Optimism was high for the Barons heading into the 2016 season, as the Opening Day roster seemed loaded with talent that included 11 of the White Sox top 30 prospects at the time. New manager Ryan Newman had to be excited about the possibilities with six top 30 prospects slated for his everyday lineup and four former first round picks on the roster. Unfortunately, how things look on paper, doesn’t always translate to success on the field. Injuries, under-performing and late season promotions led to an overall last-place finish in the Southern League North Division and a league-worst 49-91 record (29-41 1st Half, 20-50 2nd Half) that concluded with the team losing 47 of their last 63 games.
White Sox top 30 prospects featured on the Opening Day roster included Carson Fulmer (2nd), Trey Michalczewski (4th), Tyler Danish (5th), Jordan Guerrero (6th), Adam Engel (8th), Courtney Hawkins (9th), Brian Clark (13th), Eddy Alvarez (14th), Jake Peter (17th), Peter Tago (20th) and Omar Narvaez (25th). In addition, former first round picks Keenyn Walker (2011) and Keon Barnum (2012) also spent the entire season with the Barons. Lack of talent was definitely not the problem at Birmingham, rather it seemed lack of execution doomed the Barons. On offense, the Barons ranked near the middle of the league in most offensive categories. However, the pitching staff ranked at or near the bottom of the league in most team pitching categories.
On the positive side, Barons’ fans still came out to see their team averaging over 6,000 per home contest, easily leading the league in overall attendance for the fourth straight season (their new ballpark opened in 2013) with 418,361 fans attending games at Regions Field in 2016. The Southern League All Star game played June 21 in Mississippi featured Eudy Pina, Peter and Clark representing the Barons. The 23-year-old Clark was also named Birmingham’s 2016 Pitcher of the Year as he posted a 2.27 ERA out of the bullpen. Alvarez, a 2014 Winter Olympics silver medalist speed skater, was named Birmingham’s Player of the Year, as he led the Barons with 62 RBI before spending the last month of the season at Triple-A Charlotte.
With an opening day starting rotation of Fulmer, Danish, Guerrero, and David Holmberg, the pitching staff looked to be a possible area of strength for the Barons entering the season. However, the big four only produced a combined 20 wins against 30 losses in 73 combined starts covering 412 innings with their ERAs ranging from 3.70 to 4.83. Clark, Tago and Nolan Sanburn (acquired from Oakland in the Adam Dunn trade) were slated to lead the charge out of the bullpen and for the most part, they were the most consistent pensman throughout the season as Tago led the team with 7 saves, Clark led the team in ERA and Sanburn had 29 appearances out of the bullpen while making five starts.
Other notable pitching performances included 2014 second round selection Spencer Adams posting a 3.90 ERA in nine starts after a mid-season promotion from Winston-Salem (10 wins combined for the season). Matt Cooper (142 combined strikouts in 118.2 innings) also made an impression out of the pen after his promotion from Winston-Salem. Chicago area native and 2016 draft pick Zack Burdi also made a brief stop in Birmingham for 12 bullpen appearances along his quick ascension from University of Louisville all way to Triple-A Charlotte.
Michael Ynoa, Danish and Fulmer all contributed at Birmingham, while also making big league appearances for the White Sox in 2016. Ynoa (currently on the major league roster) spent the most time with the Sox, while Fulmer (8 games) and Danish (3 games) made brief big league stops before finishing their seasons at Charlotte.
Clark, Cooper, Connor Walsh and Sanburn are currently ticketed for extra seasoning in the 2016 Arizona Fall League where they will be managed by former White Sox standout Aaron Rowand. How they perform could determine if they will be ticketed back to Birmingham to begin the 2017 season.
Michalczewski began the season as the highest ranked offensive prospect on the Barons, following two decent seasons at Kannapolis and Winston-Salem in 2014 and 2015. The 21-year-old switch-hitting third baseman struggled at the plate much of the 2016 season, finishing with a lowly .226 average. He will have to cut down on his strikeouts (153 in 2016) in order to make the jump to the next level. He did manage a personal best 11 homeruns and seemed much more comfortable at the plate away from Regions Field (.256 and 8 homeruns on the road). He also performed better after being moved from the clean-up spot down to the fifth hole (.272 in 45 games) and did lead the Barons in total bases (177). Michalczewski is also slated for extra work in Arizona this fall and is still highly regarded given his age versus level of play.
Engel looked for a breakout season after shining as one of the stars of the 2015 Arizona Fall League. After a slow start in April and early May at Birmingham that saw him hitting below .200, Engel regained his hitting stroke at Winston-Salem in May (.327 in 14 games), and returned to Birmingham to hit .303 for June and part of July before heading to Charlotte to the finish the season. In just 74 games at Birmingham, Engel manged to tie for the league lead in triples (9) and placed fifth in stolen bases (31).
Looking to rebound after an injury-plaqued 2015 season at Birmingham, Hawkins missed a month early in the 2016 season and never seemed to get back on track. The power potential still remains for the soon-to-be 23-year-old, though a lack of contact and consistent production still plagues him. His 12 home runs paced the Barons, while his 25 doubles ranked him among the Southern League leaders. Hawkins will join several of his 2016 Baron teammates in the Arizona Fall League looking to get his career back on track heading into 2017.
Narvaez briefly began the season as Birmingham’s starting catcher after a promising season at Winston-Salem in 2015 behind the plate. His stay in Birmingham was brief though, as he quickly moved to Charlotte following injuries to Alex Avila at the big league level and Kevan Smith (injured before MLB debut following promotion from Charlotte). Due to Smith’s injury and the departure from the organization of Charlotte back-up Hector Sanchez, Narvaez first became the starter at Charlotte and then the back-up for the White Sox behind Dioner Navarro after another Avila injury. After impressing behind the plate and with the lumber at the big league level, Narvaez made Navarro expendable following Avila’s return from injury, and is finishing the 2016 season with the White Sox in a platoon situation with Avila.
Like Alvarez, Engel and Narvaez, Creighton product Jake Peter began the season at Birmingham before heading off to Charlotte mid-season to fill a hole left by roster shuffling at the big league and Triple-A levels. In 68 games around the infield for the Barons, Peter batted .304 with a .378 OBP. He too, found more success away from Regions Field, as he hit .324 (compared to .279 at home) with all of his 4 home runs coming on the road.
Other notable offense performances included the once highly-touted Joey DeMichele looking to get his career back on track in a repeat season in Birmingham. While DeMichele showed a little more power (11 HRs), and placed among the Southern League leaders in several categories including games (128-8th), at bats (487-8th), runs (73-6th) and triples (7-T3rd), a low batting average (.233) and high strikeout rate (123 times) didn’t help him. DeMichele, along with Michalczewski, Hawkins (137) and Walker (106) all finished the season with over 100 strikeouts, with Barnum (91) and Pina (90) not far behind. Barnum is another Baron who thus far has failed to live up to his potential that saw the White Sox select him in the first round of the draft in 2012.
Two newcomers to the organization showed promise in brief stints in Birmingham before completing their seasons with Charlotte. Once highly-touted prospect Nick Delmonico, signed after parting ways with the Brewers, posted a .338 batting average with 10 homers in just 38 games with Birmingham in April and May. After being acquired from the Astros organization, catcher Alfredo Gonzalez posted a .296 batting average in 39 games across July and August.
In order for the Birmingham Barons to get back to winning form in 2017, newcomers such as Mason Robbins (.314) and Nick Basto (.306), who finished 1-2 among Carolina League batters in average for Winston-Salem and Dash pitching standout Jordan Stephens (155 Ks in 141 innings) would need to bring an added boost. Quick-rising 2016 draft picks such as catcher Zack Collins, pitcher Alec Hansen and outfielders Alex Call and Jameson Fisher also could make stops at Birmingham sometime during 2017.
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Filed under: News and notes
Tags: Adam Engel, Alfredo Gonzalez, Brian Clark, Carson Fulmer, Connor Walsh, courtney hawkins, David Holmberg, Eddy Alvarez, Eudy Pina, Jake Peter, Joey DeMichele, Jordan Guerrero, Jordan Stephens, Keenyn Walker, Keon Barnum, Matt Cooper, michael ynoa, Nicky Delmonico, Nolan Sanburn, Omar Narvaez, Peter Tago, Ryan Newman, Spencer Adams, Trey Michalczewski, Tyler Danish, Zack Burdi