Player Development Q and A with Nick Capra and Kirk Champion

Eddy Alvarez (MiLB.com)

Eddy Alvarez (MiLB.com)

I – along with two other White Sox bloggers – had the exciting opportunity to speak with Nick Capra (White Sox Director of Player Development) and Kirk Champion (White Sox Field Coordinator). While the Q&A was mainly centered around AAA Charlotte, the topics ranged from Carlos Rodon’s promotion, to breakout White Sox prospects in the lower levels, and the upcoming 2015 Amateur Player Draft on June 8th.

The most recent AAA transaction – Jared Mitchell’s release on May 3rd and the subsequent signing of Tyler Colvin – figured to be a long time coming. Mitchell, the rare two-sport star, (baseball and football) NCAA champion at LSU, was drafted 23rd overall in 2009. Mitchell’s release was hardly a surprise, though, which Capra addressed.

“There’s never a good time for a release. We tried to get him going in Charlotte and he just didn’t have any success. He did walk some, but was not able to help us offensively,” said Capra over the phone.

A different Knights outfielder, however, is trending upwards, according to Capra. Trayce Thompson has put up solid numbers at Charlotte to date – a .742 OPS in 124 PAs, but has a 29 to six strikeout to walk ratio. Still, Capra and the White Sox are encouraged by his power display (.162 ISO) and defensive ability in centerfield.

Capra says that Thompson is the top OF prospect in the system.

“Batting average wise, he’s good. Look, everybody has their warts. He has a lot to offer defensively. Is he ready for the big leagues? Probably not right now. The quality of pitchers [Charlotte] is seeing is better. I would say he is the top OF prospect in the system.”

Regarding Matt Davidson, another prospect with similar or worse contact issues (32.5 K% in 126 PAs this season), Capra emphasized that Davidson is off to an encouraging start and has improved since his poor performance in AAA last year.

“This is a qualified major league ball player. This season there has been a lot of offensive improvement. I think he got caught in the trap of living up to the trade and score board watched too much last summer. He has put that in the rear view mirror. Defensively, his lateral movement has improved and he is playing a solid third base,” said Capra.

Thus far this season, Davidson’s offensive performance has improved. In 539 plate appearances last season, Davidson put up a meager 77 wRC+ – 23% worse than league average in AAA. This season, however, he has put up a 117 wRC+ – in large part due to an improved batting average (.230) and a robust display of power (.204 ISO).

Eddy Alvarez – whose return to baseball after a well-documented story as a silver medalist Olympian in speed skating – has surpassed all expectations the White Sox had. The White Sox, Capra noted, were lucky that Alvarez essentially fell into their lap. Carlos Castillo – former White Sox pitcher – reached out to the team and brought Alvarez into Arizona last year. From the start, Capra said, the organization was impressed by his athleticism. What they did not expect, however, was the switch-hitter’s immediate offensive (and defensive) success in professional baseball.

“It is unbelievable what he is doing – and then some. Sooner or later we are going to have to find some room for him,” said Capra.

Calling Eddy Alvarez’s start to 2015 “red-hot” would be an understatement. Alvarez has a slash-line of .324/.443/.509 and a 176 wRC+ to go along with 10 stolen bases. While he is a 25-year-old in A-ball, this is a player who – within the last year – just resumed playing baseball. It should be noted that Alvarez was an accomplished high school shortstop in Miami and also played a year of college baseball at Salt Lake Community College.

Capra also raved about Cleuluis Rondon – another switch-hitting shortstop who is currently at Winston-Salem. In Rondon, the White Sox know they have a plus-plus defender, but even still, Capra sees room for improvement both offensively and defensively.

“Offensively, he’s getting much, much better from the left side. It’s a matter of mechanics. We are trying to get him to use his legs more – he doesn’t use them all that much in aspects of the game – both offensively and defensively. He has a chance to be a special player,” said Capra.

Jordan Guerrero is another breakout performer that has turned heads within the White Sox organization. In the offseason, I compared and contrasted both Guerrero and former teammate Andre Wheeler – now in Winston-Salem. Guerrero, though, figures to join him soon – slotting into the starting rotation, whereas Wheeler is destined for a career – at least with the White Sox – as a reliever.

“[Guerrero] has developed his changeup and is going deep into ball games. I see his confidence and ability to change speeds as an advantage. I personally would like to see his breaking ball improve. He is making people notice within our organization,” said Kirk Champion.

On Wheeler, Champion added: “We probably project [him] as a reliever down the road. Though, he recently made a spot start the other day. He is a guy that can throw a wrap slider and a fastball that challenges hitters. He has personality on the mound – a characteristic you see in a lot of M.L.B pitchers.”

J.B. Wendelken – acquired in the Jake Peavy trade –  and Miguel Chalas – acquired for Alejandro de Aza – are two relievers at Birmingham who have also been thoroughly impressive.

“[With] Wendelken, we see him as a reliever. His velocity is up since his days as a starter and his changeup is good … [With] Chalas, he came back in Spring Training and threw the ball very well – jumped way up on our charts,” said Capra.

While unlikely to be bullpen candidates for the White Sox in 2015, these two right-handers figure to challenge for spots in 2016. This season, they have combined for 36 strikeouts and just five walks in a little over 32 innings pitched out of the bullpen.

On Carlos Sanchez, who has done everything and more for the Knights, Capra said that the White Sox are thrilled with his approach to the game and response to the demotion.

“It’s very simple: he wants to play in the big leagues. He’s a baseball player. He’s going out and doing it – low maintenance kid and knows he’ll get back to the big leagues and knows it is just a timing issue.”

Kirk Champion cited an encouraging development in the case of Courtney Hawkins.

“He is now a more mature player. Courtney has polished up and adjusted to the grind and the every day. For the most part, the holes in the zone seem to be shrinking. When a pitcher makes a mistake, he attacks it. He has worked extremely hard at becoming a good LF and takes pride in defense. He has improved as a person as much as he has as a baseball player.”

While one can look at stat lines and analyze Hawkins’ game with an analytic lens, this glowing testament to his character and personal development is equally – if not more – crucial than any power surge of his.

Quick Quotes:

Nick Capra on Carlos Rodon’s Promotion:

“We saw what we needed to see in Spring Training – he is polished. A really poised kid … working on fastball command on both sides of the plate … everyone knows about that slider … He threw a lot of changeups in Charlotte.”

Kirk Champion on Erik Johnson:

“If you know him, you’re really pulling for him. He had an outstanding game in Gwinnett. You’re starting to see that confidence in his fastball – pitching down and away. When you repeat something, you have some success.”

Kirk Champion surmising about the 2015 MLB Draft:

“It is probably the case that pitching is at the top of the list.”

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