A farm-focused White Sox Spring Training guidebook - seven storylines

Pitchers and catchers have reported.

As Spring Training 2017 opens, all the media outlets around the team have published some version of a preview article, pointing their readers to the storylines they should keep an eye on for the next month and a half. We are doing the same of course, but with a focus on what effects prospects and the team’s minor league affiliates, because that’s what we do.

That means there are some certainly interesting themes in camp that we won’t cover here: New manager Rick Renteria and his clubhouse style, how the holdover players are handling the rebuild, photos of Chris Sale in a Red Sox uniform (insert involuntary shiver here) and so on. You can go to your other favorite White Sox media outlet for those stories.

Here are the stories that are related to the players who aren’t yet major leaguers, haven’t yet fully established at that level, or who may end up in the minors anyway.

Will there be any more trades?

The literal answer to this is assuredly yes, as there will undoubtedly be some minor moves. But will a team take a last minute stab at Jose Quintana, Todd Frazier, David Robertson, Melky Cabrera or some other veteran?

Major trades in spring training are rare. But with stories flying around (and seemingly confirmed by Hahn himself) that multiple large deals were very close recently but didn’t materialize, it can’t be dismissed. The Sox farm system has already gone from bottom third to top third in prospect depth in less than a year, and if another major or trade or two occurs soon, they’ll likely be in the discussion for being among the best couple or three systems in MLB.

It seems more likely for these deals to occur in July or even next offseason. But if another team feels they are just that one piece away or loses someone key to injury, Rick Hahn would certainly happy to add yet more high end prospect talent to the organization.

Shiny new toys

Speaking of trading for prospects, in case you’ve been living in a bunker for the past few months, the White Sox acquired seven significant prospects this offseason by trading away Chris Sale and Adam Eaton. They also made a Rule 5 pickup, traded for a new potential center fielder late last year, and picked up a couple outfield competitors on the side. The list of prospects out there showing their wares who weren’t with the club last year includes:

The majority of the players above (those in italics) will be in major league camp, and the others are all likely to see a game or two with the big boys. This doesn’t even include Charlie Tilson (acquired in July) or the 2016 draftees who are also in their first Sox camp this year. That’s a ton of new talent for everyone to gawk at and dream on when considering the team’s rebuild.

If you are planning to catch some Spring Training action this year, make sure to spend some time wandering around the back fields too. The talent on display among the minor leaguers will be better than the Sox have been able to showcase in over a decade.

Coop’s Magic

It’s an annual tradition at Camelback. Pitching coach/guru Don Cooper sits atop his throne as the front office leaves at his feet two baskets of pitchers – one filled with shiny new prospects, the other with bargain bin pickups of yesteryear’s hottest toys. With a flared wave of his arm and a Brooklyn-imbued incantation about staying tall, some of the misfit toys walk again and some of the prospects make their next leap forward toward big league meal money.

Who will be brought to Dr. Cooper this year? In the prospect category, he will be tasked with getting Giolito back to his once and former self, helping Kopech improve his command, and probably sprinkling the good word on cutters all over the back fields. While his greater focus will be on pitchers likely to contribute this year like Giolito, Lopez, Burdi, Covey and Carson Fulmer, he’ll undoubtedly also be spending time with Hansen, Dunning and other hurlers who are a little deeper on the depth chart at this point in their careers.

Then there are the reclamation projects, some of whom will end up in Charlotte or even Birmingham. There are the long-time major leaguers looking to lengthen or resurrect their careers: Anthony Swarzak and Cory Luebke are hoping for opportunities in the pen as they come up. Then there are players who have just barely knocked on the door like Giovanni Soto. There aren’t as many of these “4-A” arms this year as in some years past, as the team prefers to focus on letting the kids play.

The outfield / DH crowd

The first, and messiest, of the three roster spot battlefields revolves around the combination of outfielders and designated hitter. Cabrera will be there unless he’s traded, and Tilson will man center as long as he’s healthy. Avisail Garcia is somehow still around, and he likely makes the club. That leaves two open roster slots as outfielder and/or DH, for these competitors:

  • OF Peter Bourjos
    • Why he makes it: Plays all slots, full timer in 2016, $1.35M deal if in majors
    • Why he might not: soon-to-be 30-year old has never hit much, lost a step, not in long term picture, not on 40-man
  • OF Rymer Liriano
    • Why he makes it: Highly regarded prospect before freak injury, 25-year old with ceiling room, is on 40-man, out of options
    • Why he might not: Did not play in 2016, has struggled to actualize tools
  • OF Willy Garcia
    • Why he makes it: Highly regarded prospect as recently as 2015, 24-year old with ceiling room, is on 40-man
    • Why he might not: Still has options, development seemed to stall in AAA
  • OF Adam Engel
    • Why he makes it: Plus-plus speed, covers all slots, on 40-man, part of future picture
    • Why he might not: Bat doesn’t seem ready yet, no reason to rush him
  • OF Jacob May
    • Why he makes it: See Engel, Adam
    • Why he might not: See Engel, Adam
  • 3B/1B Matt Davidson
    • Why he makes it: No current backup 1B for Abreu, showed ready for MLB last year, on 40-man, out of options
    • Why he might not: Hard to tell if the bat is really ready, would mostly just be 1B and DH

Roll the dice on the above. The safest bet is that the three younger guys who can be sent to the minors without clearing waivers – Engel, May and Willy Garcia – likely won’t break camp with the team. Bourjos has a contract that says he likely makes it, so it probably comes down to a competition between Liriano and Davidson. Who wins will partly rely on how ready each look this spring, but also which is more likely to clear waivers. If both do well, there’s an outside chance that Bourjos loses out, as he is on a minor league deal and does not need to clear waivers to be sent down.

Catching tandem

The projections here seem pretty simple. The front office has said pretty clearly that Narvaez will be part of the picture. If Geovany Soto is healthy, he’ll get the other job – but given his history, that is certainly an open question.

Who are the others in line for a potential role? Kevan Smith seemed like the next most likely, but then the Sox outrighted him to AAA recently, so he’s no longer on the 40-man roster. Alfredo Gonzalez is on the 40, but he’s only played one game above AA and he hasn’t really played a full time starter season in his minor league career. Roberto Pena got a non-roster invite, but has only 15 games in AAA and is a defensive specialist with a .625 career OPS in the minors.

Yes, Zack Collins will be in major league camp too, but he’s not a candidate for a job in Chicago in 2017, let alone for Opening Day. He’s there to continue his work to prove he can stick behind the plate.

Who fills out the pen?

Assuming no one else is traded and everyone is healthy, the definites for the pen include Robertson, Nate Jones, Dan Jennings, and Zach Putnam. Jake Petricka is pretty close to a forgone conclusion as well. That leaves two or perhaps three slots open for some combination of (bold = on 40-man roster, italics = out of options, * = lefty, red text = bound by Rule 5):

Just looking purely at roster dynamics, the two names at the top are at risk of flight if they don’t make the team. If Covey doesn’t make it, he has to be offered back to Oakland for half the price the team paid for him due to his Rule 5 status. Kahnle is out of minor league options so he’d have to clear waivers if he doesn’t make it. That would seem to give them both inside tracks. The fact that Covey can work as a swing man and even start occasionally gives him a further boost.

Based purely on readiness and likelihood of success though, Ynoa might be at the top of the heap among those on the current roster, given his semi-successful rookie campaign and enticing tools. Soto fills the need for a 2nd lefty from the pen, but it’s unclear how important that is to the team (while Purke and Luebke are in that discussion as well). Swarzak can fill that long relief and spot starter role, and seems to be insurance on both Covey and against any injury or trade that subtracts from the rotation. The rest of the list seems likely ticketed for AAA, but all of them have a shot at coming to Chicago at some point in 2017.

The long shots

There are a few players who are in big league camp that have outside shots at grabbing a bench job with Chicago to open the season, but they’d need some help via movement above them.

Nick Delmonico has been diversifying his defensive portfolio and showed hints last year of actualizing his significant tools, but likely he is back to Charlotte to complete the development work. Danny Hayes was near getting a look in 2016, until a core muscle injury ended his season early. It’s hard to tell if his 2016 was a true breakout, and while the Sox have a need at 1B/DH, he’s behind at least Davidson in that line.

MLB veterans Cody Asche and Everth Cabrera are both in camp, and so is the forever-young Leury Garcia. Leury has an outside shot with his defensive flexibility, is on the 40-man roster, and he’s out of minor league options. But more than likely, everyone in this group ends up with the Knights come April, and some may be elsewhere entirely.

*Bonus non-story

It is possible the Sox could field an all-Garcia outfield in a Cactus League game, featuring Avisail, Willy and Leury. Since the team isn’t really focused on competing this year anyway, why not have some fun while developing the kids?

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  • fb_avatar

    I keep waiting for Melky, Robertson, Quintana and Frazier to get traded. I'm getting frustrated although I know there is good value to be had at the deadline. However, is it possible that Rick Hahn was so impressed by his first two trades that he will now settle for nothing less than a fleecing and that is what the hold up is? I would like to see Quintana extended a couple MORE years and keep him while getting rid of the other guys to teams with spring training injuries than biting my nails the first half of the season hoping our guys don't get hurt or play badly and diminish their value. Imagine if Hahn did get the same kind of return for the remaining 4 guys as he did with Sale and Eaton!? Wow! I can only dream.

  • fb_avatar

    Also it looks like you guys are going to up the reporting and analysis again this year. Kudos! This blog has improved steadily over the years and is now, in my opinion, as good as any baseball blog on the internet. What timing! You guys went into overdrive just like the Sox farm system!

  • In reply to Jim Pedigo:

    Thanks Jim, glad you are enjoying the content!

    As to your earlier comment, I think Hahn decided all along to set the bar high for premium talents like Quintana, and is willing to wait other teams out to get that. It worked for Sale and Eaton, and I think eventually will for Q.

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