Welcome to another entry in a new offseason article series here at FutureSox. Separate from our twice-annual Top 30 White Sox Prospects lists, we are going to list the top five or ten minor leaguers in the White Sox system at each position on the field.
This article covers the top ten starting pitching prospects in the system. It is one of two articles that was expanded to ten because a major league team fields at least five starters and will almost certainly utilize more throughout a season. Starting pitching depth is incredibly important to a club's success and luckily for the White Sox, they have arms on the way.
1. Michael Kopech - Ranked 2nd overall, last level: MLB
After a slow start (4.70 ERA, 56 BB, 82.1 IP Pre All-Star Break) to the 2018 season in Charlotte, Kopech caught fire mid-summer, showing why he has one of the most exciting arms in baseball. Over his last 7 starts in Charlotte, the fireballing Texan struck out 59 batters and only issued 4 walks over 44 innings while posting a 1.84 ERA. This stretch of success ignited a firestorm of debate on his career trajectory, which ultimately resulted in the wildly popular decision to call him up to the major league squad in August. Over four major league starts Kopech flashed his electric stuff, but then disaster struck when he went down with a UCL sprain and was forced to have Tommy John Surgery. This was the worst case scenario for Michael and the White Sox, as he will miss the entirety of the 2019 season and his brief debut started his arbitration clock. History has shown that pitchers can undoubtedly return to full strength from TJS, but this is difficult setback to endure. It will be very interesting to see where talent evaluators place Kopech on 2019 prospect lists, especially when ranking him next to the #2 pitcher on our list.
2. Dylan Cease - Ranked 5th overall, last level: AA Birmingham
While 2018 was rough to the top pitchers surrounding him on this list, Cease is on a meteoric rise up prospects lists thanks to a hugely successful campaign. After starting the year overwhelming Carolina League hitters in Winston-Salem (2.89 ERA, 10.3 K/9, 3.5 BB/9), Cease was promoted to Birmingham in June and flourished. He improved his numbers across the board at the higher level, posting a 1.72 ERA with 78 strikeouts to 22 walks over 52.1 innings. It will be telling to see where Dylan will start the 2019 season; he could conservatively continue honing his craft in Birmingham or the Sox could challenge him in Charlotte. In either scenario, Cease will be knocking on the door for a big league promotion by the second half of the season if he maintains his 2018 dominance.
3. Dane Dunning - Ranked 7th overall, last level: AA Birmingham
After breezing through four starts in Winston-Salem, Dane Dunning joined the Barons rotation and continued his success until he was sidelined in June by a moderately strained elbow. Unlike Kopech, Dunning's injury did not require surgery, and he recently had a "pain-free" side session in Arizona. While the injury put a damper on his season, Dunning still complied a 2.71 ERA with 100 strikeouts and 26 walks over 86.1 innings. It may seem surprising, but Dunning actually pitched more innings at Birmingham than Dylan Cease did. Cease and Dunning are on similar timelines entering 2019, with both projected to push their way to the majors in late 2019 with an eye on a 2020 rotation spot.
4. Alec Hansen - Ranked 8th overall, last level: A+ Winston-Salem
This is the part of the list where the hard questions begin in abundance and we are delving into the murkiness of a pitcher's mental and physical capabilities. Alec Hansen's career is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. After a polarizing college career at the University of Oklahoma that saw him go from a 1-1 candidate to a 2nd round selection by the White Sox, he showed up in the professional ranks without a hint of the struggles that previously plagued him. In 2017 he was even better, leading all of the minor leagues in strikeouts (191) and posting a 2.80 ERA between Kannapolis, Winston-Salem, and finally reaching Birmingham. In 2018 the towering right-hander seemed poised to continue his assault on the upper-levels of the system but alas, he was sidelined for a big chunk of the year with a forearm issue and it all went downhill from there. My colleague Ken Sawilchik goes into fantastic detail here, but the gist is 2018 became a lost year and one to forget for Hansen. Realistically, it was naive to expect a smooth journey through the system for a pitcher with Hansen's collegiate red flags. 2019 will provide an opportunity for a fresh start, likely at Winston-Salem with his pitching coach/caddy Matt Zaleski.
5. Jordan Stephens - Ranked 16th overall, last level: AAA Charlotte
In contrast to Kopech and Cease, who had stronger second halves, Jordan Stephens started hot but faded down the stretch. Stephens began the year where he ended the 2017 season, in Birmingham. Over 7 starts there he spun a 9.1 K/9 and a 2.7 BB/9 rate while posting a 2.95 ERA, which was enough for the White Sox to promote him to Charlotte. Stephens was a reliable force in the Knights rotation and posted a 3.69 ERA with 55 strikeouts to 17 walks over 61 innings in his first 11 starts. Unfortunately things didn't go as well in his last 10 starts and his numbers dipped to a 6.07 ERA and worsening peripherals. While the poor second half is discouraging, Jordan is still in prime position to make a claim on a 2019 rotation spot that could possibly have multiple openings. If that doesn't happen out of Spring Training, Stephens would likely begin the season back in Charlotte, biding his time.
6. Spencer Adams - Ranked 20th overall, last level: AAA Charlotte
While it may seem like Spencer Adams has been in the Sox system forever, the Georgia native is only 22 years old and has finally reached the top level of the system. He is a far different pitcher than the precocious teen the Sox drafted back in 2014, pitching more to contact than going for strikeouts. Adams started the year in Birmingham and was roughed up, allowing 80 hits over 68.2 innings and a 4.59 ERA, but a hot streak of three starts (21 IP, 13 H, ER, 3 BB, 15 K) in late May/early June was enough for the Sox to push him to Charlotte. With the Knights, Spencer allowed fewer hits (82 in 90.1 IP) and his ERA improved to a respectable 3.19. However, he battled his control and his walk rate flared up to 3.8 BB/9, which was the highest total at any stop in his career. Additionally to his free passes, Adams struck out a career low 4.2 batter per 9 innings, a trend that will have to reverse for him to have success. The good news is that he is still very young, athletic, and has already demonstrated he can make adjustments at previous levels. As he has ascended the organizational ladder his ceiling has diminished, but odds are still good on him being useful big leaguer as a back end starter or middle reliever in the near future.
7. Jimmy Lambert - Ranked 26th overall, last level: AA Birmingham
If we had done these rankings last year, it would have been unlikely Jimmy Lambert would have sniffed this list. Considered a middling prospect, Lambert posted a workmanlike 3.84 ERA in 2017 with a 9.8 H/9 and a paltry 6.1 K/9. But everything changed for him last off-season when he overhauled his arsenal, added bulk to his lanky frame, and started putting together eye-popping results. Lambert started the season in Winston-Salem and dominated Carolina League hitters over 13 starts before being promoted to Birmingham. Lambert actually improved his numbers across the board at the higher level, but his season was sadly cut short by a oblique injury that he suffered during a July start. Between A+ and AA, Jimmy struck out 110 batters over 95.2 innings while just allowing 27 walks and 77 hits. He will look to improve upon those numbers in 2019 almost certainly starting at Birmingham.
8. Konnor Pilkington - Ranked 21st overall, last level: Rk Great Falls
Ranked as the 60th best draft prospect by both MLB Pipeline and Baseball America, Konnor Pilkington fell to the 3rd round where the White Sox gobbled him up at pick #81. Pilkington saw his draft stock fall due to depressed velocity and bouts of uncharacteristic wildness in the spring. His lackluster 2018 continued into his brief pro debut, but after a long and grueling college season, you can basically throw those numbers out. When he is at his best, Pilkington is pounding the zone with a fastball, slider, and good feel for a potentially plus change-up. Another plus for Konnor is his age, he was one of the youngest college arms in the draft and he leads a next wave of talent behind the glut of pitchers that are in AA/AAA.
9. Bernardo Flores - Ranked 28th overall, last level: AA Birmingham
A 7th rounder in the suddenly loaded 2016 draft class, Flores has been flying under the radar since the beginning of his career. Overshadowed by the breakout performances of fellow rotation mates Dylan Cease and Jimmy Lambert, Flores quietly posted a sparkling 2.65 ERA in 156 innings between Winston-Salem and Birmingham. He doesn't have the plus-plus stuff of the guys on top of this list, but he does a great job of throwing strikes and changing speeds with all of his pitches. Flores has one of the lowest walk rates of anyone in the system - he only issued 31 walks over his 156 innings in 2018 and over his career he has a 2.0 BB/9. The one caveat to his 2018 success is his strikeout rate dropped from the mid 7's to 6.1 K/9, mostly caused by the 5.4 K/9 he posted in the second half of the year he spent in AA. Similar to Spencer Adams, this could be an adjustment he made to pitching at a higher level, but it will be something to pay close attention to in 2019. Flores is in the same AA/AAA grouping with the majority of the list, but my money would be him beginning the season back in Birmingham.
10. Kodi Medeiros - Ranked 22nd overall, last level: AA Birmingham
The list ends with the newest member of the organization, lefty Kodi Medeiros, who was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers for Joakim Soria in a deadline deal. There was some contention among the FutureSox writers about Kodi's future role (and placement on this list), as many prospect evaluators see him destined to be a reliever. However, Medeiros has been a starter for the majority of his minor league career, and exclusively one with the White Sox, so for now he is a starter until proven otherwise. Medeiros is a former 1st round pick who has flashed plus on his fastball and slider, and shown some feel for a change-up that has some sink and fade. His numbers indicate his stuff is out in front of his control, as he has a career 4.6 BB/9 and issued 22 walks over 34.1 innings to end the year with the Barons. There are obviously some kinks to be worked out, but the White Sox have arguably the best collection of pitching coaches in baseball from the top to the bottom of their organization, so he is in good hands. Stop me if you have heard this before, but expect Medeiros to begin the year in the stacked Birmingham rotation.
Others who received votes from some of our writers: Jonathan Stiever
Next up: Outfielders
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