The poet Alexander Pope once famously wrote, "hope spring eternal," and SoxFest was abuzz with hope all weekend. It started on Friday night with the playful Rick Hahn and Ricky Renteria seminar, where fan after fan gushed to the Ricks about the overall direction of the organization (Hahn) or gave their gratitude for making the big league team watchable again (Renteria). Watchable or not, it is rare that a team's fan convention is so gosh darn upbeat after a 67-95 season. But there is that hope again, which seemed to be reinforced by the relative success of the first wave of prospects that have ascended to the big leagues. It is one thing to hear about Yoan Moncada's sweet lefty swing or Lucas Giolito's hammer curveball, but quite another to see them in Chicago.
Even with prestigious graduations, the White Sox farm system is far from barren, as they were just ranked the 4th strongest system in MLB by Baseball America and ESPN. Headlining the system are two potential superstars in RHP Michael Kopech and OF Eloy Jimenez, projected to start the season in Charlotte and Birmingham respectively. When peppered with fan questions about their timeline to the majors, Hahn played coy, saying that if the two 21-year-olds spent their entire seasons in Charlotte and Birmingham, it still would be considered a "success." Hahn revealed that every prospect in the system has a individual development plan (managed by Chris Getz and the player development staff), and ominously added that “no one is coming to Chicago until they’ve answered all those questions.” Kopech's plan includes a "mastery" of his off-speed pitches to check the boxes that would precipitate a call-up to the major leagues. Hahn did not say what Jimenez's plan involved, but I would assume it would include continuing to mash baseball and inflict damage on hapless faraway objects.
Aside from Kopech and Jimenez's big league aspirations, the majority of the upper echelon of the talent in the system is located in the lower levels. Specifically, there is a glut of outfield prospects that all seem appropriate for Kannapolis or Winston-Salem (which we explored a couple weeks ago) that is giving White Sox evaluators headaches on finding spots. White Sox Director of Amateur Scouting Nick Hostetler admirably took the blame for this log-jam:
"Chris Getz and I were sitting in his office on Thursday, looking at where guys may start the season, and you look at it and there’s just not enough spots for guys that should be heading to Kannapolis or heading to Winston-Salem. The outfield is a pretty good example, the outfield in Winston-Salem is going to be jam-packed, so it might actually force a guy to go a level higher or lower, but he shouldn’t be.
"We’ve gotta do a better job from the scouting department standpoint, and I said this to Getzy last night, I personally have to do a better job in spreading those types of players out. What I mean by that is, still taking some risks on some guys, but being calculated in regard to knowing that we still have certain guys that are higher floor guys."
“The risks don’t have to be high school guys, they could be a toolsy college player, or an Alec Hansen for example, where that ceiling is probably has high of a ceiling that we’ve drafted in the last two years, but also the lowest floor. I’ve just got to do a better job of making sure that we space things out a little bit and give this kids time to develop.”
White Sox Director of Player Development Chris Getz echoed the sentiment.
"I need to find them at-bats. I've been staring at my board pretty much every day and think about how I am going to work this out, but I will say it is a good problem to have. For the most part I feel confident that I have them in the right place, but there are a few guys here and there that we will continue to have conversations about throughout spring training. Mainly, I just want them to have the ability to play every single day because that's what they deserve to do at this point in their careers. It will be a challenge but it is a good challenge to have."
2016 draft picks Jameson Fisher and Alex Call fit right into that group and hope to bounce back after suffering setbacks last season. Call entered spring training last year with the intercoastal injury that plagued his whole season, but Hostetler said he looked 100% healthy at the recent hitters' camp. Fisher's outfield defense improved tremendously, but perhaps at the expense of his bat, as he only hit .245/.342/.402 between Kannapolis and Winston-Salem.
Also in the outfield mix is the suddenly polarizing Blake Rutherford. After nearly being selected by the White Sox in 2016 1st round, Rutherford found his way into the organization via trade this past July. Despite high expectations, he slashed .213/.289/.254 since being acquired, but he still has the full confidence of the White Sox and Chris Getz.
"Rutherford is still a very young guy, he is still figuring out kind of who he is, we have an idea of who we think he can be. He is a good sized kid, has a feel for hitting, and uses the middle of the field. Over time, through experience and some adjustments, he is going to figure out which pitches he can drive because he is hitting the ball very hard and our data would back that up. With natural maturation, this guy is going to start driving the baseball."
The wildcard of the system is undoubtedly Cuban phenom Luis Robert as the White Sox prepare and contemplate his imminent stateside debut. Robert was not at SoxFest, but he made a strong impression at the hitters' camp. For example, I can't print Hostetler's NSFW quote on his immediate reaction to seeing Robert's first batting practice, but I'll paraphrase by saying he was extremely impressed. So much so that Hostetler was concerned for the gentleman's safety that was throwing Robert's BP, as several baseballs turned missiles narrowly missed him.
Getz was a bit more tactful in his evaluation and while he would not reveal where they are planning to start Robert, he did say that he would be "more cautious than aggressive" in the initial assignment.
"It will be very telling when he comes over to spring training and we will go from there. I have an idea of where he is going to start. We had the hitters camp last week and I don't want to evaluate too much, other then the fact that he looks really good physically. You can tell he has a professional approach and he just has a good disposition. I think it is going to serve him well."
Creating some of his own problems as previously admitted, Hostetler couldn't help but add to the outfield mix when Luis Gonzalez fell to the White Sox pick in the 2017 3rd round.
"Luis is a guy that we believe there definitely is still ceiling for. One of the biggest misconceptions in the draft is when its a college player and hes not 6’4’’ and 160 pounds there is no projection or ceiling left. This guy was a two-way, he pitched and hit, so we felt that once he just focused on hitting, his hit tool, his power tool, his strength, all going to raise back. At points his arm strength was well below average, he was tired, he was worn out. Then in instructional league he shows up and he is showing an average arm and running and getting everything in the outfield. Its just a matter of him being able to play CF. He fell right into what we were trying to do, get guys who get on base, guys who put the bat on the ball, and he is left handed, aggressive kid. Luis fell in the draft due to some off the field stuff that we dug into and went over and over and had to feel comfortable to take that. Luis went out to hitters camp and blended right in with those big league guys. I do think the upside is very high and he is going to stay in CF, which anytime you stay in the middle of the diamond his value continues to increase."
Before tabbing Gonzalez, Hostetler recollects zeroing in 1B Gavin Sheets the round before.
"Its usually myself, Jeremy (Faber), Rick (Hahn), looking up at the board trying to strategically figure what the best course of action is. In that case, once we took Jake, we knew were going to have some extra money since it was an under-slot deal. Who were going to be aggressive and get that we didn’t feel would get to us in the 2nd round.
"There was actually two players, Gavin and a high school player that we aggressively pursued at that point to see if we could get into a position to get to us at our pick. The high school player did not make it to our pick, Gavin did. Gavin was one of the main guys we thought after Jake, both big power, Gavin is left-handed, but both similar profiles when it comes to plate discipline and pitch selectiveness."
In the upcoming 2018 draft, the focus seems to be on college pitching and prep infielders, which industry sources estimate to be the deepest position groups. Whichever direction Hostetler and the White Sox decide to go in in the early rounds, the state of the system is the strongest and deepest group of talent they have amassed in recent memory. I jokingly asked Getz if when he decided to take his position, if he had a crystal ball to see into the future of the White Sox minor league overhaul or if he was just lucky.
"I think I am going to go with the luck one. I'd like to say I knew this was all going to happen or I was going to be a part of this when I took the job but for one I just really wanted and was excited to come back to the White Sox. Then we made those moves and started accumulating all the talented players and things got brighter and brighter. The job has become more enjoyable as we have a fun group, a talented group, and now it is my job to get them to the big leagues."
The future is certainly bright and for a weekend in January a collective fan base was able to beam their optimism and dream of future playoff exploits.
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