Team: Winston-Salem Dash
League: Carolina League (A+)
Overall record: 72-61 (First half: 38-26, 2nd place; Second half: 34-35, 4th place)
Final placement: 2nd place Carolina League Southern Division, missed playoffs
Far removed are we from the days of Luis Robert terrorizing Carolina League play with his .920 slugging percentage and 1.432 OPS across 84 plate appearances. Very few were upset to see MLB Pipeline’s No. 5 rated prospect ascend to the next level (aside from maybe our W-S correspondent, Julie Brady). As far as top White Sox prospects are concerned, Robert stood out as the most talented player to don the Dash purple this season. However, that isn’t to say the Sox advanced-A affiliate were short on aptitude this year.
Seven prospects from our top 30 midseason list saw time in Winston-Salem this season. Several who “just missed” being recognized as some of the best players in the system also got their shot. Third year manager Justin Jirschele, who took over the Dash following Omar Vizquel’s promotion to Double-A, had a lofty hill to climb if he were to live up to last year’s group that finished 30 games over .500.
Despite missing the playoffs, Jirschele managed 10 pitchers and four position players to promotions in 2019, as well as welcomed 13 arms and 11 bats to the highest levels of their respective professional careers. Playing in the postseason should always be an expectation, but as it pertains to the Carolina League, development takes priority and there was enough to call 2019 a success.
Among the focus coming into the Dash season included Robert’s ability to get out of Winston-Salem quickly and ultimately complete a full Minor League season healthy. He passed. Next up was Nick Madrigal, who completed his first season in A+ with just five strikeouts in 107 plate appearances as a 21-year-old in 2018, to take the next step. He passed. From there the list gets interesting.
With the added perspective of our own Julie Brady, this season in review will feature a focus on several high-tier prospects who took the next step in their careers, as well as names who may have flown under-the-radar at the start of the year, but have established themselves as true players to watch moving forward.
First, let’s begin with some arms. In my opinion, advanced-A is the start of the real evaluation of pitching talent within the system. Of the starters, Jonathan Stiever not only pitched well enough to put himself on the map, but broke the top-10 in our rankings by jumping 19 spots from the start of the year. In the article, we described Stiever as, “unquestionably the breakout prospect of the White Sox minor leagues this year. He was on our radar entering the year, cracking the top 30 at 28, but we didn't see this coming. As a fifth-round pick, Stiever had some attention on him and he has blown that wide open.”
“Stiever shocked and awed from his very first start with the team after the All-Star Break in June, slicing up opposing teams and throwing nothing but strikes,” Julie said. “He seemed to be dealing with some fatigue near the end of the season, his first full as a professional, but, generally in these late games, he would just have to throw more pitches to get similar end results.”
Hitting his stride in Winston-Salem, Stiever finished the advanced-A season in 12 starts with an 0.97 WHIP, 77 strikeouts compared to 13 walks across 71 innings with a 2.15 ERA. At 22-years-old, the right-hander may be one more full season away from pitching at Guaranteed Rate Field.
Not to be outshined is 23-year-old Kade McClure. After battling a leg injury throughout 2018, McClure pitched his way out of Kannapolis and tested his stuff against the Carolina League talent. It resulted in an affirmation that this kid can pitch. At 6-7, 230, many would expect the right-hander to blow away his opposition with a fastball. Instead, McClure uses his low-to-mid 90’s fastball to challenge hitters and subsequently work in his secondary pitches, which includes a curveball that has a 20-mile-per-hour difference than his fastball. As a result, the 2017 6th round draft pick maintained an impressive 2.3 BB/9 rate across 66.1 innings as a Dash this season. What’s more impressive is his 166 hits allowed over 174.1 career Minor League innings.
Round 1 goes to Kade.
— Winston-Salem Dash (@WSDashBaseball) August 9, 2019
Kade McClure strike out
Winston-Salem incorporated several left-handers in its rotation, which included Konnor Pilkington and Taylor Varnell for the first time. Pilkington earned White Sox Minor League Pitcher of the Month in April while he was still with Kannapolis and shortly thereafter jumped to the next level. A third round pick out of Mississippi State in 2018, Pilkington exceeded expectations after earning a promotion just 33.1 innings into his first full professional season. He was challenged in Winston-Salem, but he held his own to a tune of a 3.61 FIP in 95.2 innings. In total, the 21-year-old accumulated 129 innings, which is the most encouraging sign of all.
Varnell, meanwhile, is starting to garner some reactions that include a head nod or two accompanied with an, “oooh, alright, alright!” As a 29th round draft pick last year, the White Sox were able to benefit from his 127.1 innings pitched in both Kannapolis and Winston-Salem. If anything, Varnell acts as an organizational depth piece, but it’s hard to ignore his 115 strikeouts in 106 low-A innings on top of only 86 hits allowed. Julie wrote a feature on Varnell HERE, while our Ken Sawilchick interviewed the 24-year-old HERE back in May.
One fascinating development relates to 26-year-old Kyle Kubat. A former starter in college, Kubat was used throughout his seven Minor League seasons predominantly as a reliever. However, at the tail end of 2018, the White Sox transitioned him to full-time starter. The left-hander made his final eight appearances as a starter and went into the offseason preparing for a full season in an affiliated rotation. He pitched to a 1.23 ERA and 0.73 WHIP across 22 innings before being bumped up to double-A. Kubat ultimately worked his way to triple-A Charlotte and totaled 126.1 innings in his first full season as a starting pitcher since 2015.
Moving on to some notable relievers, Will Kincanon, Codi Heuer and Bennett Sousa garnered plenty of attention throughout their time in Advanced-A. Kincanon, an 11th round draft pick in 2017, gained some zip to his fastball, improving the offering to 95-96 miles-per-hour with consistency. After spending his entire 2018 season with the Intimidators, the 23-year-old notched his best season in three years as a professional. Among relievers who did not make a start, Kincanon led the team in innings pitched (58). He also struck out 71, allowed 45 hits in 42 appearances and totaled a 1.86 ERA. The right-hander has a strong case to start in Double-A Birmingham next season.
Heuer and Sousa were a part of the same 2018 draft class. Heuer was selected in the 6th round, while Sousa was taken in the 10th. They both hurdled Winston-Salem with relative ease.
Heuer was graded to have a 60-grade fastball and 55-grade slider, according to MLB Pipeline and also incorporates a changeup. The 23-year-old skipped Low-A Kannapolis entirely at the start of 2019 and walked only eight batters in 38.1 innings (1.9 BB/9) as a Dash. The 6-5, 195-pound right-hander owned a 2.82 ERA and 1.096 WHIP in advanced-A, then pitched better at the next level. He was promoted to Birmingham on June 20 and accumulated a 1.84 ERA in 29.1 innings. Heuer is on the fast track to the big leagues. Next season should offer a chance at a major leap in his development if all goes accordingly.
Sousa is right there with him, although he did pitch in Kannapolis to start his 2019. However, on the day Heuer was promoted to Birmingham, Sousa took his spot at Winston-Salem. The left-hander made the most of his time as a Dash by pitching to a sub-one WHIP and walking just five in 30 innings out of the pen. Sousa was assigned to double-A on August 26, so it would not be a surprise the White Sox decided to start him there in 2020.
Other notable arms:
- 21-year-old LHP Andrew Perez (8th round pick, 2018): 31.1 advanced-A innings, 1.15 ERA, 25 hits, 34 K/17 BB
- 24-year-old RHP Luis Ledo (2013 international signing): 44.1 advanced-A innings, 1.83 ERA, 35 hits, 41 K/21 BB – Julie: “Luis Ledo was the bullpen version of Yrizarri: hard but erratic thrower, still fun to watch.”
- 24-year-old RHP Wyatt Burns (2018 Minor League free agent signing): 35.2 advanced-A innings, 2.78 ERA, 29 hits, 33 K/13 BB
Walker is an interesting case. The 23-year-old outfielder struggled in his first taste of professional ball with a majority of his stint spent in Kannapolis last year. That may have been attributed to the grind of his collegiate season in Oklahoma, so many of us at FutureSox were intrigued to see how he would respond with a full offseason to reset.
Despite his 5-11, 190 frame, Walker offers plus power from the left side and when he’s able to find the barrel, the ball goes a long way. And it's loud. After a successful 20 games in Kannapolis where 13 of his 27 hits went for extra bases, Walker got his first experience at Advanced-A. After a slow start across his first 14 games, the 2nd round draft pick of 2018 found his stroke to ultimately slash .269/.346/.426.
Oh – he’s also really fast. Walker only stole 13 of the 20 bags he attempted, but that doesn’t represent his leg value (legs above replacement? f/bLAR?). He covers a ton of ground in centerfield and showcases plus capabilities on the base paths. Here’s what Julie had to say about her time watching Walker this year:
Winston-Salem was a fun team to watch, even if it wasn’t as prospect-stacked as it was last season. Steele Walker was the obvious standout. The outfielder joined the team at the end of April after batting .356/.437/.581 with the Intimidators, and although it took him a while to really get going on the plate, he certainly did. For the rest of the season, he was a doubles machine, hitting 26 with the Dash and 36 overall, poking ten home runs as well. He’s confident that the doubles will start translating over the fence as his development continues (he turned 23 on July 30), and it’s hard not to believe him when he says it.
Then there is Vaughn. A former Golden Spikes Award winner, the third overall pick in 2019 played in 26 combined games in the Arizona League and Kannapolis before joining the Dash for the remainder of their season. Noted by MLB Pipeline as potentially “the best all-around hitter in the draft,” Vaughn adjusted to the professional scene the way the White Sox hoped a top-five pick would.
The 21-year-old finished his first professional season slashing .252/.349/.411 at Winston-Salem with three home runs, eight doubles and 21 RBI in 29 games. The statistics may not be eye-popping, but the fact he was able to produce quality plate appearances given the circumstances is encouraging. What stands out most is his knowledge of the strike zone. In 245 total plate appearances, Vaughn struck out 38 times compared to 30 walks. It is not out of the question for the first round draft pick to start in Double-A next season, but a safe bet would assume he opens in Advanced-A and mashes his way out.
Pertaining to Vaughn, Julie notes: “the bat speed is incredible and everything he hits basically vaporizes. Some may remember the time he hit a baseball out of the dang stadium…”
Andrew Vaughn 3-run HR
Estimated distance: 1,684 ft
Estimated exit velocity: 222.7 MPH pic.twitter.com/DH0FSooZ4U
— White Sox Talk (@NBCSWhiteSox) July 31, 2019
Several Dash bats earned regular playing time including, Craig Dedelow, Jameson Fisher, Tyler Frost, Evan Skoug, Yeyson Yrizarri, Tate Blackman, Mitch Roman, Zach Remillard and Carlos Perez. Julie mentions multiple of the aforementioned. Since she watched a lot of the guys all year, I’ll give up the floor to her evaluations:
I would like to take a moment to bring some attention to the lesser-known players on the team, the guys that probably aren’t on many prospect lists but still deserve recognition. I could say nice things about everyone on this team, but I’ll try to limit it to a non-novel. Jameson Fisher returned to first base this year for the first time since he was in college, and as it turns out, he is an absolute first base defensive specialist, dropping into the full splits to corral off-target throws more times this season that I can count (he also hit 30 doubles).
Craig Dedelow is a huge power hitter (as in, he’s 6’4”), ending up with 18 dongs (good for second place in the Carolina League), but he also somehow hit 10 triples (leading the league by two). At least five or six times, he reached base by bunting down the third base line against the shift. Incredible. Yeyson Yrizarri’s arm at third base continues to be jaw-dropping, even if it doesn’t always find its intended glove. Catcher Evan Skoug has a Dedelow and Vaughn-type ability to just destroy every baseball his bat touches. Mitch Roman, who played around the field but mostly at second base, goes all-out, always going for the extra base or the impossible defensive play.
To wrap things up, it should be mentioned Tyler Johnson worked his way back from an early-season lat injury and threw 10 innings in Winston-Salem before his July 22 promotion. I spoke to Johnson about his season that threw him a curveball.
Also, Alec Hansen spent some time in Winston-Salem early in 2019 and dominated strictly out of the bullpen. He struck out 21 and walked seven in 12.2 innings, while allowing just three earned runs. Hansen struggled overall in Birmingham, accumulating a 2.107 WHIP in 39.2 innings.
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Filed under: Focus
Tags: Alec Hansen, Andrew Perez, Andrew Vaughn, Bennett Sousa, Carlos Perez, Codi Heuer, Craig Dedelow, Evan Skoug, Jameson Fisher, Jonathan Stiever, Justin Jirschele, Kade McClure, Konnor Pilkington, Kyle Kubat, Luis Ledo, Luis Robert, Mitch Roman, Nick Madrigal, Omar Vizquel, Steele Walker, Tate Blackman, Taylor Varnell, Tyler Frost, Tyler Johnson, Will Kincanon, Wyatt Burns, Yeyson Yrizarri, Zach Remillard