heights, Illinois native Zach Lewis also joins the AZL staff as an undrafted free agent out of Wichita State.

Those right-handers will be joined on the pitching staff by a plethora of recent draftees. RHP Hunter Kiel was an 18th round selection out of LSU and RHP Anthony Herron was a 19th round selection out of Missouri State. Righties Ted Andrews (37th round), Michael McCormick (34th round), Joseph Benitez (22nd round) and Vince Arobio (24th round) are also members of the staff. Herron and Kiel could be interesting guys to follow in the AZL. Prior to attending Missouri State, where Herron didn't throw a pitch due to a suspension, he struck out 219 hitters in 142 innings for Jefferson College. Kiel transferred to LSU from Pensacola State Junior College and he can get his fastball up to 97 mph.

There are some southpaws on the AZL roster as well. Four of them are 2017 draft picks. South Carolina's John Parke was taken in the 21st round while Iowa's Ryan Erickson went in the 30th round. 32nd rounder Greg Minier and 33rd rounder Kevin George will join them in Arizona. 23 year-old left-hander Leonardo De La Cruz rounds out the pitching staff after posting a 3.13 ERA with 78 strikeouts across 72 innings in the Dominican Summer League in 2016.

Outfielders

Left-handed hitting Antonio Rodriguez is back in the AZL after playing in 41 games for Low A Kannapolis this season. He has played at multiple low-level affiliates and struggled with a .608 OPS for the Intimidators this season. 2017 26th round pick Michael Staudinger will join CF Austin Crutcher in the outfield as well. Rounding out the outfield is 2017 Pre-Season All SEC pick Alex Destino. The White Sox drafted Destino in the 14th round of the 2017 draft after he struggled for South Carolina this past season. Destino finished with a .255 average and 10 homers, 8 doubles, and 41 RBI for the Gamecocks this past season, and Scouting Director Nick Hostetler mentioned him on our podcast as a guy he was surprised they got in that round.

Catchers

The biggest name in the group is Jhoandro Alfaro. The 19 year old, switch-hitting backstop struggled in 28 games for the AZL White Sox last season before heading back to the DSL. Alfaro is the younger brother of Philadelphia Phillies catcher Jorge Alfaro. He has a very strong throwing arm and possesses big raw power according to Baseball America. The White Sox signed Alfaro out of Colombia for $750K back in 2014. 19 year-old Jose Colina joins the squad after 34 games in the DSL last season and Adam McGinnis was signed out of Western Illinois to take some catching duties as well. Rounding out the group of catchers is left-handed hitting Michael Hickman. The White Sox drafted the 20 year-old Hickman out of Chipola Community College in the 13th round of the 2016 amateur draft. Hickman had a .753 .OPS in 16 games in the AZL last season. Aside from McGinnis, this is a very young group of backstops.

Infielders

Third baseman Maiker Feliz was an international signing for the White Sox in 2014 and he played 31 games for the AZL White Sox as an 18 year-old in 2016. Feliz will be joined in the infield by some 2017 draftees as well. 20th round pick David Cronin is listed as a 2B and comes to the AZL via UIC and Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, IL. 27th rounder JJ Muno and 28th rounder Laz Rivera are both listed as shortstops after signing with the club as well. Sam Abbott looks to be the primary First Baseman for the AZL White Sox after being selected in the 8th round of the 2017 draft. The 6'4" 225 pound Abbott chose baseball over a water polo scholarship and he should be interesting to follow.

17 year-old Lenyn Sosa was signed out of Venezuela for $325K during the most recent international period. The AZL is an aggressive assignment for Sosa but that's where he'll begin his minor league career. Ben Badler of Baseball America says that Sosa has "quick bat speed and eye hand coordination" and is a "line drive hitter with occasional gap power". Badler notes that some scouts see an eventual move to 2B but the White Sox will start him out as a SS and believe that he can stay at the position. Amado Nunez is probably the most well known player on the AZL roster. Nunez was a $900K signing out of the Dominican Republic in 2014. He was in the same signing class as teammates Alfaro and Sanchez. Nunez is ranked as the #20 prospect in the White Sox system here at FutureSox and for mlbpipeline.com. It's a bit of a surprise that Nunez is back in the AZL for a third straight campaign but it could be so that he could occupy SS a bit more than he would at Great Falls with Luis Curbelo there. Nunez had 62 hits and a .691 OPS in 52 games in the AZL last season and it will be interesting to follow his third season in the organization as a 19 year old.

There is a chance that the AZL White Sox also get brief cameos from 1st round pick Jake Burger and 2nd round selection Gavin Sheets before they head to full season ball for their first assignments.

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