Season in Review: 2018 Birmingham Barons

Team: Birmingham Barons
League: Southern League (AA)
Final record: 66-72 overall (32-36 1st half, 34-36 2nd half)
Final placement: 5th in 1st half, 3rd in 2nd half in North Division, no playoffs.
Complete Team Stats

The Barons had a few of the best prospects in the system spend time on the roster during 2018. But a few very-highly-ranked prospects aside, the main wave of talent in the rebuild was peaking in A-ball this season. Not a surprise then that Birmingham improved quite a bit from last year’s abysmal 53-85 showing, but didn’t have quite enough depth to get into the post-season. They are just starting the front side ride up the wave. An early 2nd half run had them in contention until just a week or so before the end of the season.

On the hitting side of things, these Barons finished generally in the lower half of the league in most categories. The two exceptions are that they finished second in home runs (hurray!), and first in strikeouts (not hurray). The pitching was perhaps marginally better, with their team ERA and WHIP just below the median in the league, but outperforming most teams at keeping home runs and walks at bay.

Let’s dive into the individual performances, and take a little peek at 2019.

Position Player Highlights

Among those who played more than a few games for the AA club, the top three statistical performances were all from prospects ranked well into our Top 30. Eloy Jimenez cruised through 53 games slashing .317/.368/.556 with 10 home runs and generally looking like a man among boys. He was then promoted to Charlotte where he was even better but we’ll cover that in the Knights recap. Catcher Seby Zavala followed a similar path, putting up good-but-not-Eloy-good numbers in 56 games (.271/.358/.472, 11 HR) before he too moved East to join the AAA club. Then there is the enigmatic Zack Collins. The 2016 first rounder hit just .234 and struck out in 29.8% of his plate appearances. But he also posted more walks than any hitter in the league had in years (101, for a 19% rate), and hit 15 home runs despite playing half his games in a power-suppressing home park. His defense made improvements but whether or not he’ll stick behind the plate remains an open question.

There was a wave of promotions from High-A Winston-Salem around midseason, and those players had mixed results as they hit the buzz-saw of what is typically the hardest intra-minors jump. Luis Alexander Basabe saw his numbers drop a fair amount (.873 OPS in A+, .734 in AA), but he was also a good 3 years younger than league average and held his own. Fellow outfielder Joel Booker went on a 30+ game stretch shortly after promotion where he hit barely over .200, but he did adjust and recover late to finish with a .266/.338/.348 line in 66 games at AA. Alex Call had the reverse happen in a very up-and-down look in his half season with the Barons: a .907 OPS in July, followed by .585 in August and September.

There were a few other full-time position players that were with Birmingham most or all of the season. Trey Michalczewski shifted from an exclusive 3B to an all-infield guy, but his overall offensive results were basically the same as the past two seasons at the same level. Jameson Fisher was assigned to AA to open 2018 in what was a major challenge for him (forced by the outfield glut in Winston-Salem), and it showed in the results: .216/.321/.321, 30.5% K/PA. Matt Rose got some prospect talk after a hot start (.884 OPS in first 25 games) and getting a look at third base, but he eventually moved back to first and his hitting fell off a cliff the rest of the way (.499 OPS in the last 90 games). Danny Mendick did enough to make his case for AAA next year: he only hit .247 but got on base at a .340 clip thanks to a 10.8% walk rate and hit 14 home runs while playing reportedly decent defense at shortstop.

Two players from the “old days” worth noting. 2012 supplemental first round pick Keon Barnum is still around, still hitting bombs (15 in 79 games) and still striking out quite often (33.8%). And the true first rounder from the same class, outfielder Courtney Hawkins, played in nine games before he was released.

Pitching Highlights

The Barons’ rotation was in regular flux, with a number of starters promoted out, promoted in, injured and acquired. So let’s break them down:

  • Promoted to AAA during the season:
    • Jordan Stephens made 7 starts with a 2.95 ERA and striking out a batter an inning before promotion.
    • Jordan Guerrero made 13 starts and was hit pretty hard (6.06 ERA, 84 H in 65.1 IP) but was promoted anyway.
    • Spencer Adams made 13 starts with OK-ish results (4.59 ERA, 6/9 K/9 which was a career high for him at any stop since rookie ball) and was sent up.
  • Lost time to injury:
    • Dane Dunning came to AA after just 4 starts at High-A. He was excellent for 10 starts (2.78 ERA, 10.0 K/9) before leaving his 11th start with an elbow sprain that took him out for the rest of 2018. He’s supposedly going to be ready to go just fine for Opening Day in 2019.
    • Alec Hansen was shut down during Spring Training with forearm soreness, and didn’t get back to the Barons until mid-June. In 9 starts he lost all track of the strike zone, walking 42 batters in 35.2 innings before being demoted to Winston-Salem for the remainder of the year.
    • Ian Clarkin made 9 starts before his injury, rehabbed at AZL and Winston-Salem, then came back and made 9 relief appearances. The 9 starts were pretty ugly (6.29 ERA, 24 BB vs 21 K), but as a reliever he did much better (1.80 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 14:7 K:BB in 20 IP). It’s unclear if the bullpen is his new future or if this was temporary after the injury.
  • Promoted or acquired to join the team:
    • Dylan Cease made 10 starts (after promotion from A+) and was nothing short of dominant: 1.72 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 5.2 H/9, 13.4 K/9.
    • Bernardo Flores made 13 starts after joining from the Dash and did quite well too (2.76 ERA) and kept improving his control (1.6 BB/9) but didn’t miss a ton of bats (5.4 K/9).
    • Jimmy Lambert made just 5 starts as a later promotion from Winston-Salem, but did quite well in those outings: 2.88 ERA, 30 K vs 6 BB in 25 IP.
    • Kodi Medeiros was acquired via trade, making 7 shaky starts to end the season: 4.98 ERA, 5.8 BB/9, 8.9 K/9.

Just one pitcher made more than 13 starts with the Barons – Matt Tomshaw, a 29-year-old with Major League experience. He made 21 starts with Birmingham (and 6 with Charlotte), and in those AA outings he posted a 5.09 ERA as an innings-eater (120.1).

The bullpen was probably the strength of this team overall. There were a plethora of strong performances in relief work, including from a few arms that reached the majors this year. Here are all the relievers that got in substantial work, most of whom performed in the OK to great range, and most didn’t stay with the team all year:

  • Ian Hamilton (who is now with the White Sox): 1.78 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 4.3 BB/9, 12.1 K/9 in 25.2 IP
  • Ryan Burr (also now with the Sox): 2.72 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 4.8 BB/9, 9.0 K/9
  • Jose Ruiz (also now with the Sox): 3.18 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 3.8 BB/9, 10.9 K/9
  • Colton Turner (promoted to AAA): 0.86 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 2.1 BB/9, 9.4 K/9
  • Zach Thompson (promoted from A+ during season): 1.35 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 4.1 BB/9, 9.0 K/9
  • Brad Goldberg (traded to ARZ): 2.82 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, 6.0 BB/9, 13.7 K/9
  • Brandon Brennan (promoted to AAA): 3.10 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 2.7 BB/9, 9.0 K/9
  • Matt Foster (promoted from A+ during season): 3.94 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 3.7 BB/9, 8.4 K/9
  • Brian Clark: 4.76 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 3.0 BB/9, 9.4 K/9
  • Jake Johansen: 4.15 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 3.0 BB/9, 6.6 K/9
  • Connor Walsh (demoted to A+ during season): 10.67 ERA, 2.27 WHIP, 6.0 BB/9, 12.9 K/9

That’s a lot of strong showings from the pen, and a number of those arms could be part of the next contending White Sox club.

Looking Forward to 2019

Baseball fans in Birmingham should be excited for next season, as that peak wave of talent depth in the Sox system will likely crash through the Barons roster in 2019. In terms of players likely to repeat, the hitters include Collins, Basabe, Call and Booker. The pitching rotation should be heavily laden with returning hurlers including Dunning, Lambert, Flores and A.J. Puckett. That’s a talented bunch who will have a partial AA season already under their belts and should do well coming back to the level.

Then there are the stars from the high-performing 2018 Winston-Salem Dash who will be making the jump. Luis Gonzalez, Blake Rutherford, Gavin Sheets, Laz Rivera and Ti’Quan Forbes will probably be there, with most of those players being in or very close to the Top 30. Nick Madrigal could be too, though it’s not at all sure that it happens for Opening Day. On the pitching side, some relievers who pitched well in High-A will make the jump, likely to include Tyler Johnson, Danny Dopico and Hunter Schryver among others. Looking at the projected (read: marginally educated guess) OD roster, it appears nearly a dozen of the full organization’s top thirty prospects will be on board. 2019 should be a very fun year in Birmingham.

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  • Because of age and the glut of outfielders being promoted from Winston-Salem, I would not be surprised to see Call and Booker start the season in Charlotte. Additionally, Dunning may have shone enough to get his promotion as well.

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