Scouting Reports From Someone Who Is Not a Scout

I think it says a lot about the mental composition of a person when they manage to avoid looking at fighter jets in a pyramid formation streaming across the Arizona mid-day sky just beyond center field. There’s a military base not far from Camelback Ranch in Glendale, and in mid-March, the Blue Angels spent a week practicing for an upcoming air show. Low individual passes over the practice fields were not uncommon; neither were all six jets flying wingtip-to-wingtip and then spiraling off and away from each other, sleek and efficient, doing exactly what they were designed to do.

Watching them – or trying to – can be an eerie experience, considering they’re already somewhere else by the time you hear them; you have to spot them yourself, grey silhouettes glinting and climbing, the following thunder catching up only to empty air. Watching them is also utterly compelling. Say what you will about the military-entertainment complex, when a plane is doing spins at like a thousand miles an hour, it is hard not to stop and watch. Props (ha! Get it? Like propellers! Found on airplanes!) to dozens of White Sox minor leaguers for not even flinching, for letting it settle into the background as they focused on their job – becoming good enough at baseball to make me, personally, feel happy.

Happiness was not the first thing on my mind the morning of March 10th. The first thing I did upon waking on that first day in Arizona for Spring Training was panic-check Twitter on my phone, as I do every morning. This meant that the very first words I read that day, on this long-awaited vacation to baseball mecca to see a White Sox farm system priming itself to produce, were:

The early morning light pouring through the Red Roof Inn window faded from an ebullient dancing sunbeam full of the promise of the day to no more than a pale imitation. The gentle birdsong turned raucous and mocking. Luis Robert, White Sox secret weapon, incredibly hyped but little-seen, would now not be seen at all. By me, anyway.

Still reeling from the recent loss of other top prospect Jake Burger for the year, and with short-term injuries affecting Eloy Jimenez, Alec Hansen, and Micker Adolfo, I contemplated staying in bed for the rest of the day. The thought of getting up and dragging over to a practice field where there would be no Cuban phenom? No top 2017 draft pick? Only players like Blake Rutherford, and Dane Dunning, and Zack Collins, and Gavin Sheets, and… alright. After getting over the initial shock, it was an easy sell.

After pulling ourselves together emotionally, we headed first to IHOP for crucial baseball-in-the-sun-all-day calories, then it was straight to the back fields, where we lived for the next week.

Screenshot from Google Maps of the White Sox back fields at Camelback Ranch

Screenshot from Google Maps of the White Sox back fields at Camelback Ranch

A little more background about the general setup of the back fields: as I wrote last week, there are four main fields, each a quarter of a rough square, with all four home plates converging in the middle. These four fields are more or less split between the top four minor league levels – AAA, AA, high-A, and low-A. Players take BP, practice, and play games, inter- and intra-squad, on these fields. In the middle is an observation tower used by coaches.

Further back in the complex is the “ten-pack,” inaccessible to the public, a strip of ten pitching mounds where pitchers can get work in. There are two bullpens at the back fields themselves; one is next to the de facto AAA field and is invisible to fans thanks to a screened fence, and the other is next to the A+ field and is, to me, anyway, uncomfortably accessible. No fence divides it from the path – anyone can just go up and stand on the mound when it’s not in use – and that makes one feel super awkward when one is trying to get video of the pitcher warming up. It feels like an intrusion.

The last part of this little circus is a nook between the high-A and low-A fields, where artificial turf is laid down and a small backstop is set up. This is where bunting practice is held, and bunting practice is for everyone, all day long. If you’re looking for someone, they’re probably bunting. If you’re trying to get an idea of who’s out on the fields, check out the bunting area. Players feed balls into the bunting machines for other players to bunt. It’s a nightmare.

Rather than break it down day-by-day, which is nigh an impossible task, as days instantly melted into each other and time became meaningless, I’m going to go prospect-by-prospect, according to FutureSox’s 2018 pre-season prospect rankings. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see everyone. Here are my thoughts on the prospects I watched on the back fields…

1. Eloy Jimenez.

Eloy Jimenez comes out of a spring training game after hitting a home run and a triple (Julie Brady / FutureSox)

Eloy Jimenez comes out of a spring training game after hitting a home run and a triple (Julie Brady / FutureSox)

Eloy had just come back from a minor knee injury the night before, where he smashed a pinch-hit, go-ahead home run against the team that traded him last season. He still hadn’t been sent to minor league camp at that point, which is why we were blessed enough to be able to see him hit a second consecutive blast in his first at-bat on March 11th against the Diamondbacks. Surely, we thought, surely a third straight dong was not forthcoming. We were right; he hit a triple his second time up.

He also played for the major league team the next day, going 1-3 with a walk, and that was it for him in big-league camp. While it was a little disappointing not to get to see him come up in “real” games, this meant that he was now spending most of his time at the back fields, where we were also spending most of our time.

The first time we saw him after his reassignment, Jimenez was standing around the bunting box, chatting with some former Dash teammates. We did not see him actually bunt that day – the “bunting players” to “players standing around nearby” ratio over time is thankfully low. We did see him take BP. Watching your team’s top prospect take BP instead of bunting is highly preferable and I would recommend it.

Batting practice rotates pretty quickly on the back fields, five or so swings and then switch out, repeat half a dozen times. I don’t think BP is necessarily a good way to evaluate players, since everyone can look like an All-Star, but that didn’t stop me from immediately abandoning Bunt City to go watch. Worth it: swing after swing he sent laserlike over the left field fence or into the batter’s eye in center. Easy swings, hard contact, immediate results. “Wow, nice,” said a Sox coach. “I try,” said Jimenez.

We saw him play in a few minor league games, playing right for what looked like the AAA team (of course, it’s impossible to tell in mid-March, before rosters are finalized), despite being assigned to the AA Barons. He did not look overmatched.

He also did not look overmatched doubling off Nate Jones of the White Sox, who was putting in some extra work at the back fields. He didn’t even look overmatched when making outs. He is going to be a good player. He is going to be someone that Sox fans are proud to have on their team.

A couple things that struck me about Jimenez: as I’ve mentioned before in other pieces, he looks like a big leaguer. That’s a dumb metric to measure players by – obviously you need to be able to use your body correctly – but the guy is a physical monster. Another thing: his presence. This is another dumb metric to measure players by, but I think it does say a lot when your top prospect waits by the dugout entrance for the rest of the outfielders to reach it before going in himself. I think he is a natural leader, and I think it is a role he will continue growing into until nobody even questions it.

2. Michael Kopech

Disappointingly, we did not get to see a lot of Kopech. He was still with the major league team for most of our time there, but did not appear in any of the games we went to. We saw glimpses of him here and there, mostly signing autographs, watching/tweeting from the stands, and serving looks, but never at the back fields. The closest we came was also, coincidentally, the closest I’ve ever come to being a legitimate, full-on crazy stalker. We knew he had a side session at some point that day but had to track him down through a network of tweets, rumors, and Chris Getz, who was like “yeah sorry he’s probably going to be in the 10-pack.” There was a lot of back-and-forth travel between back fields, major league practice fields, and the one stretch of fence through which the mystical 10-pack could be viewed.

Kopech, like Eloy, looks different from other minor leaguers (why are these prospects different from all other prospects?). Even just warming up, there’s an effortless explosiveness that many guys don’t have. I don’t want to wax too rhapsodic about a guy who I watched for 20 seconds through a chain link fence and then for 10 minutes through a different, further chain link fence, but suffice it say that Kopech is going to be pretty good.

3. Luis Robert

I don’t want to talk about it.

4. Alec Hansen

We saw Hansen a few times from afar (hard to miss a 6’7” guy), but he was sidelined with an arm issue, another letdown for us.

5. Zack Collins

We did get to see a lot of Zack Collins! He looked great this spring. One long home run for the major league team, and a couple more blasts that we saw during minor league games. Took a few walks, threw out a few baserunners. I don’t think it’s his ceiling, but I’ll still take a catcher who hits .210 with 25 home runs and a .400 OBP.

It’s almost impossible to evaluate skills like game-calling from the back fields, especially when you are just a random person with no scouting experience, but if he can get that together, there’s absolutely major league potential here. Catcher is a tough hole to fill, so even if he’s not a defensive or strategic wizard, it’ll still be nice to have him behind the plate.

We had the pleasure of seeing Cease start against the Mariners, where he mowed down Dee Gordon, Ichiro Suzuki, and Jean Segura with relative ease. He also walked Gordon Beckham. His final line: 3.0 IP, 1 H, 0 R/ER, 1 BB, 4 K. That was all we saw of him in action during the trip, but it was enough to impress. I don’t expect him to be at high-A very long.

7. Dane Dunning

Dunning was another guy that we only saw in major league games. My excitement to see him pitch against the Diamondbacks in relief only waned after the third run he gave up (five total in 0.2 IP). It probably doesn’t need to be stated that he didn’t look great, but there were some extenuating circumstances. The very first batter he faced hit a ball that should have been caught by either Tyler Saladino or Nicky Delmonico, but was instead caught by nobody as the two collided in shallow left, putting a baserunner on third with no outs to start things off. It looked like Dunning was thrown off by the collision; he gave up a few singles, a walk, a double, a wild pitch. There were some questionable ball-strike calls at the plate and some lucky seeing-eye hits, but that’s baseball and that’s something Dunning will have to learn to work through.

Luckily, he seems to be a fast learner. The next and last time we saw him, he threw two scoreless innings against the Cubs, looking much better.

8. Jake Burger


(when the Sox played the Brewers, the Brewers PA guy announced Burger as a defensive substitute at second base. It was actually Eddy Alvarez, who was wearing Burger’s number. Quite the emotional roller coaster, joy to confusion to realization.)

9. Blake Rutherford

Blake Rutherford via USA Today HSS

Blake Rutherford via USA Today HSS

I think I saw Blake Rutherford take at-bats on three of the four minor league fields. He was ever-present, bunting or taking hacks in the cage or in deep discussion with some coach or other. Yet, somehow, I still don’t feel like I saw enough of him to be able to give info with confidence. He spent a lot of time on base, stealing second with no slide at least once. I didn’t see a lot of power, but he was constantly singling and hitting the ball hard. He’s also still only 20 years old, so there’s a lot of rawness still to him.

10. Micker Adolfo

Initially, I was worried that I wouldn’t get so much as a glimpse of Adolfo, thanks to his sprained UCL. That turned out not to be the case, as Adolfo was constantly visible and performing at the back fields. Adolfo is right up there with Jimenez and Keon Barnum (who put on several BP power displays) as one of the biggest guys in minor league camp, so naturally he spent plenty of time in the Bunting Nook. We saw him in a game back there as well, where he walked and doubled.

Adolfo has been in the organization since time immemorial, and if he stays healthy – technically already a problem this year – this could be a big breakout season for him.

11. Spencer Adams

Linked above is a video of Adams warming up on the weirdly exposed bullpen mound. He got the start for a AA game that day that we were distracted from by the simultaneous presence of Jimenez and Collins on the other diamond, but it looked like he was struggling. Every time we looked over, another Reds runner was crossing the plate. Unfortunately, that was the entire sample size for Adams this trip; I wish it had gone better and that I could have seen more of him.

12. Gavin Sheets

Sheets, like Jimenez, Adolfo, and Barnum, is huge. I honestly can’t remember if he had a single hit while I was watching, but he takes authoritative at-bats, the kind you want to stop to watch. Also, this happened:

13. Carson Fulmer

I’m gonna be real, we absolutely skipped the sole Carson Fulmer start of our trip in favor of watching the first few innings of dual minor league games. It was a good choice.

14. Zack Burdi

I physically saw Burdi one day with my eyes, in uniform and gloved-up and everything, But that was about the extent of it, as he continues to come back from Tommy John surgery.

15. Jordan Stephens

16. Seby Zavala

We got to see Zavala play in both major and minor league camp, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Sox deal with his continuing emergence at the same time as Collins, with whom he shares a position and a developmental level. The Sox kept him in major league camp until our last day there (I seem to recall him dumping a baseball into left field).

17. Thyago Vieira

18. Casey Gillaspie

Gillaspie got a good amount of playing time in for the Sox that week, and he definitely needs some more time in the minors. This is a big year for him.

19. Jordan Guerrero

20. Ryan Cordell

My one memory of Ryan Cordell is this: Cordell draws a walk. Cordell has to go back to the bag no fewer than FIVE times as Patrick Corbin works on his pickoff move. Finally, Cordell is sick of it and successfully steals second.

21. Luis Alexander Basabe

Luis Alexander Basabe at Spring Training 2017 (Brian Bilek/FutureSox)

Luis Alexander Basabe at Spring Training 2017 (Brian Bilek/FutureSox)

Basabe was also all over the place, majors and minors, and my one regret is not getting to see him show off the vaunted outfield arm. He impressed me the very first time I saw him: he hit a grounder up the middle against Marco Gonzales of the Mariners and never slowed down rounding first. The throw had him beat by a step or two, but the infielder couldn’t handle it, so he was safe at second with a double. It was an aggressive baserunning move that would have been exasperating in the regular season, but here, it was a low-consequence risk, and it made him stand out. Also, he’s pretty fast.

I am anti-bunt, so it pains me to report that he laid down a really nice bunt that ended up being a sacrifice but should have been a base hit in the Diamondbacks game.

I think Basabe is a really interesting prospect and I’ll be following his progress with Winston-Salem this year closely!

22. Luis Gonzalez

23. Ian Clarkin

In a parallel situation to Spencer Adams, Clarkin warmed upon the Cursed Public Bullpen, then started the AA game and got shelled. We did get to see him pitch two scoreless against the Mariners, though, and he looked very good then.

24. Luis Curbelo

I did not see a lot of Curbelo, but I did stop to watch him take BP at some point and it was an impressive session. Not power-wise necessarily, just in terms of solid, hard contact. Again, it’s BP.

25. AJ Puckett

26. Ian Hamilton

27. Alex Call

I saw a lot of Alex Call waiting around or doing drills, and exactly one Alex Call infield hit. Cool!

28. Aaron Bummer

Again, I’m going to be honest: I forgot that Bummer is still a prospect. Maybe because his name is so suited to being a pitcher that him being around seems natural. Bummer had a couple outings with the Sox during our trip – one scoreless, one scoreful (one run in one IP).

29. Tito Polo

Polo was EVERYWHERE at the back fields (and in right field during one major league game, going 1-2 with a walk and a nice running catch), and he looked pretty good, too.

30. Bernardo Flores

I do remember seeing Flores walking around, because he looks freakishly like Dane Dunning, but didn’t see him in action.

In summary, even with top pieces missing, the sheer amount of young talent present on the minor league back fields and even in major league camp is overwhelming, and the phrase “embarrassment of riches” deserves to be bandied about just as much as it is. It won’t be long before they’re a sleek, dangerous machine, doing exactly what they were designed to do, making thunder and making me, personally, happy.

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