Road Trip: A Guide to Watching the Minor League Affiliates

Having become a part of FutureSox in the offseason, it had been a number of years since I’d attended a minor league game. Being new to the team, I felt it was imperative to amass as much knowledge as possible about the minor league system. To that end, I made the trek down to Victory Field in Indianapolis to watch the Indianapolis Indians (Pirates affiliate) (yep, confused me right until game time) play the Charlotte Knights on April 21.

If you’re a regular reader, it’s likely that you might be considering such a trip as well. Let’s face it – the big league team hasn’t been all that compelling thus far. A chance to see Eloy Jimenez, Michael Kopech, or your prospect of choice – now that sounds like a fun day at the ball yard.

Charlotte Knights BB&T Ballpark

What to Expect

If you’ve ever attended a spring training game, the AAA facility is of similar size and make-up. The seating capacity is much smaller (around 15,000) than an MLB stadium, putting you much closer to the action. I had an outstanding view from the upper deck behind home plate. Despite being in the fifth row, I was in range to get some decent pics and video. The more intimate setting does come with a caution. The upper deck is much lower and considerably closer than in Chicago which sent a couple of dangerous line drives into the stands. So you’ll need to be alert in sections that are usually immune to those types of things. Also in lockstep with a spring training facility, the outfield has a grass picnic area without fixed seating. There was a nice video scoreboard in right field that provided all the key information including the mesmerizing pitch speed.

Tickets for the best seats were available for $15 online with the print-at-home option. Unfortunately, a beer still costs $7.

The pace of play rules may be having some impact as the game was played in a crisp two hours and twenty minutes. Good for a cold night (temps in the 50s at game time and dropping throughout). The game completed in regulation, so the new extra-innings rules didn’t come into play. However, the pitch clock was evident in left-center field. Most of the pitchers didn’t come close to testing the limit. The only one who did was Juan Minaya, a guy with parts of three season in the majors who was called up as the 26th man for last Saturday’s doubleheader in Kansas City.

What to Watch

Daniel Palka hitting for the Charlotte Knights, 2018 (Clinton Cole / FutureSox)

Daniel Palka hitting for the Charlotte Knights, 2018 (Clinton Cole / FutureSox)

Triple-A contains an interesting mix of players. In some ways, it functions like an extended bench for the big league club. There are a number of players that have spent time in the majors and are ready to be called up as a substitute for an injury, to fill in for a double-header, or a replacement due to underperformance. Some of these players have extensive experience at the top level. There are also upper echelon prospects, guys rehabbing from injuries, players that have spent a short-time in the big leagues that are still developing and a few to round out the roster.

All this makes for an interesting game to watch. For example, Pittsburgh #2 prospect and #43 overall according to MLB pipeline, Austin Meadows was the highest rated prospect in the game (Kopech pitched the night before). He seemed to jump right off the page. Without looking him up, you could tell he was a top player. It’s hard to describe, but you’ll know it when you see it. I also took an interest in Meadows as he was linked to the White Sox in a number of trade rumors during the 2016/2017 shopping spree. He had a hit, an RBI and a run scored on the evening.

Another such player was a guy with time in the bigs – White Sox prospect Tyler Danish. That evening’s starter, TJ House had a rough outing, giving up seven hits and six earned runs in three innings of work. The park in Indianapolis had the bullpen down the line in foul territory, much like the old Wrigley Field placement and quite common in the minors. Seeing Danish warm up it was obvious he had superior talent. This translated to three shutout innings with three strikeouts against one walk and no base hits. Could he be in line to pitch on the South Side later this summer?

But, I was fooled as well. Indianapolis closer Johnny Hellweg had such hellish stuff that I assumed he was a top of the line prospect. Upon researching his stats, I discovered he’s 29 and has been in the minors since 2008. The only exception is 30 innings at the MLB level with Milwaukee in 2013. He was running fastballs by people at 96-97 and burying them with a nasty off-speed pitch. Perhaps,he’s a late-bloomer as he has a stellar 0.89 WHIP with seven strikeouts against no walks this season.

But enough about Pittsburgh prospects. Daniel Palka was another one with a discernable difference at the plate. He was called up the next day to replace the injured Avisail Garcia. After a rough start, he had a nice series in Kansas City last weekend and looks like a guy who could stick around.  Guys with power from the left side have a tendency to do that.

Who to Watch

RHP Michael Kopech delivers a pitch for the Charlotte Knights, April 2018 (Clinton Cole / FutureSox)

RHP Michael Kopech delivers a pitch for the Charlotte Knights, April 2018 (Clinton Cole / FutureSox)

Charlotte Knights

Top Prospects: Michael Kopech, Thyago Vieira, Ryan Cordell (injured), Charlie Tilson

Guys who have a chance: Jose Rondon, Matt Skole, Jacob May, Tyler Danish, Dylan Covey, Jace Fry

Ex-Big Leaguers: Xavier Cedeño, Gregory Infante, Robbie Ross Jr., Rob Scahill, Kevan Smith, Jake Elmore

Birmingham Barons

Top Prospects: Spencer Adams, Ian Clarkin, Dane Dunning, Jordan Guerrero, Ian Hamilton, Alec Hansen (injured), A.J. Puckett (injured), Jordan Stephens, Zack Collins, Seby Zavala, Matt Rose, Jameson Fisher, Eloy Jimenez, Tito Polo

Winston-Salem Dash

Top Prospects: Dylan Cease, Bernardo Flores, Gavin Sheets, Micker Adolfo, Luis Alexander Basabe, Alex Call, Joel Booker, Luis Robert (injured), Blake Rutherford

Kannapolis Intimidators

Top Prospects: Lincoln Henzman,  Kade McClure, Evan Skoug, Luis Gonzalez

One caveat to this is that guys get shuttled back and forth between the majors and other levels of the minors rather quickly as evidenced by the Palka promotion the following day. Conversely, a player could be released. Casey Gillaspie had two hits that evening but was removed from the 40-man roster just five days later. So there’s no guarantee you’ll see a particular player on a given night.

When to Watch

Regions Field, Birmingham, AL (Image via Barons' Blog)

Regions Field, Birmingham, AL (Image via Barons’ Blog)

If you’re up for a road trip to see some of these or other players in the system in person without traveling a considerable distance there are a number of games this summer within a roughly eight-hour drive from Chicago.

Charlotte Knights:  Columbus Clippers (Indians Affiliate) Columbus, OH, May 3-6 and May 18-20, Toledo Mud Hens (Detroit Affiliate) Toledo, OH, May 15-17

Birmingham Barons: Tennessee Smokies(Cubs Affiliate), Knoxville Tennessee, May 2-6, June 8-12, July 12-16. Chattanooga Lookouts(Twins Affiliate) July 4-7

Winston-Salem Dash: No games within reasonable proximity of Chicago

Kannapolis Intimidators: Lexington Legends (KC Affiliate), Lexington, Kentucky, August 10-13

So, if you’ve got friends or relatives you’re planning to visit this summer or just looking to get away for a quick trip, stop out at one of these games.

Or you could always travel to their home cities. North Carolina is a good destination, because you can toggle between three teams within a little over an hour’s drive of each other, given the schedule breaks right. The White Sox’ top three affiliates – Charlotte, Birmingham, and Winston-Salem – all have recently-built, award-winning stadiums that are great venues to take in games. Kannapolis (right between Charlotte and Winston-Salem) and Great Falls (in case you happen to be in Montana) provide a more classic, low-level minor league ballgame experience that is inexpensive and fun as well.

Whatever your logistical boundaries, you’ve got the blueprint.

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