White Sox fans who follow the minor leagues might be focusing their attention on the Winston-Salem Dash, with their bashing lineup and talented outfield corps. Or maybe they are more pitching-focused, taking in Birmingham Barons games on MiLB.tv. Those two teams’ rosters include most of the highly-ranked prospects in the system.
What about the Charlotte Knights? The depth of touted talent in the Queen City may not be as profound, but the reality is that most of the prospects who could see time in Chicago in 2018 are on the AAA roster.
Who among the Knights are most likely to get the call? And what impact might they have on the major league team, short and long term?
Below is a list of the players I watched on a recent visit to BB&T Ballpark (which by the way, is a fantastic place to see a ballgame) whose names I believe you’re likely to hear called at Guaranteed Rate Field sometime this summer. You might be surprised by some of the talent lurking here.
OK so this one kind of goes against the theme. This flame-throwing right-hander is one of the best pitching prospects in all of baseball, and is the second-ranked prospect overall in the Sox system. He's got filthy stuff, and is on the cusp of reaching the big leagues.
I watched Kopech's second start of the season, which in the end was a success, but in a way that was atypical for him. He only struck out three batters in six innings, but he did post a whopping 11:0 GO:FO ratio over six innings of one-run ball. So what happened that caused a guy who hits triple digits (his first batter he threw 99-100-100 to start) and has a wicked slider, to masquerade as a crafty ground ball artist for a night?
Let's hear from Michael himself, in the post-game interview, answering that question (from me):
"First and foremost that's a pretty good lineup. I went to a few deep counts with guys I didn't think I'd go into deep counts with. On the flip side, I had a few really quick at-bats that helped me get deeper into the game with a lower pitch count."
There's a good sign underneath this, in that Kopech's command was good enough that he was offering plenty of pitches for the other hitters to swing at. That's key for his development. And it's true that there were quite a few deep counts. In this video is an at-bat where he did manage to get a strikeout against Abiatal Avelino, and he shows you a few fastballs, a couple two-seamers and a slider:
Also key for his taking the next step is corralling his emotional response when things aren't going great. At a couple points in the game, Michael was seen stalking around the mound a bit, showing his frustration, as he's apt to do at times. He was asked about that very thing in that same post-game presser, and had this to say when asked (by Jonathan Lee of Sox Machine) if he needed to calm himself at times:
"Yeah a little bit. I'm a guy who gets pretty fired up. Keeping myself calm is always a big point of focus for me. Even today I felt myself getting worked up a little bit. I talked to a couple guys in the dugout between innings. They were kinda able to assess with me what why I was getting mad, figure things out. And then I was able to go out the next inning and felt fine."
Kopech's stuff was just as impressive as what I saw last year in Birmingham. But he's also now at a level where some of these hitters will be able to square up an upper 90s fastball, so he's got to make better use of his secondaries. He's starting to do that, and command of those pitches is improving.
He's not a surgeon yet, but he also doesn't really need to be. His fastball sat mostly 96-99, hit a few 100's and at least one 101, some with some very nice movement. Command was looser with his other pitches, especially his change-up, but things are progressing. For those clamoring for his presence in Chicago, keep in mind that Michael Kopech does in fact still need some development, and will need more even when he gets to Chicago. But he's a special talent who has a good chance to grow into an All Star-level starting pitcher. Just don't expect that right away.
I was hoping to see a relief appearance from Vieira and his triple digit heat. See him I did, but what he was showing was not exactly what I was expecting. In his first few at-bats of work, his fastball was running mostly in the 94-96 mph range, instead of the upper 90's to 100 I anticipated. After tweeting out the numbers in some degree of surprise, my impression was echoed by JJ Cooper of Baseball America, who noted he "just isn't throwing as hard lately".
Right after I tweeted that velocity range Vieira did start to bump it up, hitting 98 a few times and 99. And he was blowing away hitters by that point. I didn't get a chance to ask Pitching Coach Steve McCatty about this, but my guess is that given his previous control issues, the coaching staff is working on Thyago dialing in command first, then gradually adding more velocity. He did throw 17 of 25 pitches for strikes in his outing and struck out three batters. Vieira isn't ready for prime time just yet, but he's headed the right direction.
On the offensive side of things, Palka turned out to be the most pleasant surprise. Picked off the waiver wire in November after some struggles in AAA in 2017, you wouldn’t expect much more than organizational depth. But he’s consistently gotten plus marks for his raw power from scouting types, and destroyed California League pitching in 2015 and did the same in the Southern League in 2016. He was the 11th-ranked prospect in the Twins system prior to the 2017 campaign. And while strikeouts have been an issue for him (in part due to an upper cut, pull-oriented swing), he actually reduced his K-rate last year, despite putting up lesser overall numbers. Defensively he’s played a few positions but hasn’t excelled at any yet.
What did I see? Sadly I didn’t get a lot of good video, but here’s one of his BP sessions:
Palka put on a pretty serious show in BP, though the video above was his first session and he was just getting loose. He sent multiple shots over the fence and in fact out of the ballpark entirely. In-game he hit a bomb that went a good 420’ to slightly left of center field, which is oppo for the left-handed-hitting Palka. He worked some long counts too. Physically he looks very strong, and had no trouble handling right field defensively. This looks like a buy-low player that might work out for the Sox. He’s played corner OF, 1B and 3B in the past, putting him in a similar category with Nicky Delmonico in multiple ways. Not likely a future regular, but he could be a role player and add some value that way.
In the end, Palka may be the most ready to contribute among the Knights position players, but he's behind a player already filling the role he seems set for.
Finally. When I interviewed Charlie, you could hear the relief in his voice just to be back on the diamond:
"It’s been a long time coming, but it’s just the unfortunate thing. You get hurt, and sometimes it takes longer to get back than you think. But to be out here playing every day feels great. I’m very thankful, and just on the climb trying to get where I need to be."
For those unaware, Charlie has suffered three different leg injuries, and had been out of game play for over a year prior to this spring. Formerly seen as a potential starting center field prospect, this New Trier grad is just hoping to get back into a rhythm and show what he can do. Being a speed guy, that health is all the more important. But he is also a prospect who previously showed a strong ability to put bat to ball and find a way on base.
Here's his BP session:
Tilson is not someone you are likely to see with the Sox right away. He's got rust to shake off and the numbers show it, though they are trending the right way as he's reached base seven times in the last four games as of this writing. If Adam Engel continues to struggle in the majors, and Tilson does heat up with the bat and stays healthy, a change could come in May or June.
UPDATE: The recent re-acquisition of Trayce Thompson adds an extra wrinkle to the picture, and we will have to wait to see how that plays out. But Tilson is still on the radar for a possible promotion in 2018.
After Kopech, Gillaspie is the highest-ranked prospect on this squad. But there is a reason he’s listed further down the article. To get you up to date: Casey (brother of Conor, former White Sox third baseman) was a borderline Top 100 MLB prospect entering 2017. But a poor performance in AAA last year, coupled with some iffy scouting reports and a broken toe to add injury to insult, resulted in him being made available to the White Sox. When I asked Gillaspie about what he felt caused his performance last year, here's what he had to say:
"I think it was just one of those years. I kind of dug myself a hole, I’d find myself trying to make up for it in one game, and it just kinda went downhill from there. I broke my toe, and some other things were going on. I think it was just a bad year, and hopefully I can get things rolling here."
Here in 2018, Casey is looking to prove that his 2017 showing was an aberration. Here's a video of him working a long at bat, but ending in a ground-out, as a RHB:
And a BP session as a LHB:
What you can see in both videos, and what a scout I chatted with more or less confirmed, is that Gillaspie seems off at the plate. His timing looks caught between, the approach hesitant, and the swing looks good at times yet doesn't appear to have the power you'd expect. So far his numbers echo the visual: .200/.260/.200 with 20 K in 50 PA with zero extra-base hits in his first dozen games. Having not seen him before 2017 I don't know if this approach is a new thing or not. It is indeed early, but right now, this first baseman is not ready for the majors. It's too early to jump ship on his future - I'd just put him in the "let's check in on progress this summer" category.
I was going to write a longer bit about Cordell, and it's still possible he sees the majors in 2018. But the chances of that happening have substantially decreased since he broke his collar bone a few days ago, slamming into the center field wall. Hopefully Ryan gets back and makes a case, but with an 8-week recovery timeline, he won't even begin a rehab assignment until June, and may not be back in AAA until July. He could be in the discussion in August or September, but no earlier.
Until he does come back, enjoy this video of him hitting a double down the left field line and hustling by the camera:
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