2017 Birmingham Barons Season Preview

The Birmingham Barons open play on Thursday, April 6th, along with the other three full-season affiliates. Julio Vinas returns as manager after guiding the Charlotte Knights in 2016. He’s joined by Hitting Coach Cole Armstrong and Pitching Coach Jose Bautista. The first series begins on the road at Jackson, before coming home to Regions Field on April 12th for their home opener.

Here is a look at how the Barons 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. Players on the disabled list have an asterisk.

Birmingham Barons (2016 Record: 41-91; 4th Place)

Top 30 Prospects: Michael Kopech (3rd), Jordan Stephens (11th), Spencer Adams (13th), Trey Michalczewski (17th), Jake Peter (19th), Jordan Guerrero (22nd), and Eddy Alvarez (23rd).

Pitchers

While the official order hasn’t been announced, the Barons appear to have a very good group of starting pitchers. Some combination of Guerrero, Adams, Kopech, Lowry and Cooper will take the hill in the Southern League. Spencer Adams is the 13th ranked prospect in the system. The White Sox have had high hopes for the athletic right-hander since using the 44th pick in the 2014 draft on him. The soon-to-be 21 -year old is still young for the level and had a 3.90 E.R.A in nearly 56 innings for the Barons last season. Jordan Guerrero returns to the Birmingham rotation as well. The southpaw struggled last season with a 4.83 E.R.A in 136 innings. Thad Lowry also returns to the Barons rotation. Lowry was drafted in the 5th round of the 2013 draft and will begin the season as a 22 year old. The big right-hander made a cameo in Birmingham last year but threw 135 innings at High A Winston-Salem to the tune of a 4.06 E.R.A. in 23 starts.

Jordan Stephens was a 5th round selection out of Rice in the 2015 draft, but he opens the season on the Disabled List, which is likely why Cooper (who the Sox see as a reliever long-term) is in the rotation.  Stephens is seen as someone that could rise in the prospect rankings and is currently listed as the #11 prospect in the system, so hopefully the injury isn’t anything serious. Michael Kopech joined the White Sox in the Chris Sale trade this offseason and should be the prize of this Barons’ staff. Kopech is the 3rd rated prospect in the system and has gained helium throughout the offseason. ESPN prospect analyst Keith Law has Kopech rated as the #7 prospect in all of major league baseball and his top pitching prospect in the game. The 20-year old has eye popping stuff and he impressed the White Sox brass enough during the spring to send him to Birmingham. Kopech spent most of 2016 at Advanced A Salem in the Red Sox organization.

The Birmingham bullpen features some arms returning from last season. LHP Colton Turner was acquired in an August trade with Toronto and will remain in the Birmingham bullpen. Cooper has been used as a starter and in relief since being drafted out of Hawaii in 2014 and is the 28th ranked prospect in the system according to MLBpipeline.com. Connor Walsh is a personal favorite of Baseball America’s Hudson Belinsky and is in the back half of the White Sox top 30 for that publication, thanks to upper 90’s heat. Robinson Leyer and his big fastball return to the Barons bullpen as well after 33 innings in the Southern League last year. Right-hander Brandon Brennan threw 65 innings for the Barons last year and will be used in relief this season and Miguel Chalas re-joins the bullpen after a stint in the Mexican League. Southpaw Will Lamb joins the squad after a stint with AAA Charlotte last season and former Sox 5th round pick Scott Snodgress is also back in the organization. Lefty Jace Fry joins the Birmingham bullpen after missing the 2016 season while recovering from Tommy John Surgery. Fry was a 3rd round pick out of Oregon State in 2014 and will be used in relief after his 2nd arm surgery. El’Hajj Muhammad is new to the White Sox organization.

Position Players

Looking at the likely starting lineup, there are a few surprises. Utility player Jake Peter and shortstop Eddy Alvarez will return to the Barons from Charlotte, where each spent late season time in 2016. Peter, Alvarez, and third baseman Trey Michalczewski are among the current top 30 White Sox prospects. Michalczewski was a 7th round over-slot signing of the Sox out of an Oklahoma high school in 2013. He struggled last season and is repeating AA but is still in an age-appropriate league. He’s a switch hitter with good size but needs to make more contact to reach his power more consistently. Peter has performed well in the White Sox system since being a 7th round pick out of Creighton in 2014. It was presumed that he’d return to Charlotte in a utility role but he should play multiple spots on the diamond with the hopes of a big league bench role possible over the next couple years. Eddy Alvarez is another guy that seemed ticketed for AAA Charlotte. Alvarez is an older prospect at 27 because of his time as an Olympic medalist in speed skating. He moved quickly through the system and should be the primary SS in Birmingham this season, though both he and Peter are likely to head back to AAA during 2017. 2012 Supplemental 1st rounder Keon Barnum returns to the Barons infield as the primary 1B. Barnum has struggled to stay healthy and reach his lofty power potential in games. Nick Basto hit very well in High-A last year and struggled after a promotion to Birmingham. The former 5th round pick in 2012, should see time at multiple positions and receive the bulk of the DH duty. Cleuluis Rondon is a defensive wizard that was acquired in the Jake Peavy trade and he rounds the infield in a bench role. Cameron Seitzer is a former draft selection of Tampa Bay and he will start the season with the Barons as well.

In the outfield, Courtney Hawkins returns for his 3rd season in Birmingham. Hawkins is a former top 30 prospect in the system after being the 13th overall selection in the 2012 draft. Courtney has big power but his questionable zone judgment has him looking at a potential make or break season. Mason Robbins joins the Barons outfield after spending last season in Winston-Salem and Hunter Jones returns for another season in Birmingham to round out the trio.

Brett Austin, Alfredo Gonzalez, and Chris O’Dowd will be tasked with catching Birmingham’s outstanding pitching staff, though O’Dowd is on the disabled list. Austin was a 4th round pick out of North Carolina State in 2014 and joins the Barons after spending last season in Winston-Salem. Gonzalez and O’Dowd return to Birmingham after spending portions of the 2016 campaign with the Barons as well.

Overall Thoughts

With 7 of the system’s top 30 prospects on display and a pitching staff packed with potential, the Barons could be an exciting club to watch. They may struggle to hit the ball out of the park on a consistent basis but the pitching should carry this squad. Kopech, Adams, Stephens, Guerrero, Cooper, and Walsh have been recognized by prospect publications and all should be key cogs for the team.

Birmingham should be competitive in the Southern League and there is a wave of talent that could be seen on the south side of Chicago in the near future. Certainly they should eclipse last year’s ugly overall record. Regions Field is a first class ballpark and that along with an exciting young core should entertain the fans in Chicago and in Alabama.

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