Season in Review: 2017 AZL White Sox

Team: AZL White Sox
League: Arizona League (a.k.a. Fire League)
Final record: 30-26 overall (11-17 1st half, 19-9 2nd half)
Final placement: 4th in 1st half, T-1st 2nd half in the Central Division (no playoffs)
Complete Team Stats

In 2015, the AZL White Sox won the league championship and last year they had a 21-35 record. Here in 2017 they were somewhere between, and a big second half showing had them just outside the playoff picture. In fact, their 19-9 second half mark was not only tied for first in their division (with the AZL Dodgers), it was also tied for best record in the full league. But the tie-breaker was full season record, so the Dodgers went to the postseason while the Sox stayed home.

The AZL team is always the youngest in the farm system. The final iteration of the roster included 11 teenagers, and only 13 players older than 21 (of the 33 total). Most of the playing time went to 2017 draft picks and Latin American signees from the last few signing periods. Hitting was the team’s strong suit, leading the AZL with a .368 team OBP, aligning well with one of the team’s draft strategies in June. They were also among the top four teams in the league in AVG and SLG. Pitching was more middle of the pack, statistically.

Position Players

The biggest breakout player on the AZL squad may have been infielder Lenyn Sosa. Signed just last July for $325,000, the infielder skipped the DSL and went straight to the US. His .270/.330/.358 line might look just OK, until you consider he did that as a 17-year-old middle infielder in his pro debut. He only struck out 24 times in 180 plate appearances, though he also only walked a dozen times. He’s one to keep an eye on going forward.

Some other Latin American players with minimal stateside experience also made their presence felt. Ramon Beltre had the benefit of three DSL seasons coming in, and the 20-year-old acquited himself well batting .308 and stealing a few bases while playing a mix of shortstop and third base. Catching duties were spread around, but two 19-year-olds held their own. Jhoandro Alfaro is a strong defensive backstop, though his bat still has a ways to go as he hit .220 with no power to speak of (he did also show a walk rate above 10% which is encouraging). Jose Colina posted substantially better core offensive results (.327/.367/.436), though he had only 61 PA to work with so it’s probably best not to read a ton into those numbers.

Then there were the 2017 draftees – quite a few of them. The first and second rounders, Jake Burger and Gavin Sheets, just made cameo appearances and moved on to full season ball. The only other player from the top ten rounds was 8th round shocker pick Sam Abbott. The 18-year-old Abbott was more focused on water polo than baseball in high school so he’s certainly raw, so his .619 OPS with a high walk rate aren’t a bad first showing.

Where the first few rounds didn’t materially add to the team’s hitting success, some lower level picks put up strong numbers that helped propel one of the best offenses in the league. 14th round outfielder Alex Destino, who got a $125,000 bonus more in line with the 10th/11th round, put up a strong .290/.408/.432 line with nearly as many walks (38) as strikeouts (40) in his age 21 campaign. From much deeper in the draft, 28th round pick Laz Rivera slashed .296/.374/.446 and struck out in just 12.2% of his plate appearances. Jose Garcia (25th round) joined the team late but put up video game numbers in his 13 games (1.266 OPS, including 5 triples in just 42 PA). Fellow infielder J.J. Muno (27th round) contributed a .415 OBP and good contact and walk rates before being promoted to Great Falls.

There were a few key players on the team who were not 2017 draftees or international signings. 2016 13th rounder Mike Hickman posted a .270 average and .362 OBP, but ended up playing mostly at first base instead of catcher. It’s not clear if that’s a change in direction or was just a result of roster crunch or some other temporary factor. UDFA acquisition Adam McGinnis grabbed twice as many games at catcher, and did well with his opportunity, posting an .875 OPS.

While pitching overall wasn’t this squad’s strength, there were some good individual performances. Interestingly, many of the best pitching lines came from 2017 draft picks that were selected in round 32 or later. In fact, every player the White Sox selected and signed in the 30’s this year were pitchers, and all but one (Parker Rigler) spent most or all of their seasons in the AZL. Here’s a look at the four latest round arms and their AZL numbers:

32nd: Greg Minier (age 21): 1.58 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 10.7 H/9, 1.0 BB/9, 8.2 K/9 in 15 relief appearances
33rd: Kevin George (age 22): 2.05 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 7.8 H/9, 2.5 BB/9, 10.6 K/9 in 15 relief appearances
34th: Michael McCormick (age 23): 2.68 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 7.4 H/9, 2.7 BB/9, 8.5 K/9 in 5 starts and 11 relief appearances
37th: Ted Andrews (age 23): 2.25 ERA, 1.67 WHIP, 5.3 H/9, 9.8 BB/9, 7.5 K/9 in 13 relief appearances

Clearly worth noting that most of those pitchers were 22 or older so they were more mature than the majority of the league, and most of them were working as pure relievers. But as a group they posted an ERA in the 2’s and struck out close to a batter per inning, while keeping opponents away from hits effectively. And all but Andrews appear to have filled up the strike zone.

Let’s give those numbers a parallel that is illustrative as to why you need to be careful using stats in rookie leagues for evaluation. Here are two AZL pitchers taken much earlier in the draft:

18th: Hunter Kiel (age 21): 8.18 ERA, 2.64 WHIP, 9.0 H/9, 14.7 BB/9, 13.1 K/9 in 12 relief appearances
19th: Anthony Herron (age 21): 8.22 ERA, 2.22 WHIP, 12.9 H/9, 7.0 BB/9, 7.0 K/9 in 7 relief appearances

These are both 21-year-olds, and whereas all the 32-37 group got $1,000 bonuses, these two got $30,000 and $125,000 respectively. Context is important: Kiel was a late addition after playing in the college postseason and may have faced some fatigue, and Herron missed basically an entire year of college ball due to a suspension so you expect some rust. Tune in a year from now to see where all these pitchers stand statistically, and more importantly, let’s wait to get some in-person scouting reports before jumping to any conclusions.

21st rounder John Parke was without a doubt the mainstay in the team’s rotation, posting a 2.77 ERA in 10 starts and four relief appearances. Undrafted free agent signee and Chicago area native Zach Lewis added a 2.72 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in eight starts and four games from the pen of his own. Bryan Saucedo is a 14th rounder from 2016 but missed that full year on the disabled list, so this was his pro debut season; he posted a 7.04 ERA in 13 starts (which led the team).

Three players from the LatAm pipeline made some starts for AZL, all of them struggling to find the strike zone:

Edinxon Arias (19, from Venezuela): 7.82 ERA, 11.1 H/9, 7.1 BB/9, 5.0 K/9 in 9 GS (10 G total)
Andres Sanchez (20, from Cuba): 4.91 ERA, 10.1 H/9, 6.1 BB/9, 7.1 K/9 in 5 GS (12 G total)
Salvador Villarreal (19, from Mexico): 4.94 ERA, 6.9 H/9, 7.6 BB/9, 6.3 K/9 in 3 GS (13 G total)

One more pitcher we should note is Bryan Saucedo, who’s 13 starts were the most on the team. He was taken in the 14th round in 2016 but didn’t pitch that year as he spent the summer on the disabled list so this was his first pro season despite being 23 years old.

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