Now that the Opening Day roster is set and we are hours away from White Sox baseball, I want to delve into the depth the White Sox have at their disposal when they, hopefully, make a playoff push. Last April, Rick Hahn spoke on the significance of depth in building a perennial contender and pointed to the St. Louis Cardinals as an organization who had always been able to insulate itself from injury or under-performance. Hahn hoped that “by this time next year” the team would be better set to shield itself from players performing towards the lower percentiles of their projection levels. After hearing from the fourth year General Manager last week, his rhetoric is clear: the front office does not want to be pigeonholed into playing under-performers due to a lack of internal options.
Hahn elaborated to me on the progression of the depth over the last year:
We do feel as if we have improved our overall depth situation over the past twelve months, and that we are now better insulated against injuries and/or underperformance than we have been in recent years. However, frankly, I am not sure if any club ever feels like they have enough. You’re always going to want to have more choices at any position should things go awry, and ideally, have many, if not all, of those choices be homegrown options. So, fundamentally, yes, we certainly feel we have improved in this area that is vital to success. At the same time, we’re not quite where we ultimately want to be, and we’re going to keep trying to build towards such.
Running through Charlotte Knights roster, you will see not only are the Knights going to be a fun team to follow, but also that the White Sox are in a far better position than they have been in some time. They still hold some fragility that leaves more additions to be desired, but there has been improvement here. The following players are all feasible options that could be decamped from their role in the minors into a role with the 2016 White Sox.
After a curious and unsuccessful attempt to slip veteran backstop Rob Brantly through waivers, the White Sox catching options in Charlotte will be Hector Sanchez and Kevan Smith. Sanchez, a former San Francisco Giant, figures to be the next in line after Avila and Navarro in Chicago. The 26-year-old has actually played in each of the last five seasons with the Giants and while his career offensive line isn’t exciting by any means, the switch-hitting catcher has a serious arm and is otherwise passable behind the plate. With Avila having concussion issues and Navarro on the wrong side of 30, the White Sox may look to continue to add to their backstop stock but that’s far from atypical, as Director of Player Development Nick Capra put it, “We may be lacking at the catching position but that’s normal industry-wide.”
The infielder that is most likely to break the roster in the first half of the season is the 23-year-old second baseman Carlos Sanchez. While Sanchez doesn’t add much in the way of flexibility or base stealing as a pinch runner, the Venezuelan import plays a solid second-base and hits from both sides of the plate. As a player who was always young for the level and competition opposing him, it typically took Sanchez time to adjust to each new assignment in the minors. Sanchez provides the parent club a potentially serviceable second baseman in the case of an injury to either Brett Lawrie or Todd Frazier.
Despite a remarkable spring, Matt Davidson was just sent down on Monday to the dismay of many fans. Davidson has struggled at the plate in Charlotte the past two seasons after being acquired as a top 100 prospect from Arizona in return for Addison Reed. Despite his offensive struggles, Davidson has really improved his defense and was awarded as the top defensive third baseman in the International League according to the league’s managers. But as one White Sox official so pointedly put it, “What’s he going to do? We got Frazier.” Whether Davidson starts to play a position away from third or not, he’ll have to make a role in Chicago with his bat. The recently turned 25-year-old heads to Charlotte with the intention of proving his March was more than just a Spring Training aberration.
The most exciting guy in this piece is top prospect Tim Anderson. Anderson will start as Charlotte’s shortstop. Hia potential for 2016 with the White Sox is seemingly limited and frankly, as my editor Matt has stressed, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the free-swinger struggle out of the gate against the craftier, AAAA type pitchers of the International League. In any case, his natural ability should ultimately propel him onto the radar and could even result in a cup of coffee this September.
After losing out to Jerry Sands for the 25th roster spot, Travis Ishikawa will return to the International League, but this time in Charlotte Knights’ uniform. Ishikawa is a tested veteran who would seemingly get at least a temporary call if Jose Abreu were to suffer any sort of injury.
While he’s not an obvious contributor, Leury Garcia will be on the roster in September if the White Sox are competing. Matt Eddy of Baseball America and others in the scouting community have marked his speed at or around the 80 level making him a premium pinch runner. Away from his principal usage as a pinch runner, Garcia has a nice overall defensive package with his strong arm pairing with the speed to make him a solid defender at a few different positions.
One of the more intriguing minor leaguers who could find himself on the 2016 roster is center-fielder Jacob May. At SoxFest 2016, Rick Hahn even went as far as saying that May could very likely serve a need for the team in 2016. Every bit of Spring Training showed the White Sox value May’s future prospects. Nick Capra spoke on his performance during camp: “He’s having a really good spring though, he’s very personable and he’s showing a lot of good things both offensively and defensively.”
As a switch-hitter who is gifted defensively and graced with elite speed, May could push his way into a role quicker than you think. May was enjoying an impressive 2015 until his season was curtailed when he was left concussed after crashing into Tim Anderson last June. Before the concussion, May slashed .311/.359/.359 but after the collision, his production fell off. As Capra put, “The concussion had a big impact. He wasn’t quite the same for obvious reasons.” Capra remains very positive with Future Sox’s #7 prospect and for good reason. Any production paired with his natural tools can make him a viable big league contributor sooner than later. It’s no surprise the team kept him in Major League camp until the last cuts this spring and there’s good reason they brought him along to San Diego to get a taste of the MLB life. May is going to be a major league contributor, it’s just a matter of when.
As a somewhat unheralded prospect, Jason Coats will return to Charlotte this year. Coats’ draft position is in no way indicative of the type of college player he was as an untimely injury ended his senior season at TCU abruptly. Capra expanded on Coats, “He’s put up numbers each and every stop he’s made. He’s kind of the sleeper for us but what you see is what you get and he’s continuing to build on that progress.” Coats would need an injury or two for a roster spot to become available, but it’s in no way inconceivable that he breaks the majors this year in the capacity of an extra outfielder.
After making starts for the White Sox in each of the last three seasons, Erik Johnson has once again been relegated to the minors. Coming off an International League Pitcher of the Year campaign, it is a precarious situation for the righty to be in, but he is a luxury for the White Sox waiting in the wings. Capra’s outlook for Johnson: “He’s got to shoot for duplicating and possibly being even better than he was last year.” While reports out of Glendale uncovered Johnson was lacking the velocity he had last year, it’s tough to put a lot of credence in March readings. If Johnson handles his starts as he had last year, he’ll get a chance to start for the Sox in 2016 – one way or another.
After being claimed off the Cubs in October, then released, and eventually re-signed in December, Jacob Turner will call Charlotte home for at least the start of his age 25 season. While his $1.5 million price tag is a relative pittance in the league nowadays, it’s a substantive expenditure for a minor league arm. My point being, the White Sox see potential in the righty. After being one of the headlining pieces in the Anibal Sanchez trade, Turner has struggled to stay healthy. The White Sox are excited about the opportunity of being the team to keep him healthy. With capable secondary offerings and some command struggles, Turner has an outside shot to make some noise for the White Sox. He will go to work with Richard Dotson and Scott Johnson in Charlotte with a regular rotation spot and an intent to recapture the shine that once made him a blue chip prospect.
The true Wild Card for the 2016 White Sox is Carson Fulmer. While the White Sox ultimately see him as a starter, he can end up pitching in either capacity. Comments from Don Cooper calling Fulmer “ahead” of Carlos Rodon as this point last year could lead one to believe the White Sox will have him up quickly. One thing is for sure, the absolute earliest you could see Fulmer in a White Sox uniform is the last week of April. The White Sox will certainly wait out the Super 2 deadline but past that, it’s anyone’s guess. This is to be taken with a grain of salt, but some people around Fulmer hold the expectation that the former Vanderbilt start will be pitching for Chicago very soon – like May soon.
After losing Zach Phillips to the Orioles earlier this march, the White Sox are nearly bereft of left-handed relief options at the top of the minor leagues. It would seem that the next guy up would be Will Lamb, the return from Texas in the Myles Jaye trade, who should start the year in Charlotte. While throwing left-handed in relief is a crapshoot altogether, Lamb has only had limited success. Despite unsatisfying results overall, Lamb has dominated lefties at every stop and could potentially work his way into a LOOGY role if he could harness his command.
In terms of right-handed relievers, the White Sox have a glut of big, hard-throwing righties with experience in the MLB including Daniel Webb, Phillippe Aumont, Josh Wall and Tommy Kahnle. There is a gaggle of arms that could ultimately perform their way onto the roster.
Kahnle is perhaps the first call the White Sox would if one of their right-handed relievers were to hit the DL. The White Sox moved a rising prospect in Yency Almonte to bring Kahnle to the South Side so it is clear they view him as more than just a guy. After battling through some of the worst pitching environments in baseball in Coors Field and the Pacific Coast League during his 2015 season, even the bandbox that is BB&T Park will be welcoming to the big righty. Kahnle has good stuff and a heavy fastball and is very likely to break the bullpen in 2016 prior to September call ups.
Webb, who most Sox fans are familiar with by now, was a prospect who had some serious buzz as a potential future closer. The White Sox have been willing to find innings for the 26-year-old over the last three years despite control issues. Webb is likely running out of chances in Chicago so 2016 is a make or break year of sorts.
Phillippe Aumont, a former top prospect and 11th overall pick for the Mariners, has never been able to keep the ball in the strike zone whether he was in the minors or playing with Phillies. Given his 6′ 7″ frame, there’s still a bit of slack for Aumont that holds some degree of hope that the righty finds some repeatability in his delivery. One White Sox coach told me the team was very happy with his showing in Glendale in his first months with the organization.
After being drafted by the Padres in Rule 5 draft this past December, Blake Smith will return to the White Sox and start the year in Charlotte. Smith was drafted in 2009 in the 2nd round as an outfielder. After converting to a pitcher in 2013, Smith has developed a nice fastball-slider combination to go along with his 6’2″. 220 pound athletic body type. Coming off his best year as a pitcher and after getting a chance to compete for a roster spot in San Diego, Smith should have confidence on his side as he moves to rise amongst his competition in Charlotte. Charlotte Pitching Coach Rich Dotson went out of his way to talk up Smith in 2015 when our Rob Young was there to report on the Knights.
With a healthy mix of legitimate prospects, organizational performers and additions from outside the organization, the 2016 White Sox bring far more depth and security than teams of year’s past. While GM Rick Hahn will be the first to tell you that the team could always use more more, but progress has been made in this respect. In the unfortunate case that the Major League has players performing in the 10th and 20th percentiles as they did in 2015, the players waiting in the wings will have to earn their chance, and that’s a stark contrast from what we could say in the past.
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