Danny Hayes, deep sleeper who may help the White Sox this year

Dial the clock back a little over a year, let’s say to March of 2015. There’s a first baseman in the system by the name of Danny Hayes. Other than the occasional Twitter jokes asking if that’s the eponymous White Sox beat writer from Comcast Sports Net, he doesn’t get much notice. He’d played as an older than league average 23-year old with Class A Kannapolis in his 2nd pro season, and was already fully relegated to first base. The 13th-rounder got on base at a good clip, but the power numbers were middling. His rookie ball numbers the year before were uninspiring, and he’d never hit more than six home runs in any of his four years at Oregon State.

In late 2014, Nathaniel Stoltz of Fangraphs had put a 60 FV on his power as part of a look at some sleeper prospects. So an analyst outside the White Sox world saw something worth noting by that time. The first hints that there was more than meets the eye began to appear.

One of our writers (Daniel Shapiro) caught some looks at Hayes in Spring Training in 2015. Interestingly, he was part of a select group of prospects doing separate hitting sessions with the coaching staff. Most of the rest of the crowd was the bulk of the highest-end hitting prospects in the system. Hayes was ripping line drives all over the field.

Then in April that year, Hayes was unexpectedly assigned to AA Birmingham to open the season. This was a two-level jump, and since the jump from A+ to AA is often considered the toughest within the minors, the leap looks even bigger. He leapfrogged 1st round (supplemental) pick Keon Barnum in the process, and landed in AA suddenly around league-average age. Was this just circumstance, or did the White Sox see something?

His first 20 games in AA went about as you’d expect: .153/.247/.222, no home runs, 17 K in 81 PA. Other than still drawing his walks, it’s clear he was struggling with the jump. But then in May, things started to click. His numbers the rest of the way: .270/.417/.392, 7 HR, 90 BB, 90 K  in 453 PA. He was hitting pretty well, and walking a ton (that’s a 19.9% BB/PA). The 6’4″ mystery man even collected some hardware, named best defensive first baseman in the Southern League by Baseball America.

Boxes checked so far, seemingly: ability to get on base looks premium, defense at the position as well. Whiff rate under control, and after an adjustment period, able to handle AA pitching with the bat. Box not checked: game power. And that’s a pretty critical box for a first baseman. That put him squarely on our list of “guys we really need to see”.

Another of our writers, Will Siskel (now also writing for Baseball Prospectus), caught Danny live in August. You can see Will’s detailed report here, and an interview with him here (scroll down). A couple things stood out. One is, the big walk numbers aren’t a case like Jared Mitchell, where he waits with bat on shoulder until he has to swing. Hayes went after some first pitches, and is more “selective aggressive” than passive. Second, while he may not have many game home runs to his name, the raw power appeared real. The long balls he hit in-game, and from what was seen in BP, were not cheapies.

This complete picture is what led us to rank Danny Hayes among the organization’s Top 30 Prospects in January, when no one else mentioned him.

Flash forward to 2016. Hayes is in AAA, Adam LaRoche has left the White Sox, and there’s a potential need for a DH, particularly one that hits right-handed pitching well. Hayes opens the year in a horrible rut – in his first 7 games he goes 0-for-21 with a whopping 14 strikeouts. But he makes the turn much quicker than he did in AAA, beginning in his 8th game this time, and since then he’s been on a ridiculous run: .442/.520/.814, 4 HR, 4 2B, 7 BB and 7 K in 50 PA. And while Charlotte’s ballpark is a bit of a bandbox, the two home runs I saw video of were not short-fence creations – and one left the ballpark entirely. In 13 games he’s hit more than half the home runs he hit all of last season.

Where does that leave Mr. Hayes and the White Sox?

Obviously this tear that Hayes is on is a small sample size, and if that’s the main positive going for him, that isn’t enough to justify a call-up. But if you look beneath the surface – draft round, overall statistical results, age for level – and dig into the tools and the context over time, there’s reason to believe he could be a major league contributor. He will give you strong defense at 1B (as a backup to Abreu if needed), will find a way on base even when his bat is cold, has shown significant raw power with hints of it translating to games. He’s adjusted quickly to each new level and hit for high average once established.

The likelihood of Hayes becoming a starting lineup major league 1B or DH is quite small. But the chances of him succeeding in a DH/1B split or platoon role are significant. There are other internal options the club may consider: Outfielder Jason Coats was just reactivated from the DL, and there’s Travis Ishikawa too but he hasn’t hit much in AAA so far. Importantly, none of these three players are on the 40-man roster, which currently stands at 38. And lately at least, Avisail Garcia has been showing signs of life – so there may not be a slot available anyway.

But if the Avisail Garcia and Jerry Sands combo isn’t working well, and/or the team isn’t successful finding a willing trade partner to upgrade from outside, Danny Hayes might be the right option in 2016.

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