Spring Training Preview: Breaking down the 2B competition

With Spring Training looming, the White Sox head to Arizona with their most complete roster in years. General Manager Rick Hahn was magnificent this off-season, adding immediate impact starters and quality depth to the team. However, to acquire starting pitcher Jeff Samardjiza the Sox sent the Athletics Marcus Semien, the presumed favorite to enter 2015 as the everyday second basemen. While Hahn stated that he “hated” to give up Semien, the deal showed faith in the current incumbents as well as the recently acquired challengers. I’ll profile them here with what we know and what we can hope to expect coming into 2015.

Carlos Sanchez

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Carlos Sanchez’s prospect stock has been quite a roller coaster ride. He went from being a complete unknown in 2012 to a top five prospect in the orgnization in 2013. He rocketed through the system in 2012, hitting a combined .323/.378/.403 through A+ Winston-Salem, AA Birmingham, and a brief stint in AAA Charlotte.  In 2013 the Sox then decided to take a Courtney Hawkins type of approach to his success and started the 20-year-old Sanchez in Triple-A Charlotte, where he predictably struggled, hitting .241/.293/.296. Assistant General Manager Buddy Bell alluded previously that the Sox intentionally aggressively promote prospects to see how they handle failure and if they can bounce back from it. Sanchez proved his mettle by posting a very strong Venezuelan Winter League result and greatly improved his numbers (.293/.349/.412) at Charlotte in 2014. Sanchez earned a major league call-up on August 22nd, where he hit .250/.269/.300 playing steady and sometimes spectacular defense at 2B. While Carlos Sanchez may not be the long term solution at second base, I view him as the favorite going into Spring Training to earn the job due to his above average defense and his proven ability to adjust to superior pitching.

Micah Johnson

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Micah Johnson is another exciting prospect who burst onto the scene running (literally) thanks to a breakout year. Johnson stole a MiLB leading 84 bases in 2013 while slashing a .312/.373/.455 line through A Kannapolis, A+ Winston-Salem, and AA Birmingham. As an encore in 2014, Johnson tore up AA Birmingham through the first 37 games to the tune of .329/.414/.466 while adding 10 steals. That outburst earned him a promotion to AAA Charlotte, where he unfortunately strained his hamstring and his numbers suffered (.275/.314/.370) as he dealt with the lingering injury. His hamstring eventually ended his season prematurely as the Sox decided to shut him down in August, preventing him from receiving an expected September call up to the White Sox. Johnson recently told Future Sox’s Brian Bilek that he feels fully healthy and has incorporated yoga into his off-season training regimen. If Johnson can stay healthy in Spring Training, he could provide a spark with his speed, strong OBP, and high baseball IQ. However, realistically he has yet to post strong numbers above AA and while his defense has improved, it is still a work in progress. Unless Johnson blows everyone away in Spring Training, I expect the White Sox to stash him in Charlotte to work on his defense with the goal of a mid-season promotion to give the team a injection of energy for a playoff chase.

Emilio Bonifacio

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I hesitate to put Bonifacio on this list since Rick Hahn said after his signing that he expects him to “help at multiple positions.” However, Bonifacio has extensive experience at second base, appearing in 196 career games there, the majority (121 games) coming in the past two years. Bonifacio also has the most major league experience and although his .259/.319/.341 career line might be Sanchez/Johnson’s future floor, he has proven he can provide that immediately. That will be important to keep in mind if the rookies struggle mightily in Arizona with the White Sox viewing themselves as contenders. Bonifacio provides good defense at 2B (career 0.4 UZR), has good speed on the base paths and is an effective base stealer, successful on nearly eighty percent of his attempts. Bonifacio would certainly be a passable everyday second basemen, but he would be much more valuable to the White Sox in a super-utility role.

Gordon Beckham

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Gordon Beckham was signed by the White Sox in January and the news was greeted with general indifference. Harsh, but understandable considering the former top 10 draft pick had played his way out of Chicago just a few months previously when he was dumped via trade to the Angels in August. After teasing the White Sox his rookie year with a promising .270/.347/.460 debut, his numbers across the board declined until he finally hit rock bottom in 2014 when he was hitting .221/.263/.336 at the time of his trade. The good news is he hit better in his short time with the Angels (.268/.328/.429), and he plays above average defense at 2B. Beckham also brings the possibility of a platoon at 2B, as he hit .293/.349/.431 in 2014 against lefties, though his career splits are much more even. Time will tell if the improvement against lefties is a case of small sample size or a successful, sustainable adjustment. Either way, Beckham is capable of filling in at 3B, SS, and 2B as a utility infielder and is viewed as a good clubhouse presence. I believe that will be his role in 2015, a part time utility infielder and a mentor to some of the younger players.

Tyler Saladino

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Tyler Saladino is the forgotten man in this discussion, as he suffered a season ending injury in July of 2014 which clouded his future. Saladino tore the UCL in his throwing elbow and had Tommy John surgery and his recovery was originally ticketed for March or April. However, Saladino is in camp with the club and recently told Future Sox that he is “practicing like normal,” but admitted that he is still working to get back to 100%. While he may not be back to full strength, it is encouraging he is able to participate in camp this early. Rick Hahn had indicated at Soxfest that Saladino should be ready for Spring Training and be able to join the full season club. In that same interview, Hahn also praised Saladino’s defense at shortstop, saying that outside of Alexei Ramirez and Cleuluis Rondon, he is the best defender in the organization.

While the shortstop position isn’t open, Saladino is able to provide the range and arm strength of a shortstop at second base. That is intriguing because Saladino was in the midst of a breakout season for the Knights, hitting .310/.367/.483 over 82 games before his injury. The slugging is especially noteworthy, as middle infielders rarely flirt with a .500 slugging percentage, especially at Triple A. His power numbers did not come out of nowhere; in 2011 he actually slugged .501 through 102 games in A+ Winston-Salem. Expectations were high in 2012, but he fell flat in Birmingham and a stop in Charlotte, where he could only manage .236/.353/.315. In 2013 Saladino repeated Birmingham with worse results, hitting .229/.316/.314. So which Tyler Saladino can the White Sox expect in 2015? The 2011 and 2014 slugger or the light-hitting 2012 and 2013 version? Saladino’s health is going to be a huge factor in whether he can contribute to the Major League team right away and it is definitely something to keep an eye on early in Spring Training.

Conclusion:

General Manager Rick Hahn evaluated second base as a position of strength for the organization and seized the opportunity to acquire a frontline starter by sending Marcus Semien to Oakland in return for Jeff Samardjiza. This move opened up the second base starting position for a Spring Training competition. The two favorites, Carlos Sanchez and Micah Johnson, are evenly matched and both have impressive track records of success. Johnson has louder tools and a higher ceiling while Sanchez has major league experience and a higher floor of production. Rick Hahn hedged his bet by acquiring Emilio Bonifacio and Gordon Beckham who both have the ability to play second base. However, it would weaken the White Sox elsewhere if Bonifacio or Beckham were to win the job outright, as it appears the White Sox signed them with intentions of making them utility bench players. The dark horse candidate is Tyler Saladino, who has been hot and cold in the minors and is currently recovering from Tommy John Surgery.

This is a great opportunity for several homegrown prospects to seize an everyday job with the big league club. Kudos to the White Sox for creating a meaningful camp competition to see which young player can step up and handle the pressure. I believe Carlos Sanchez has the slight edge on Micah Johnson and Tyler Saladino due to his experience and production at the higher levels, however, if Johnson or Saladino has a strong camp, the Sox have shown they are not afraid to promote aggressively.

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