In just two days, White Sox fans can utter in unison four of the most beautiful words in the English language:
Pitchers and catchers report!
Every media outlet around the team will be posting one or more articles that are titled something like "Spring Training Preview" or "X Questions the White Sox face in Spring Training". Ours will be a little different, focusing primarily on the open questions and stories to watch as they pertain to the team's prospects.
Before we dig into those questions, here is a list of the names of the prospects (still rookie eligible) who have been invited to big league camp for Spring Training (by position - asterisk indicates they are on the 40-man roster):
- INF: Jake Burger (3B), Casey Gillaspie* (1B), Patrick Leonard (3B/1B/OF), Jose Rondon* (SS/2B), Matt Skole (1B)
- OF: Micker Adolfo*, Luis Alexander Basabe*, Ryan Cordell*, Eloy Jimenez*, Jacob May, Daniel Palka* (OF/1B), Luis Robert, Charlie Tilson*
- C: Zack Collins, Alfredo Gonzalez, Seby Zavala
- RHP: Dylan Cease, Tyler Danish, Dane Dunning, Carson Fulmer*, Alec Hansen, Greg Infante*, Michael Kopech, Jose Ruiz*, Jordan Stephens, Thyago Vieira*, Chris Volstad, Connor Walsh
- LHP: Aaron Bummer*, Brian Clark, Ian Clarkin*, Jace Fry*, Jordan Guerrero
Let's also set a baseline - these are seemingly safe assumptions (barring injury or last minute trades) about players who have 25-man roster spots locked in:
- Rotation seems pretty set: Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, James Shields, Miguel Gonzalez, and either Carson Fulmer or Dylan Covey
- Bullpen definites: Joakim Soria, Nate Jones (if at 100% health)
- The starting infield: Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson, Yolmer Sanchez
- Outfielder definitely in: Avisail Garcia
- Catchers: Welington Castillo to start, and one of Omar Narvaez or Kevan Smith (probably Narvaez) to back up
Now, let's break the prospects into themed groups. This can be your guide to prospect watching in Glendale.
Outside of Avi in right, the starting outfield is less than solid. For the remaining two slots, the current candidates include three major leaguers (Adam Engel, Nicky Delmonico, Willy Garcia) and two prospects (Ryan Cordell and Charlie Tilson). There is also a small chance Leury Garcia could start in center field, but he seems more likely to get a bench utility role.
Let's start with center field. Of the possibilities, only Engel, Tilson and maybe Leury can hold down the position full time defensively. With Tilson being 18 months removed from competitive play, it sure seems he is mostly likely to start in Charlotte to get his feet under him. This makes Engel the front-runner, though his bat will be on a short leash.
What about left field? Delmonico made a strong, if statistically aberrant, showing in 2017 and seems to have the inside track. But he's a poor defender and there is question about how sustainable his hitting really is. Cordell would be his main competitor, though in Ryan's case he is coming off a back injury and missed time (but he can cover center here and there, which is a bonus). Willy looks like a long shot.
At this point, pencil in Engel and Delmonico for the starting roles in center and left, but have an eraser ready. Both Tilson and Cordell have a real shot with a strong spring showing.
The DH contest
Four men enter, one man will leave. Delmonico, if he's not starting in LF, becomes one of the two front-runners here. The other is Matt Davidson, who's defensive home is on the corners of the infield but he's not great at either spot.
In this case, the two prospects in the mix have only small shots to supplant the two major leaguers. Casey Gillaspie is out to prove his 2017 collapse was a fluke, and certainly in terms of previous prospect stock he out-shines both, but he probably has to make his case in AAA. Daniel Palka has something to prove too, in his case that the power loss in 2017 was temporary. He also has the advantage of being able to play corner outfield competently, but overall comes into camp fourth on the list of four. Both can be optioned to AAA.
Gillaspie and Palka are likely to get a shot in Chicago at some point in 2018, just not likely to open the season.
The opening day 2018 bullpen is less known at this point than in any year in recent memory. Outside of Soria and (if ready) Jones, the other 5 (or 6) slots in the pen are up for grabs. That's a lot of uncertainty, even for a rebuilding club.
Who will be partaking in this melee? Lefties are marked with an asterisk.
- Prospects (8): Danish, Infante, Ruiz, Vieira, Walsh, Bummer*, Clark*, Fry*
- Major Leaguers (12): Luis Avilan*, Fulmer/Covey, Danny Farquhar, Juan Minaya, Chris Beck, Xavier Cedeno*, Jeanmar Gomez, T.J. House*, Bruce Rondon, Rob Scahill, Michael Ynoa, Gonzalez Germen
20 arms for 5 or 6 jobs. With 15 who won't make it, less than half of those won't fit on Charlotte's roster either, which will be a mad scramble itself. I won't even attempt to dig into each of the dozen entrants with substantial major league experience, all of whom have that leg up. Those already on the 40-man roster (see list from the intro) also have an advantage.
Let's look at the lefties first, of which there are six. The three who are on the 40-man roster (Avilan, Bummer and Fry) have the inside track for what will likely be two left-handed jobs, so likely at least one true prospect gets a job here. If anyone of the other three arms has the best chance to bump one of others out, it's Cedeno. Clark and House are long shots, but strong springs from either could put them in the discussion.
That effectively leaves 14 right-handers for probably just 3 jobs. The crowd of major leaguers has every profile imaginable. Hurlers like Farquhar, Minaya, and whichever of Fulmer and Covey doesn't make the rotation, are also on the 40. From among the prospects, those already on the 40-man roster have the best shots, all else equal. Other than a single-game look, Ruiz hasn't been above A-ball so his chances are very slim. That means Vieira and Infante currently sit atop the prospect crowd, with the former having the higher ceiling but also being the most in need of some development. Walsh and Danish have only the smallest of chances to break in.
The bullpen will be the messiest battle, and possibly the most fun to watch.
Filling out the bench
Leaving the backup backstop role aside, there are probably three bench jobs up for grabs. They will need to cover the full outfield and infield, though obviously whatever the DH's defensive home is can narrow the field. There are some major leaguers up for roles here, including Tyler Saladino (can cover all three skill infield slots) and Leury Garcia (up the middle). Then there are yet more who might "slide" from the above competitions into bench slots: Davidson, Delmonico, Engel and Willy Garcia.
True prospects usually don't get bench jobs, because the team wants them to get more playing time. So while Jose Rondon and Cordell are not zeros here, they aren't likely to end up riding the pine. Palka is fringy enough that he could end up there. Patrick Leonard is the only true minor leaguer who seems best slotted to a backup role, and he's got a shot as a utility man.
It is likely that whomever between Delmonico and Davidson does not get the starting DH job, will get a bench job, covering 3B and 1B for backup purposes (plus corner OF from Delmonico). That leaves two slots for the skill infield positions and a 4th outfield role that includes the ability to cover center. For the former that probably means one of Saladino, Leonard or Leury. For the latter, Leury or Willy. So in the end, the chances of an actual prospect landing a gig doing a lot of sitting down are pretty slim.
Show and Depth
There is a long list of prospects who are in camp not because they have any realistic shot at a job, but for one of two other reasons.
The first group are the high-end prospects who simply aren't close enough to ready: Adolfo, Basabe, Burger, Cease, Clarkin, Collins, Guerrero, Hansen, Jimenez, Kopech, Robert, Stephens and Zavala. They are there to get a taste of big league camp, rub elbows with the big boys and the major league instructors, and give the team a glimpse of the talent. None will make the opening day roster, but some have a shot to see Chicago before 2018 is up. It's also a nice treat for the fans to get a good look at the talent in the pipeline.
Then there are those best described as emergency depth: C Alfredo Gonzalez, OF Jacob May, 1B Matt Skole, UTIL Jake Elmore and RHP Chris Volstad. Like the prospects above, they aren't making the roster, barring disaster. But disaster occasionally strikes. Case in point: once-fringe prospect Omar Narvaez finishing 2015 in High-A, then reaching MLB by the following July after a string of injuries ahead of him. In those instances, the Sox would rather call on one of these players than risk a developmental misstep on a key prospect.
In the end, while the Spring Training story lines will mostly focus on MLB roster spots, that doesn't mean there aren't a number of prospect-related stories as well. And certainly there will be plenty of young talent to watch at Camelback, on the main stage as well as the back fields.
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