Team: Birmingham Barons
League: Southern League (AA)
Final record: 53-85 overall (26-43 1st half, 27-42 2nd half)
Final placement: 5th/last in 1st half, 5th/last in 2nd half in the North Division (no playoffs)
Complete Team Stats
The White Sox are rebuilding. Unfortunately for the Barons though, most of the new prospect talent added to the system in the past year-plus spent their 2017 seasons in the lower minors or AAA/MLB levels. That made for a tough campaign in Birmingham, seeing the team finish last in their division in both halves.
That’s not to say there weren’t some strong performances this season, nor does it mean the team was devoid of talented players. So let’s highlight some of the standout showings the fans did get to enjoy this year, including those from late season additions who look to headline what should be a much stronger 2018 club.
The three highest OPS numbers posted by Barons in 2017 all belong to players added to the roster late in the season, none of them playing more than 21 games with the team. Now-top White Sox prospect (with Moncada graduating) Eloy Jimenez was promoted to AA and was not phased a bit – he posted a .353/.397/.559 line in 18 games. Zack Collins struggled a bit with swing and miss early in 2017 but turned it on in the second half, resulting in a promotion as well where he kept up his penchant for getting on base and showing some power (.235/.422/.471 in 12 games) while continuing to improve behind the plate. Outfielder Tito Polo missed some time to injury, but he did contribute a .278 average, .342 OBP and seven stolen bases in just 21 contests. All three likely will open 2018 back with the Barons.
Among the players who spent the bulk of this year with the AA team, two infielders played well enough to earn promotions to AAA before the season was out. In fact the two have more similarities than just those – both project as utility players, both ended last year in Charlotte and were surprises to be back in AA, and both came out of the gates rather slowly this year. Jake Peter put up a meager .170/.227/.230 slash line in his first 26 contests, but from there out became the biggest force in the Birmingham lineup, hitting .324 with an .831 OPS in 49 games before a late July promotion back to Charlotte. Eddy Alvarez took longer to get going, struggling to a .231 average with no power to speak of in April in May before a June-July hot streak (.260 AVG, .375 OBP and about as many strikeouts as walks in 43 games) got him promoted to AAA just a few days after Peter.
For most of the rest of the offense, highlights were hard to come by. First baseman Keon Barnum was once a highly touted prospect, and he did hit 16 long balls in 2017 (which isn’t easy with Regions Field as your home park), but he also hit .210 and struck out in 33.4% of his plate appearances while repeating the level. On the other corner, previously ranked even higher as a prospect, third baseman Trey Michalczewski hit just .234 and also had strikeout issues while similarly repeating the level. Both players spent time back down a level in Winston-Salem to attempt to get their grooves back, but it didn’t seem to help either one materially. Courtney Hawkins was in his third AA season and actually saw his numbers get even worse, though a continuing battle with a thyroid condition could be a factor. All three of these prospects who were once in the top ten in the system are in a tough position going into 2018.
A trio of outfielders who you won’t see on any top prospect lists made healthy contributions. Nick Basto had the highest OPS of any player who played more than 30 games with the Barons (at .705) and added 14 long balls. Hunter Jones didn’t do a ton with the bat (.653 OPS), but he continues to show off some speed (11 SB in 13 ATT) and plays truly plus defense in center field. His highlight reel catches made the ESPN SportsCenter Top 10 Plays more than once, which is nearly unheard of for a minor leaguer. Mason Robbins was Mason Robbins – he hit .265 and excelled at putting bat to ball (10.2% K/PA), but didn’t get on base much (.293 OBP).
Whatever Birmingham may have lacked in hitting, they made up for on the mound. Michael Kopech cemented his reputation as being one the best pitching prospects in all of baseball with a spectacular 2017, despite being aggressively assigned to AA at the age of 20. Pick a stat and it reflects his success; 2.87 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 5.8 H/9, 11.7 K/9 in 22 starts. Even his walk rate, though seemingly a bit hit at 4.5 per 9, improved quite a bit as the season went on (walked just 7 in his last 41 IP). And that’s just the numbers – his stuff looked nasty even in his worst starts. Kopech’s wildly successful 2017 ended with a promotion to and three starts with the Charlotte Knights.
There were others who also did well from the rotation. Spencer Adams has regained some of his velocity this year, and his numbers were good as well, especially when you consider his age (he turned 21 during the season, just like Kopech did). His 4.42 ERA is inflated by a few tough starts near the end as he hit a bit of a wall, but his strikeout rate was the highest of his career (6.7 K/9) while he continued to fill up the zone (2.4 BB/9). Jordan Guerrero struggled (somewhat predictably given his steep innings ramp-up curve and age) in 2016 in AA, but he bounced back nicely in his repeat (somewhat predictably given the talent) in 2017 to a 4.18 ERA, throwing plenty of strikes (2.6 BB/9) and missing bats (8.4 K/9) at a still-very-appropriate age 22/23 in AA.
Jordan Stephens missed the first couple months with elbow tendonitis and had to tweak his pitch repertoire a bit, but on the mound he just keeps producing: 3.14 ERA, 3.4 BB/9, 8.1 K/9 in sixteen starts, much more inline with what he’s been doing all along. Matt Cooper had been cruising along (3.61 ERA, 72:25 K:BB in 12 starts) and solidified himself on the prospect radar, before throwing two clunkers and then going on the Temporary Inactive list for personal reasons in June. NOTE: Since we are asked this regularly, the answer is still no, we don’t have any information we can provide on that.
Two left-handed relievers got the job done in Birmingham and ended up with the White Sox by the end of the year. Aaron Bummer finished his rapid ascent to the majors with the bulk of his time spent with the Barons, where he compiled a 3.00 ERA and struck out better than a batter per inning in 17 relief appearances. Jace Fry performed arguably even better in 33 games from the pen, striking out 10.2 per nine innings and keeping hits at bay (7.1 H/9) before heading to Chicago.
Right-hander Connor Walsh struck out 50 batters and allowed just 24 hits in 42.1 innings, though he did also walk 27. Southpaw Colton Turner bopped back and forth between Birmingham and Charlotte during the year but seemed to have no problem with Southern League hitters, showing a 1.12 WHIP, 2.7 BB/9 and 10.1 K/9. The “Slim Reaper” Jack Charleston was promoted to AA in late July and continued to prevent solid contact (just 23 hits allowed, no home runs, only 5 XBH) and posted a 2.18 ERA while mostly finishing games.
Want to know right away when we publish a new article? Type your email address in the box on the right-side bar (or at the bottom, if on a mobile device) and click the “create subscription” button. Our list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.
Filed under: News and notes
Tags: Aaron Bummer, Colton Turner, Connor Walsh, courtney hawkins, Eddy Alvarez, Eloy Jimenez, Hunter Jones, Jack Charleston, Jake Peter, Jordan Guerrero, Jordan Stephens, Keon Barnum, Mason Robbins, Matt Cooper, Michael Kopech, Nick Basto, Spencer Adams, Tito Polo, Trey Michalczewski, Zack Collins