2016 Charlotte Knights Season Preview

Charlotte opens play Thursday, April 7th, along with the other three full-season clubs. Julio Vinas moves up from Birmingham to manage the highest level White Sox affiliate (AAA, International League) as they open on the road at Durham. Rich Dotson returns as Pitching Coach, joined by Hitting Coach Andy Tomberlin and assistant coach Tim Esmay. The Knights are beginning their third season in BB&T Ballpark, one of the crown jewels in all of Minor League Baseball.

Here is a look at how the Knights roster is constructed, who to watch and what to expect from the club.

Opening Day ages of the players are listed in parentheses, along with position for non-pitchers.

Charlotte Knights (2015 record: 74-70, no playoffs)

Top 30 prospects: Tim Anderson (#1), Jacob May (7), Chris Beck (11), Jason Coats (18), Danny Hayes (26), Matt Davidson (30)

Pitchers

The Knights’ rotation looks to be Johnson-Beck-Carroll-Turner-Gonzalez (not necessarily in that order), which is an eclectic mix of prospects, emergency depth and reclamation projects. Johnson looked at one time this past offseason like a lock for the 5th starter role. Then Turner, and later Mat Latos, were signed to the club, and combined with some poor showings in Spring Training, the picture changed quite a bit and Johnson finds himself back in AAA. It’s hard to say which version of EJ the Knights will get. Beck is the only pitcher in the group you might truly and technically call a prospect, but he’s got an enigma of his own – he’s returning from Ulnar Nerve Translocation surgery and didn’t pitch after early June of last season. Carroll continues to rack up frequent flier miles between Charlotte and Chicago and likely continues that path. Turner is the reclamation project here, as a potential Coop will Fix ’em story. Last but not least, the Sox grabbed Miguel Gonzalez just a few days ago as further emergency depth when Baltimore cut bait on him. He was a solid major league starter in 2013 and 2014 before falling back a bit last season.

The bullpen is similarly mixed, as is typical for the AAA club. There’s a prospect who spent time in the majors but couldn’t maintain command – Webb returns to Charlotte to find it. There’s a guy with big league experience the team specifically acquired in the offseason via trade – Kahnle looks like a high likelihood for future promotion after the team traded a significant prospect (Yency Almonte) to get him. There’s a reclamation project who did surprisingly well in spring – Aumont was the last arm out, and could be the first one up. Then there are a pair of reclamation projects who need a little more work – Volstad and Purke are looking to resurrect their careers in the White Sox system. There’s a player the Sox lost in the Rule 5 and then got him back – Blake Smith, a converted outfielder, was a favorite of Pitching Coach Rich Dotson last year. There’s a lefty specialist the team got in a prospect-for-prospect trade – Lamb was added as LOOGY depth. And then there’s Terance Marin, who’s back story is not like any other.

Miguel Chalas and Charlie Shirek start the year on the disabled list. Shirek was a White Sox prospect before spending three years pitching in Korea, and is now back for one more shot at the majors.

Worth noting – not a single pitcher who ended last year in Birmingham was promoted to Charlotte for 2016.

Position Players

There are five hitters in the starting lineup that are among the team’s Top 30 prospects, led by numero uno, Tim Anderson. Anderson will face a test against refined pitching, which is exactly what he needs at this point. Don’t be surprised if he struggles a bit at first before adjusting. Outfielders May and Coats both have major league potential and bear monitoring for 2016 and beyond. Hayes and Davidson are both fringe prospects at blocked positions, but both have shown signs of the potential to break out – Davidson in the resurrection category, and Hayes in the out-of-the-blue territory. Add in Kevan Smith on repeat, and there’s some legitimate prospect interest in this lineup, albeit many of them being of the fringe variety.

Carlos Sanchez and Leury Garcia are not prospect-eligible any more, but both have torn up AAA. In Sanchez’ case he’s still quite young and showed pretty well as a 22-year old major leaguer last year, and he could certainly be back up in 2016. Ishikawa should be the main DH while playing some first base and maybe even the outfield, and he’s certainly not likely to struggle against International League pitching. Fields rounds out what should be a lineup that provides big run production at BB&T this summer.

Overall Thoughts

Do you like high-scoring games? If so, this is the team for you. The lineup features a few prospects, and some ringers who have shown to do big damage in that league. They should score quite a few runs. On the pitching side, while there are some prospects in there, it doesn’t look like a group likely to dominate up and down. There should be quite a few 12-9 and 10-8 affairs, especially playing in a very offense-friendly home environment.

This will be the team’s third year in BB&T Ballpark, which in addition to being a launching pad in multiple senses of the term, is also a fantastic ballpark for the fans. The combination of high-scoring games and fantastic facilities should make the Knights an entertaining team to catch in person in 2016.

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