Team: Charlotte Knights
League: International League (AAA)
Final record: 75-64
Final placement: 2nd place in International League South Division; missed playoffs.
The Charlotte Knights led the International League in attendance and provided the locals with much excitement in the Queen City. A playoff berth was on the line until the very end and the group made it a worthwhile endeavor even though they came up short. This roster was more prospect laden than it has been typically constructed and that added to the immense intrigue. Nearly 30 position players suited up for the Knights at various times this season. The same amount of pitchers toed the rubber at BB&T Ballpark as well. It was a year of shuffling for Mark Grudzielanek and his coaching staff.
Many of the International League ballparks are small by comparison and the league changed the baseball this season to be more in line with the projectile being used in the major leagues. These factors greatly impacted the offensive environment to the point where the league mirrored the excessive offensive stature of the notoriously hitter friendly Pacific Coast League. Across the board, home runs increased 158% in Triple-A this year. The slugging percentage in the PCL was .479. The International League slugged .446 which is a 57 point jump from last year.
Frank Menechino's group performed collectively as well. The Charlotte Knights finished 4th in the league in batting average with a .270 line and tied for first in OBP with the Durham Bulls at a .353 clip. The Knights were also 2nd in slugging percentage with a .470 mark. They had the 2nd highest OPS in the International League at .826. They were 3rd in the league in home runs after mashing their way to 205. The Knights also led the league in walks with 553 and were middle of the pack in strikeouts. They employed a very powerful offense that resulted in leading the league in runs scored with 779.
Th Charlotte Knights hit very well and didn't qualify for the post-season so that should be an indication of how their pitching was in 2019. The Knights posted the 2nd worst ERA in the International League with a 5.36. They surrendered 1,350 hits which was by far the most in the league. Their 755 runs allowed was the 3rd most in the IL. BB&T Ballpark in downtown Charlotte contributed to their league worst 202 home runs allowed as well. They also posted a league high 1.53 WHIP. The fans were witness to exciting baseball all season long because everyone loves dingers, but this type of roster isn't conducive to sustained success on the pitching front.
Starting with the position players and then moving on to pitchers, let's take a look at some of the prospects that put together an impressive season:
Position Player Highlights
Luis Robert only played 47 games with the Knights to close out his stellar campaign in Triple-A but he was the story of the season for the Knights regardless. Robert cruised through the Carolina League to start his 2019 season and then crushed the Southern League as well on his way through Birmingham. The 22-year-old cuban smashed 16 homers and scored 44 runs during his sojourn with the Knights. Robert posted an absurd .337 ISO with a strikeout rate of 24.7% and a 4.9% walk rate. Robert hit .297/.341/.634 with a .396 wOBA and a wRC+ of 136. Robert looked the part of the top-5 overall prospect that he is in Charlotte. He runs the bases like his hair is on fire and he's a menace in centerfield. La Pantera exceeded all expectations in 2019 and the locals were awarded accordingly.
Nick Madrigal advanced past three levels of the White Sox's system after being selected with the 4th overall pick in the 2018 draft. The 22-year-old finished his season with 29 games for the Knights after posting a 150 wRC+ with the Barons in Double-A. The 5'7" spark plug walked at a rate of 9.7% with a 3.7% strikeout rate in 134 plate appearances. Madrigal hit .331/.398/.424 with a 117 wRC+ and .366 wOBA in the International League. His carrying tool is a standout 65-70 grade hit tool to go along with speed and defensive value. He's a great baserunner and is also stellar defensively at second base.
Zack Collins has produced at every minor league level since being selected 10th overall out of Miami back in 2016. The 24-year-old left handed hitter posted a 140 wRC+ with a .401 wOBA for the Knights this year. His season line was .282/.403/.548. Collins also possessed a 17% walk rate with an ISO of .265. He was awarded with a cup of coffee in the majors earlier this season and his struggles were well noted. The former Hurricane raked in his return to Charlotte however. With an altered approach at the plate and a more optimized swing, Collins hit .357/.453/.678 with 23 walks and 26 strikeouts. He has defensive shortcomings and no permanent home in that portion of the game but he provides a profile packed with power and patience that is much needed in Chicago. Collins hit 19 homers this year and he's trying to replicate that success with the White Sox in September.
25-year-old infielder Danny Mendick earned himself a 40-man roster spot and his first major league audition with the White Sox. The 5'10" 190 pound Swiss Army knife hit .279/.368/.444 with a 109 wRC+ for the Knights in 2019. He walked at a 12% clip and hit 17 home runs as well. Mendick is the definition of a grinder. He was a 22nd round pick out of Lowell and he's parlayed that into a big league chance. He will likely receive an opportunity to become a member of the 2020 club in Chicago.
Speaking of not having a permanent defensive home, Collins isn't the only one in Charlotte who fits this demographic. The man that has been called The Yerminator went on a torrid run of harassing International League pitching as well. Yermin Mercedes is a 26-year-old bat only catcher who was acquired in the minor league phase of a previous Rule 5 Draft. Yermin hit .310/.386/.647 with a 150 wRC+ and .418 wOBA with the Knights in 53 games. While he didn't earn himself a major league look, he put himself firmly on the radar for other clubs in advance of December's Rule 5 Draft.
Many of the tenants in Charlotte this year were veteran players looking to get back to the majors or holding on for one last chance. Ryan Goins and Matt Skole turned solid performances into big league time. Brandon Guyer, DJ Peterson, Paulo Orlando, Jacob Scavuzzo, Ivan De Jesus Jr, Preston Tucker and Alcides Escobar weren't as fortunate.
- Ryan Goins INF/OF: .322/.406/.531 with 10 HR, 23 2B, 2 3B, 48 RBI in 83 games
- Matt Skole 1B/3B: .248/.384/.497 with 21 HR, 15 2B, 56 RBI in 92 games
- Brandon Guyer OF: .244/.367/.366 with 0 HR, 3 2B, 1 3B, 6 RBI in 16 games
- D.J. Peterson 3B: .624 OPS in 38 games
- Jacob Scavuzzo OF: .640 OPS in 23 games
- Paulo Orlando OF: .725 OPS in 69 games
- Alcides Escobar SS: .787 OPS in 96 games
- Preston Tucker: .754 OPS in 25 games
- Ivan De Jesus Jr. INF/OF: .664 OPS in 22 games
There were also some players filtered in and out of the Charlotte Knight's lineup who are also members of the White Sox's 40-man roster. These players have earned some major league time this year as well.
- Daniel Palka OF: .263/.374/.527 with 27 HR, 23 2B, 72 RBI in 106 games
- Adam Engel OF: .270/.374/.464 with 9 HR, 13 2B, 4 3B, 29 RBI in 64 games
- Charlie Tilson OF: .288/.345/.398 with 3 HR, 2 3B, 13 RBI in 61 games
- Ryan Cordell OF: .275/.327/.471 with 1 HR, 5 2B, 1 3B, 6 RBI in 14 games
- Seby Zavala C: .222/.296/.471 with 20 HR, 14 2B, 45 RBI in 82 games
Pitching Staff Highlights
As a whole, the pitching staff for the Charlotte Knights struggled throughout the season. The biggest story of the year were the 48.1 innings pitched by top prospect Dylan Cease in the league. Cease wasn't as sharp as 2018 when he posted a 2.39 FIP for Double-A Birmingham with over 13 K/9. In Charlotte, he posted a 4.48 ERA with a FIP of 3.79 and struck out nearly ten per nine innings. The stuff was still superb and he's since thrown almost 60 innings in Chicago.
In addition to Cease, 10 pitchers have made starts for the Knights this year. Jordan Stephens threw 37.2 innings before being out-righted and eventually claimed by the Cleveland Indians. Righty Spencer Adams has missed the season with a back injury but not before 17 complete innings with Charlotte. Right handers Donn Roach (79.1 IP) and Odrisamer Despaigne (83 IP) also helped fill the rotation for the Knights.
Six southpaws have made starts for Charlotte as well. Justin Nicolino was the innings leader with 116. Jordan Guerrero (73 IP), Hector Santiago (37 IP), Kyle Kubat (56 IP), Ross Detwiler (43 IP) and Matt Tomshaw (36.2 IP) have also joined the fray. Despaigne was the leader in the clubhouse with a 3.25 ERA.
Multiple guys threw innings out of the Knights' bullpen in 2019. Some of these arms are reclamation projects or players trying to hang onto a baseball career. Others are members of the 40-man roster and are either in the majors or trying to get back there.
Right hander Ian Hamilton is the 26th ranked prospect in the White Sox's system according to our mid-season top 30. The fireballer injured his shoulder in a car accident and missed the majority of spring training. The former 11th rounder out of Washington State made it back to throw 16.1 mostly unproductive innings for the Knights. Hamilton posted a 9.92 ERA but did strike out 20 in that span. He was hit in the face with a line drive while sitting in the dugout and missed the remainder of the 2019 season. He still occupies a 40-man spot on Chicago's roster. Evan Marshall, Jimmy Cordero, Dylan Covey, Josh Osich, Carson Fulmer and Jose Ruiz have all thrown out of the Knights' bullpen and they're all in Chicago currently and on the 40-man roster.
Marshall pitched 10 innings in Charlotte with a 0.00 ERA and has been in Chicago ever since. Lefty Josh Osich pitched 4 innings with the Knights as well. Jimmy Cordero (17.2 innings) and Jose Ruiz (14.1 innings) spent some time in Charlotte in addition to their big league work. Dylan Covey has shuttled back and forth but has completed 51 innings with a 2.82 ERA for the Knights. Former 1st rounder Carson Fulmer has struck out 51 over 34 minor league innings in 2019. Righty Thyago Vieira and lefty Caleb Frare are members of the 40-man that haven't spent much time in Chicago this year. Vieira has posted a 5.70 ERA in 47.1 innings. Frare has struggled with various injuries and has a 7.66 ERA with 34 strikeouts in 22.1 innings with Charlotte.
Right handers Juan Minaya, Matt Foster, Connor Walsh and Zach Thompson have all pitched significant innings in Charlotte this year as well. Minaya has been solid overall with a 3.71 ERA in 34 innings. In 55 innings, Foster has struck out 62 with a 3.76 ERA. Walsh has posted a 4.86 ERA in 46.1 innings. Thompson had a great season in Birmingham in 2018 but struggled with the Knights in 2019. The former 5th round pick posted a 5.50 ERA in 70 innings. From the left side, Colton Turner threw 93.2 innings this year with an ERA of 5.48. Hunter Schryver earned a late season promotion from Birmingham and the former ace out of Villanova struggled with an 8.56 ERA in 13.2 frames. Schryver did strike out 23 hitters in those 13.2 however.
Looking Forward to 2020
The Charlotte Knights are a Triple-A club so some of their priorities are a bit different than the other affiliates. They'll typically possess fewer prospects than the others because former big leaguers and veterans will occupy space on the roster. This is necessary to cover injuries in Chicago so that the major league team isn't calling up prospects to fill in before they're ready.
The opening week for the Knights could be exciting in 2020 though. Top prospects Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal will very likely return to the Queen City to start next year. Plenty of other prospects could start their season or end it in Charlotte as well. The 3rd overall pick in the 2019 draft could make an appearance. Andrew Vaughn likely begins his first full season in Birmingham but he should reach Charlotte eventually.
Gavin Sheets will likely begin the 2020 season as the first baseman in Charlotte after his stint in the Arizona Fall League. Micker Adolfo, Luis Alexander Basabe, Luis Gonzalez and Blake Rutherford are all outfielders with a chance to start off as Knights. Yolbert Sanchez could play in the middle infield depending on the development path chosen for him.
On the pitching side, there should be some reinforcements as well. Dane Dunning and AJ Puckett should return to action at some point and could get some run. Lefty Bernardo Flores likely starts in the Triple-A rotation and it's not out of the realm of possibility that righty Jonathan Stiever finds his way to the International League as well. In relief, right handers Ian Hamilton, Zack Burdi, Alec Hansen, Tyler Johnson and Codi Heuer could all reach Charlotte. Hunter Schryver could be joined by left hander Kodi Medeiros in the bullpen as well.
The turbo charged baseballs and ballparks mirroring sandboxes won't change in 2020. The offensive environment should be as escalated as ever and the White Sox should have more prospects filtering through BB&T Park in downtown Charlotte. It's tough to pitch in the International League but attendance should be stellar once again due to baseballs flying out of the ballpark becoming a trend.
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Filed under: Focus
Tags: Adam Engel, AJ Puckett, alcides escobar, Alec Hansen, Andrew Vaughn, Bernardo Flores, Brandon Guyer, Caleb Frare, Carson Fulmer, Charlie Tilson, Codi Heuer, Colton Turner, Connor Walsh, Daniel Palka, Danny Mendick, DJ Peterson, Donn Roach, Dylan Cease, Dylan Covey, Evan Marshall, Gavin Sheets, Hector Santiago, Hunter Schryver, Ian Hamilton, Ivan De Jesus Jr, Jacob Scavuzzo, Jimmy Cordero, Jordan Guerrero, Jordan Stephens, Jose Ruiz, Josh Osich, Juan Minaya, Justin Nicolino, Kodi Medeiros, Kyle Kubat, Luis Alexander Basabe, Luis Gonzalez, Luis Robert, Matt Foster, Matt Skole, Matt Tomshaw, Micker Adolfo, Nick Madrigal, Odrisamer Despaigne, Paulo Orlando, Preston Tucker, Ross Detwiler, Ryan Cordell, Ryan Goins, Seby Zavala, Spencer Adams, Thyago Vieira, Tyler Johnson, Yermin Mercedes, Yolbert Sanchez, Zach Thompson, Zack Burdi, Zack Collins