2018 Kannapolis Intimidators Preview

The Class A Kannapolis Intimidators opened South Atlantic League play on Thursday, April 5th at home against Lakewood, and as of this writing are 1-1. The team is managed by Justin Jirschele, who even in his second year as the team's leader is only 27 years old. Last year he was the youngest manager in all of affiliated minor league baseball, and will be managing players who are in some cases just 3 years younger than himself. He is joined by Pitching Coach Jose Bautista, as well as returning Hitting Coach Jamie Dismuke, with the pair adding veteran presence to the coaching staff.

Here is a look at how the Intimidators roster is constructed, who to watch, and what to expect from the club.

Opening Day ages of the players are listed in parentheses, along with position for non-pitchers.

Kannapolis Intimidators (2017 record: 68-69 overall; 39-29 first half [1st], 29-40 second half [5th])

Top 30 Prospects: Luis Gonzalez (22)

Yosmer Solorzano delivers a pitch in AZL play (Kim Contreras / Future Sox)

Yosmer Solorzano delivers a pitch in AZL play (Kim Contreras / Future Sox)

Pitchers

While the official order hasn't been announced yet, the starting rotation appears to be made up of McClure, Henzman, Solorzano, Parke and Von Ruden. Lincoln Henzman (4th round) and Kade McClure (6th round) will tend to be grouped together as high round picks from the 2017 draft, and while neither made our most recent Top 30 Prospects list, both were among the names who just missed it. This will be a theme with this club - nearly half of the 15 players we featured in the "Just Missed" piece in January are on the Intimidators roster. McClure stands out, literally, at 6'7", while Henzman (whom MLB Pipeline ranked the 28th best prospect in the organization) is a worm-burner working his way into starting after working primarily in relief in college.

John Parke is also a 2017 draftee, but was selected in the 21st round and cruised last year in the AZL as a prolific strike-thrower (1.2 BB/9). Yosmer Solorzano brings an unusual career path back to Kannapolis - he was signed relatively late at 18 and skipped DSL to go straight to the AZL, did well in Great Falls the next year but struggled in his first taste of full season ball last year in A-ball (6.19 ERA, 11.0 H/9, 4.1 BB/9, 6.9 K/9) in 25 starts. He's a ground ball specialist who draws physical comps to El Duque, but he hasn't yet shown that kind of velocity. Kyle Von Ruden was plucked from the independent Frontier League in 2017, and made fifteen starts for the Voyagers last year, and looks to bring up the rear of the Kannapolis rotation this year with Davis injured.

Tyler Johnson was drafted in the 5th round (between Henzman and McClure), and there was some talk about stretching him into a starter role, but he's instead going to be working in relief for at least the time being. He's got a mid-90's fastball that can work higher, and some of our writers made a case for him being among the top thirty prospects in the organization. MLB Pipeline puts him at #27 on the Sox list. The rest of the pen is an eccentric mix of backgrounds (as bullpens tend to be), but keep an eye on lefty Kevin Escorcia, who has one of the best curveballs in the system. Right-handers Blake Battenfield, Jake Elliott, Luis Ledo, Aron McCree and Yelmison Peralta, along with southpaw Parker Rigler, make up the rest of the relief corps.

Justin Yurchak celebrates scoring a run with the bat boy, with the Voyagers (image provided to media by the Voyagers)

Justin Yurchak celebrates scoring a run with the bat boy, with the Voyagers (image provided to media by the Voyagers)

Position Players

Like the pitching staff, the Intimidators offense has a number of prospects that fall into the general description of interesting but mostly not among the top thirty. The one prospect on the team who we did rank is outfielder Luis Gonzalez, a true center fielder that we put at #22 in the organization. Taken in the 3rd round last June, this UNM product brings a tantalizing package of above average defensive skills, plus speed, and a proven track record of college hitting and plate discipline. He'll be flanked by Craig Dedelow, last year's 9th round selection, who brings plus raw power that he displayed last season with 13 home runs in just 65 games. The other starting outfielder is Tyler Frost, selected in the 15th round last year and making a triumvirate of 2017 draft picks roaming the Kannapolis outfield.

The infield gets a bit messier to predict in terms of "where will he play" questions. The most prospecty of the players in this group is probably Justin Yurchak, who put up a ridiculous .345/.448/.520 line last year in Great Falls after being signed from the 12th round of the draft. He was drafted as a third baseman, but so far this year he's been playing at first, which would unfortunately raise the bar for him to hit to get to the majors, if that is the long term plan. On the other corner appears to be Johan Cruz. This 22-year-old was ranked among the team's top thirty prospects a couple years ago, but he's not been able to do much offensively the past couple seasons in A-ball and it appears he may not longer be seen as a shortstop. Anthony Villa should also see some time mixed in at first, third and DH, after being the Pioneer League MVP last season.

The middle infield features a pair of later round 2017 draft picks. At shortstop is Laz Rivera, taken in June in the 28th round from Tampa (Division II). But don't assume he's not a prospect based on draft pedigree. He hit well in his draft year in the AZL (.296/.374/.446, K/PA of just 12.2%), and there were multiple positive reports from both Sox staff and scouting types in Fall Instructs and Spring Training about his defense at short and quick swing. Second base will be primarily manned by Tate Blackman, last year's 13th round pick, who spent last season with Great Falls.

Behind the plate will mostly be Evan Skoug, a 7th round pick who got 4th round money and the 24th-ranked prospect on the White Sox according to MLB Pipeline. He's bat-first with big power potential, but questions about his defense and swing-and-miss. Carlos Perez will be his backup, but it could be more of a platoon arrangement, and Perez is more defense-first in current development.

Then there's Mike Hickman, who was drafted by the Sox as a catcher, twice (36th round in 2015, 13th round in 2016), but last season while in the AZL, he played primarily at first base along with just give games at catcher. He's been the team's starting DH once, then played catcher and switched mid-game to 1B, so far in 2018. How much catching is still in his future or not remains an open question until we can ask him, when we see him in the next couple weeks.

Overall Thoughts

The fact that this squad has just one T30 prospect should not be taken as a sign that the team is lacking prospects. As noted earlier, they've got a bunch of guys who hover just outside the list. And by nature these are younger players, many drafted less than a year ago, and a number of them (especially Skoug, Yurchak, Johnson, McClure and Henzman) could easily make big jumps. That's the theme for this roster.

The lineup has plenty of speed, a number of plate discipline specialists, and a couple power bats. The pitching staff is made up mostly of hurlers that did well against college and/or rookie ball competition, and all but Solorzano are 22 or older. It's a team that should stay in almost all their games, providing plenty exciting moments but probably some periods of frustration. In the end, it looks like a fun team to watch, with a lot of athleticism on offense and defense and a mature-for-league pitching staff.

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