Ch-ch-ch-changes: Countdowns to call-ups

Happy halfway point! AA, A+, and A All-Star Games all took place this week, which means that we are halfway through the minor league season. And, for once, it’s been fun! There have been very few, if any, crushing disappointments! Who’s Jake Burger?

Unlike past years where middling prospects had middling years, the Sox have several top prospects having great years, and several more mid-tier prospects also having great years! Last week I looked at some standout single-game moments from the season so far, and the week before I reviewed the exciting seasons that two minyan’s worth of prospects are having. Really, they should have renamed the All-Star Games to the All-Sox Games this year.

As a natural progression, today, let’s look into… tHe FuTuRe(SoX)! What can we look forward to in the second half of the minor league season?

A better question might be what can’t we look forward to, since technically potential is limitless at this point. Things that will not be happening: Burger returns (sorry, Burgs). Burdi returns (before the Arizona Fall League, anyway). Eloy Jimenez stays with the Barons (see, it’s not all negative here).

Other than that, the possibilities abound. According to Dave Williams, several big names will be on the move upwards. I am taking this tweet as gospel in order to write this post.

This immediately makes Charlotte a team worth paying attention to every day, which they are… usually not. Hamilton will pitch in relief of a starting staff that includes Michael Kopech, Jordan Stephens, and a resurgent Spencer Adams. If Tyler Danish, who is still only 23 years old, and Carson Fulmer, who’s just 24, continue to put up the very decent numbers they are now (out of the bullpen and rotation respectively), that’s an exciting pitching roster to watch.

Michael Kopech in the Knights' dugout, 2018 (Clinton Cole / FutureSox)

Michael Kopech in the Knights' dugout, 2018 (Clinton Cole / FutureSox)

Speaking of Kopech, if he strings together two straight starts with two walks or fewer, that might be the push he needs to get a plane ticket to the promised land (the promised land being a field with a big downward-pointing arrow on it… the promised land has changed). The development of an apparently major-league-ready - or near-major-league-ready - curveball is encouraging, but the control is more important. Kopech actually started out the season pretty well in terms of walks per game: in his first five starts, he walked 2, 2, 1, 2, and 2 respectively. Since then, here’s how it’s gone: 4, 4, 2, 4, 2, 4, 5, 8.

Obviously there’s some work to be done there, which Kopech knows and will do. For those concerned about the escalating walk totals, keep in mind that Kopech is second only to Adams in youth on the Knights at 22 years old. He has blasted through the minors almost as quickly as his fastball finds the glove, and he’s done it with enough poise and character to silence any outstanding “makeup issues” critics. The dude was dating a reality TV personality for over a year and it wasn’t even drama. That’s incredible, and he’s gonna be incredible.

On the other side of the lineup, the addition of Eloy Jimenez and Seby Zavala automatically improves the starting nine. Nothing super exciting ever really happens at the plate in Charlotte normally, but Eloy has that drop-everything-and-watch star quality. I’ve seen it in games, I’ve seen it in intrasquads, I’ve seen it in BP. When he’s up to bat, it’s like his center of gravity increases just enough to inexorably pull your eye to him. He is not to be missed. I can’t imagine that AAA ball will be that much more challenging to him than AA, but whatever, it’s a step.

seby-zavala-111617

Zavala, split up from his… are they battery mates if they’re both catchers? Maybe Zavala is now one half of a AAA battery, while the Zack Collins half remains with Birmingham for now. They are also roommates in Birmingham, or were, or will have been. This is a smart developmental move so they can both see more time behind the plate, but it’s also a little sad because I was hoping that the Barons would accumulate catchers the way the Dash did with outfielders. In any case, the Knights (and the Sox) have been struggling with catchers, and Zavala and especially his bat will be most welcome. As a reminder, Zavala played college ball under Tony Gwynn and is very much a student of hitting. He slumped a little after a hot start, but is still hitting .271/.358/.472 with the Barons, and has a .343 batting average over his last 10 games (including a four-hit game).

This Knights team is about to be the most watchable in years. I have done zero research to back this up, but it feels right.

The Birmingham Barons do not need quite so large a kick in the pants to become interesting, but they’re getting one anyway. Hamilton, Jimenez, and Zavala are losses indeed, but the players they’re allegedly getting are Hella Prospects (as we say in the business) in their own right. That’s three of the Dash’s 27 outfielders right there in Basabe, Call, and Booker; we’ll have to wait to see what all the corresponding moves are, but Eloy cleared up some room and pretty much no outfielder currently on the Barons has been performing as well as those three.

Joel Booker, Winston-Salem Dash, 2018 (Clinton Cole / FutureSox)

Joel Booker, Winston-Salem Dash, 2018 (Clinton Cole / FutureSox)

Basabe might be the best and most fascinating prospect of the group, but the other two have real potential as well. Joel Booker in particular - he just won the Carolina League All-Star Game MVP on Tuesday, with a performance that included a first-pitch home run and a 3-4, 4 RBI showing. Between the hitting and the heroics - laying down a walk-off suicide squeeze, sprinting down the third base line for a walk-off steal of home - Booker is one to watch in Birmingham.

It's encouraging to see the Cease train doing the opposite (not ceasing). I got to see him start for the major-league team in Spring Training and he was good enough to make me forget that he had never pitched above low-A, which I still almost can't believe.

There it is, folks. He’s coming. Slowly but surely, and just in time for the outfield logjam to resolve itself. I haven’t seen him in person yet (damn you, Luis Robert’s Thumb), but I have a feeling his at-bats will command the same attention as Jimenez’s. The All-Star break ends for Winston-Salem today, and as of this writing there’s been no official official word of the call-up, but expect him there AQAP. Finally, we get a chance to see Robert play, and not just in spurts (don’t jinx it, why are you writing about this). The fog of mystery will disperse and from it will emerge Robert, fully formed, bat in hand, ready to slay some baseballs.

Luis Robert, light tower power, Kannapolis Intimidators, 2018 (Clinton Cole / FutureSox)

Luis Robert, light tower power, Kannapolis Intimidators, 2018 (Clinton Cole / FutureSox)

Meanwhile, first-round draft pick Nick Madrigal should be doing the same in either Kannapolis or Winston-Salem before too long. Oregon State is still in the College World Series, so he can’t sign yet, but it shouldn’t take too long after that ends for things to get moving.

These, of course, will not be the only moves made in the coming hours or days. Although the Intimidators have slowed down a little bit from their team-wide hot stretch, a number of them have more than earned promotions - namely, Laz Rivera, Tate Blackman, and Luis Gonzalez. There’s also several pitchers that could be poised for a promotion - the Intimidators are led by Lincoln Hezmann and Blake Battenfield, with Bernardo Flores and Tanner Banks putting up wow-numbers with the Dash. Don’t expect them to be far behind Cease.

Hopefully, by the time this post is 12 hours old, we’ll have more clarity on the revamped rosters (I try to never write anything that can stand up to the test of time). If you don’t have the MiLB At-Bat app on your phone - downloadable for free - you might want to do that now. There’s going to be a lot to keep track of.

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