2018 White Sox Hitting Camp, or, an embarrassment of riches

“These kids are loose, relaxed, and focused. They’re having a great time and seem to really like each other.”

Rick Renteria nailed it. A perfect assessment of  the climate at Camelback Ranch in Glendale last week. The White Sox manager, along with General Manager Rick Hahn and scouting director Nick Hostetler, were among a group of front office personnel, player development staff, and coaches who played an active role in the annual hitting camp led by big league hitting coaches Todd Steverson and Greg Sparks for many of the organization’s prospects and younger major leaguers.

The 31 participants of the 6-day retreat is the most they've had at any one time. Then again, in the 9 months since the end of spring training, the rich got richer. Hahn, Hostetler and the cadre of expert and experienced amateur and professional scouts added players from the MLB Draft, in-season trades, waiver claims, minor league free agent signings, and one especially big international free agent signing to the already-rich farm system. The need for everyone (players, coaches, front office) being on the same page, hearing the same message at the same time, was of the utmost importance.

Hitting coordinator Mike Gellinger and hitting coaches from each affiliate joined Steverson and Sparks to work with the talented campers for close to 6 hours each day. They started each morning nourishing their bodies, then to classroom style meetings before heading outdoors to put it all into practice.  Hahn explains, “What happens between the lines is important, but it’s just a drop of what really does happen. The classroom environment is where most of the work, most of the conversations are happening. They get to hear from big league hitting coach Todd Steverson and Ricky Renteria”

Outfielder Adam Engel and Hitting Coach Todd Steverson, at the hitter's mini camp in AZ, January 2018 (Kim Contreras / FutureSox)

Outfielder Adam Engel and Hitting Coach Todd Steverson, at the hitters mini camp in AZ, January 2018 (Kim Contreras / FutureSox)

Then they head outside and prepare to put into action the principles they just discussed. First stop is the batting cages where they would break into groups of their own choosing, while coaches, including Steverson and Sparks observed closely nearby. Sparks, who was added to the major league staff for the 2016 season as the assistant hitting coach, is having the time of his life with the organization. Long regarded as one of the best hitting guys in the game, Sparky joined Trick (Steverson), his long time friend and coach mate with Oakland, as the Yin to his style-and-communication Yang. A low-key brilliant addition showing the organization values the individual players who best absorb information by different means. Sparks appreciates the opportunity for, “… coaches from all levels to join us and some of the top prospects, so we can all be together, develop an understanding about each other. The players learning about us is as important as us learning about them.”

Watching players break off into unassigned groups is always an interesting study of human behavior. Some moved from cage to cage wherever they could get the most turns; some found a partner and gravitated toward each other in collaborative exercises, others had a cage preference no matter who the others were in his cage, and finally there were two groups who were seemingly fast friends and spent their time together on and off the field.

One of those groups also had their preferred cage – so you could almost say they fell into two groups. I referred to them as the Four Tops because they included 3 first round draft picks and a second rounder:Zack Collins (White Sox #1, 2016)  Blake Rutherford (chosen 8 picks later by NYY, 2016), Jake Burger (2017 1st) and Gavin Sheets (2017 2nd). It was interesting to watch as this group of top picks separated by 2 years, 3 months (Collins almost 23, Rutherford 20, on either end) with the two picks from ’17 separated by less than 2 weeks (Burger 13 days older than Sheets, both age 21.) The 2-plus years that separate Collins and Rutherford may not seem like much, but in terms of experience and age, the Sox catcher is at the top of that list. With that and so much talk about his “pedigree”, it is beholden upon him to set the positive example for the others.

Nick Hostetler (pointing) chatting with third baseman Jake Burger (w/ bat), at the hitter's mini camp in AZ, January 2018 (Kim Contreras / FutureSox)

Nick Hostetler (pointing) chatting with third baseman Jake Burger (w/ bat), at the hitter's mini camp in AZ, January 2018 (Kim Contreras / FutureSox)

The second inseparable group I called The Electric Company – because they provided the power. Yoan Moncada, Luis Robert, Luis Curbelo, Yolmer Sanchez were the core inside the cage, while others on the outside waiting their turn would usually be Ti’Quan Forbes,  Micker Adolfo, Luis Alexander Basabe, Yeyson Yrizarri and occasionally Eloy Jimenez. The relationship between Moncada and Robert is the feel-good story that supersedes any sort of jealousy or negative competition and reveals the true brotherhood among players. It’s important to note that at least in the White Sox organization, it began with Jose Abreu taking Moncada under his wing.

Luis Robert Hitting Camp 2018

From the cages they met on the field for stretching and warm-ups before taking batting practice in their chosen groups. It was at that point when we were reminded that a camp in January is, by its own definition, an early camp. Thirty-one hitters means 31 different off-season programs, agendas, and stages of rest. This is understood by everyone in camp. Again, there is no pressure. It’s the time to get started on whatever change is needed so that it becomes a habit in time for the season, when it will count. One hitter in particular was identified by coaches and staff alike when citing the example of change: Adam Engel. One coach emphasized the fact that it wasn’t just his first day in camp, it was his first time facing live pitching in the earliest stage of his (next) new swing.

When you stop and think about it, we’ve all been Adam Engel at some point in our lives. You know how, at our jobs, sometimes we have to learn a new program or process, or have to file new paperwork or use a different piece of equipment or technology if we want to improve ...or even if we don’t? At first, it’s awkward because we have to retrain muscle memory connections and the only way we do that is from physical correction (mistakes.) Now, imagine it’s the first day attempting this new step and you find someone standing in range with a video camera recording  your first awkward attempts. Yuck. Who wants that to be what is remembered about our efforts? Especially when we improve exponentially each day. If you've ever experienced this kind of change for growth, then you can relate to Adam Engel, his new swing, and the video I took of him and shared online. That’s what a camp like this is for, as well. It’s a sanctuary. A safe place to try new things to improve. Here is that Engel video:

Following the last round of batting practice, everyone helped clean up and it was time for lunch. It was also the time when Hahn and Renteria met with those of us fortunate to be allowed access inside the camp. Each offered similar insights into the overall idea and expectations of the camp as well as answered individual questions. Including the following:

Hahn’s focus is building on success, developing confidence, not rushing anyone before they’ve shown they’re ready. "It’s not worth it. Still more additions this year, from the draft and possibly from trades" (showing signs of his alter ego, Wrangler Rick the Prospect Hoarder. Could have sworn I saw the red lasso in his back pocket.)

To Hahn's point about the draft, don't think the area scouts are giving anything less than 100% even with a system as deep as it is.  Veteran White Sox area scout, John Kazanas (signed many eventual big leaguers including Mark Buehrle and Brandon McCarthy) attended the camp to see the level of talent his eventual recommendations would be up against. That's the kind of dedication that makes an impact on the organization.

Kazanas Sparks Hitting Camp 2018

Veteran scout John Kazanas talking with assistant hitting coach Greg Sparks during the Hitting Camp in January

Renteria was quick to caution, “We all have to contain ourselves a little bit. Proud to have these young men, to see what's in the near future of the Chicago White Sox. But we’re not going to rush them. We’ve done a great job acquiring players; now developing them. We need to keep our eyes on the prize, don’t get too excited. When the time is right, let them make the best of an opportunity to play in the major leagues… when they’re ready.”

When asked about specific players, here’s what they said:

LUIS CURBELO:

RENTERIA: “Looks pretty good in the box, young kid. Continues to develop, seems to be on a positive trajectory with a future that we can hopefully take advantage of.”

JOEL BOOKER:

HAHN: “Talented kid, plays a tremendous centerfield. Love the speed. Good approach at the plate. We’re going to keep challenging him let him dictate where his path goes.”

SEBY ZAVALA:

RENTERIA: “Z had a nice season, as catcher and swinging the bat really well. He’s one we always have an eye on.”  He then proceeded to share an anecdote about a game last spring training when they were thinking of using him as a pinch runner. Said he asked Seby (“Z”) if he could run, Seby said he’s not the fastest but he is the best. All sort tongue-in-cheek but with a nod to Z’s commitment and confidence in any situation.

HAHN: “Seby obviously took a nice step forward last year, continued into the fall league.  Some see Collins and his pedigree as the catcher of the future, but Seby’s not taking that lightly. He’s not just going to let that mantle go. He’s earned his way into big league camp. Interesting guy. Hope he continues to progress.”

JAKE BURGER:

RENTERIA:  “Swings the bat pretty well, he’s a pretty impressive hitter. Yes, it’s just BP, but there are things you look for, eye-hand coordination, calmness, approach to the ball, Burger does it all.”

CHARLIE TILSON:

HAHN:  “A weight’s been lifted off him. Will report to camp without any restrictions. Has a lot to catch up on since he hasn’t seen big league pitching in a year and a half. But seeing the look in his eyes that he can play all out, without pain or fear, he can be the player he knows he can be and that’s definitely in his favor.

ELOY JIMENEZ:

HAHN:  “The good ones have a way of changing your timelines for them.  Keeping in mind he’s got only a few weeks above A ball under his belt and will start this year playing in his age 20 season, he could spend the entire season at Birmingham and still have a really good development year. We have a sound plan in place but, again, the good ones have a way of changing plans. We’ll have to see.”

YOAN MONCADA:

HAHN: “It’s easy to forget that he is still very young and with only half a year at the big league level. He’ll go into this season knowing he will be in the lineup on a regular basis, get regular at bats and continue to develop.”

Moncada in regard to his commitment to helping Robert, like Abreu helped him: “Said when they signed Luis that he wanted to take that same role as Abreu. Taking care and consideration speaks well to Moncada’s character.”

RENTERIA: “In passing, Moncada looked at me and said, “I’ve got him, I’m gonna take care of him.”

Yoan Moncada in the cage, at the hitter's mini camp in AZ, January 2018 (Kim Contreras / FutureSox)

Yoan Moncada in the cage, at the hitter's mini camp in AZ, January 2018 (Kim Contreras / FutureSox)

LUIS ROBERT (Important to note it was at this camp when I met with Luis' agent and uncle who both corrected the pronunciation of their last name: "RAH-burt"):

HAHN: "He’s a great talent, obviously, and it’s fun to watch him take bp just as it will be fun to watching him in spring training and wherever he spends the regular season, but more than anything his development off the field is the most important.  There are  so many adjustments he’ll have to address as a pro ball player in the U.S.: the schedule, diet, media presence, all unquantifiable. But he’s got a good support group; and having him here now, he’s getting comfortable with his teammates and with Camelback Ranch so it’s not overwhelming when he returns for spring training."

RENTERIA: “He’s excited, anxious to be here and he’s getting that all out of his system now before spring training. Yes, he’s outside of his element just as he was last year in the DR; he’s from Cuba, remember, the DR was an adjustment for him. Moncada is taking him under his wing, showing/ telling him dos and don’ts, and getting used to the culture. Being patient, allowing him to feel comfortable and confident rather than pushing him will pay big dividends for him and the club. There doesn’t seem to be any big language barriers here; baseball is its own language."

I’ll end with this thought from Rick Hahn:

“I want all 60 guys in big league camp to make their case and do what they can to force their way on to the 25 man roster. Aggressiveness in players is a positive attribute.”

Oh boy, spring training going to be fun!

APPENDIX

You can see video of a couple dozen of those player on our YouTube channel here, for free.

A breakdown of the 31 campers includes:

  • 16 with at least one spring training in Glendale under their belt
    • 9 draft picks,
    • 1 international free agent signee,
    • 6 via trade
  • 15 additions since April
    • 5 were drafted in June;
    • 1 international free agent signee;
    • 6 were the return from in-season trades,
    • 1 claimed off waivers, and
    • 3 signed as free agents in the off-season

And, since I did the research, you should also know the prospect breakdown of home grown (original White Sox) to integrated (acquired via trade or free agency after being part of another organization)

  • 15 home grown
    • 13 drafted and signed
    • 2 international free agent signees
  • 16 integrated
    • 12 via trade / waiver claim
    • 4 free agent signees

Instructors:
Cole Armstrong -  hitting coach, Double-A Birmingham
Jamie Dismuke - hitting coach, Low-A Kannapolis
Mike Gellinger - hitting coordinator
Charles Poe - hitting coach, High-A WS
Eric Richardson - hitting coach, Rookie - Great Falls
Goldy Simmons - conditioning coach, Kannapolis
Greg Sparks - MLB assistant hitting coach
Todd Steverson - MLB hitting coach
Allen Thomas - Trainer
Andy Tomberlin - Hitting coach, Triple-A Charlotte
Gary Ward - Hitting Coach, AZL
Future HOFer - Jim Thome
Doug Sisson - Field Coordinator
Chris Getz - Farm Director
Nick Hostetler - scouting director
Scott Takao - minor rehab coordinator / medical

40-MAN
Micker Adolfo  - Int’l Free Agent 2013 DR
Luis Alexander Basabe - Chris Sale trade
**Ryan Cordell  - mid-season trade from Milwaukee for Anthony Swarzak
Matt Davidson - Arizona Diamondbacks 2013 for Addison Reed
Nicky Delmonico - Free Agent signee Feb 2015
Adam Engel -  drafted 19th rd 2013
**Casey Gillaspie - 2018 free agent - from Tampa Bay / Durham
Danny Hayes - drafted 13th rd, 2013
**Eloy Jimenez - mid-season trade from Cubs for Jose Quintana
Yoan Moncada - Chris Sale trade
Omar Narvaez - claimed off waivers December 2013 - Tampa
**Daniel Palka - claimed off waivers December 2017 - Twins
Kevan Smith - drafted 7th rd, 2011
Charlie Tilson - 2016 trade with St. Louis for Zack Duke

NON-40
Joel Booker - drafted 16th rd, 2016
**Jake Burger - drafted 1st round, 2017
Alex Call - drafted 3rd rd, 2016
Zack Collins - drafted 1st round, 2016 (#10 overall)
Luis Curbelo - no BP - drafted 5th round, 2016
Jameson Fisher - drafted 4th round, 2016
**Ti’Quan Forbes -  mid-season trade with Texas Rangers for Miguel Gonzalez
**Tyler Frost** late addition - drafted 15th round, 2017
**Luis Gonzalez - drafted 3rd round, 2017
**Patrick Leonard - FA signing December 2016
**Tito Polo - mid-season trade with Yankees for Frazier, Robertson, etc.
**Luis Robert - Int’l FA sign from Cuba 2017
**Blake Rutherford – drafted #1 by NYY in 2016 (#18 overall) / mid-season trade with Yankees for Frazier, Robertson, etc.
**Matt Skole - free agent december 2017 from Nationals
**Gavin Sheets - drafted 2nd round, 2017
**Yeyson Yrizarri - mid-season acquisition from Texas Rangers
Seby Zavala - drafted 12th round, 2015

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