Season Preview: 2018 AZL White Sox

The Arizona Rookie League (AZL) started play on Monday and it is home to the White Sox younger or typically less-advanced rookie league affiliate. The Fire League is very interesting and our contributor Kim Contreras is usually witnessing much of the action on the ground level.

Back in 2014, the White Sox left their rookie league affiliate at Bristol, Tenn., and rejoined the AZL. The complex league is a rookie level league played in spring training facilities of member clubs in the Cactus League. The White Sox play their home games at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz., which doubles as their spring training home as well. Unlike extended spring training, this is a league with official score-keeping and recorded statistics.

It is sometimes referred to as "The Fire League" because temperatures are often in triple digits around first pitch. The games are free to attend and there are generally no concessions due to games being played on the back fields. AZL games are sparsely populated and it's usually just team officials, family members of the players and scouts in attendance.

The White Sox typically send their recent high school draft picks, prospects rehabilitating injuries and international signings from the Dominican Summer League to play at their AZL affiliate. There are also recent college draftees as well. The squad as a group is substantially younger than other recent AZL teams.

Currently, there are 35 players on the roster. Out of those 35 guys, only 13 are former college players. The rest of the club is made up of international signings and recent high school picks. Tommy Thompson will serve as the manager of the AZL club this year, after spending last season as a roving instructor. Gary Ward returns as the hitting coach and Felipe Lira is the pitching coach.

From AZL 2016 (Kim Contreras / FutureSox)

From AZL 2016 (Kim Contreras / FutureSox)

Pitching

Pitching in the AZL is different than in some other leagues because of how the ball travels in the Arizona heat. As a rookie league the staff isn't setup in a traditional manner when it comes to starting and relief roles.

Right-hander Hunter Kiel returns to the team this season. The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder was an 18th round selection in 2017 out of LSU. He throws very hard, but has poor control. He posted an 8.18 ERA in 11 innings last season with 16 strikeouts and 11 walks.

Kiel will be joined by multiple members of the 2018 draft class. RHP Austin Conway (6-foot-5, 200 pounds) was a 31st round pick out of LSU. Devon Perez was drafted in the 26th round out of Oklahoma. Lefties Rigo Fernandez (24th round), Taylor Varnell (29th round) and Aaron Soto (32nd round) are also members of the 2018 draft class. Varnell struck out 5 hitters in 3 innings pitched on opening night. 

An interesting addition to this squad is 2018 15th rounder Luke Schilling. He's a 6-foot-4, 230-pound right-hander from the University of Illinois. The 20-year-old dealt with a lot of injuries in college and we wrote about him more in depth here.

Also on the pitching staff are a couple undrafted free agents: 22-year-old righty Sean Thompson out of Virginia Commonwealth and 6-foot-6, 225-pound right-hander Carter Love from the College of Charleston.

Here is an unusual presence: Drew Harrington was a 3rd round pick of the Atlanta Braves out of Louisville in 2016. During the pre-draft process, he was listed as the No. 148 draft prospect in the 2016 class according to MLB Pipeline. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound southpaw joined the White Sox organization after being released and will get a chance to redeem himself.

Jacob Cooper was a 20th round selection of the White Sox back in 2015 as a catcher, then played more in the outfield. The 22-year-old posted an .822 OPS in Great Falls last year, but he is converting to the mound this season.

The remainder of the pitching staff is made up of former international signings. 20-year-old right-hander Edinxon Arias has spent the past two seasons in the AZL, but the Venezuelan is currently on the 60-day disabled list. Another 20-year-old from Venezuela is 6-foot-3, 195-pound Nelson Acosta. The righty has spent the past four seasons in the DSL and has a 3.69 ERA in 180.1 career innings.

Right-handers Ramon Pineda and Brayan Herrera are on the staff after spending one season in the DSL. They were both members of the 2016-2017 international signing class. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Herrera posted a 2.62 ERA last season with 47 K and 17 BB in 68.2 innings. Pineda is 6-foot-3, 200 pounds and posted a 3.76 ERA with 46 K and 18 BB in 67 innings. Both are 20 years old and should be interesting to watch.

Felix Mercedes is a 6'2 185 pound 21-year-old. He posted an .849 OPS as an outfielder in Great Falls last season but he's transitioning to the mound moving forward as well. They are joined by lefties Bryan Lara and Jordis Ramos. Lara has posted a 4.04 ERA in two seasons in the DSL. Ramos is 6'10" (!!!), 194 pounds and has posted a 4.70 ERA with 87K in 97.2 innings since 2015 in the Dominican.

Catchers

18-year-old Venezuelan Kleyder Sanchez is the name to watch here. The 5'10", 170 pounder was named as a sleeper by Ben Badler of Baseball America this offseason. As a 17-year-old in the DSL last season, the backstop posted a .764 OPS over the course of 43 games. The switch-hitting Jose Colina returns to the AZL as well this season. The 20-year-old posted an .803 OPS in 16 games last year in the league. Sanchez and Colina will be joined by two 2018 draft picks. Tyrus Greene was a 16th round selection out of the University of California. The left-handed hitter had 3 hits in his debut on Monday. Gabriel Ortiz was a 19th round selection of the White Sox out of the PJ Education Academy in Puerto Rico. The 18-year-old is 6'0", 210 pounds.

Infielders

2017 8th round pick Sam Abbott is the only holdover and returnee on the infield for the AZL White Sox. The former water polo star hit .225/.344/.275 in his debut last year. The 6'4", 225 pounder should get most of the work at first base and he walked twice in his season debut on Monday. The other 1B on the roster is 2015 international signing Harvin Mendoza. The 6'2", 185 pound Venezuelan was given a $300K bonus and posted a .748 OPS with a 76/78 K/BB rate in 125 games in the DSL over the past two seasons.

The rest of the infield consists of 2018 draft picks and recent international signings as well. Micah Coffey is listed as a shortstop after playing second base at the University of Minnesota. The 22-year-old Batavia, Illinois native was selected in the 30th round. He is joined by 2018 4th round pick Lency Delgado and 11th rounder Kelvin Maldonado. Delgado was taken out of Doral Academy in Florida and the 18-year-old is also listed at shortstop. We profiled Lency here and White Sox Director of Amateur Scouting Nick Hostetler praised him for a 70-grade arm with 70-grade raw power to boot. Maldonado is an 18-year-old and was drafted from the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy. The 5'11", 160 pound infielder was given an over-slot bonus of $175K as an 11th round selection. He is said to have defensive skills and speed.

Second baseman Brayant Nova showed decent plate discipline in two years in the DSL but hasn't hit for much power. The 19-year-old Dominican was signed in 2015 and posted a .740 OPS in his two seasons. Infielders Sidney Pimentel and Camilo Quinteiro were both given $300K bonuses to sign during the current international period and they are starting their professional careers stateside. Quinteiro is 21-years-old and was signed out of Cuba. The 5'11", 180 pounder reached base 5 times in his debut in the AZL. Pimentel is a 17-year-old from the Dominican Republic. The 6'1", 160 pound switch-hitter was detailed back in July when the White Sox made some of their international signings official. A 17-year-old starting in stateside ball is nothing to scoff at and he's one of the more interesting players to follow on this roster. He is starting the season on the 7-day disabled list however.

Outfielders

The AZL White Sox have a quintet of 18-year-old outfielders on the roster, further emphasizing the youth of this team. Cabera Weaver is the only "domestic product" of the bunch. The club signed Weaver away from a commitment to Georgia with a 7th round slot bonus of $226,200. The 6'3", 170 pounder has good size and athleticism. There are numerous concerns about whether he'll ever hit enough but he has top of the scale speed. He'll get plenty of opportunities to showcase that speed and work on the other stuff in Arizona.

The other four of those teenage outfielders were all part of the 2016 international signing class. Josue Guerrero is a familiar name due to being the nephew of Vladimir Guerrero. Josue is 6'2", 190 pounds and was given a bonus of $1.1 million. The Dominican posted a .638 OPS in 55 games in the DSL last season. Luis Mieses should be the primary centerfielder in Arizona and he signed for $428K. The 6'3", 180 pound Dominican received comps to Pittsburgh's Gregory Polanco when he was signed. Mieses is a very long-levered plus defender and he recorded a .621 OPS in 59 DSL games last season.

Venezuelan Anthony Coronado and Dominican Anderson Comas are the other two outfielders from the 2016 class on this roster. Coronado signed for $150K and even received a 14 plate appearance sample in the AZL last year. The 6'1", 180 pound right-handed hitter posted a .781 OPS in his first season in the DSL last year.  In 63 games in the DSL, Comas hit .291 but didn't display much power. He's 6'3", 185 pounds out of the Dominican Republic and received a $425K bonus. This outfield is incredibly young and raw but it's the most interesting group since the White Sox re-joined the league.

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