2019 Birmingham Barons Season Preview

The Birmingham Barons were scheduled to open play on Thursday April 4th in Biloxi, Mississippi against the Shuckers. The Barons will be managed by former big leaguer Omar Vizquel this year as he ascends upward from the Carolina League. Richard Dotson returns to Birmingham as the pitching coach and Charles Poe will take over as the club’s hitting coach. Former major leaguer Wes Helms will be on the coaching staff as well. The Barons will open Region’s Field on Wednesday April 10th against the Tennessee Smokies at 7:05 ET.

Here is a look at how the Barons’ roster is constructed, who to watch, and what to expect from the club.

Opening day ages of the players are listed in parentheses, along with position for non-pitchers. Players on the disabled list have an asterisk.

Top 30 Prospects: Dane Dunning (6), Micker Adolfo (7), Luis Alexander Basabe (9), Luis Gonzalez (10), Blake Rutherford (11), Gavin Sheets (18), Tyler Johnson (20), Jimmy Lambert (22), Bernardo Flores (23), Laz Rivera (25), Kodi Medeiros (29) 

Pitchers

Dane Dunning would have been the #1 starter for the Barons but he will miss the entire 2019 campaign after undergoing Tommy John Surgery in early March. It’s a crushing blow for the former first rounder and for the organization as a whole. Joining him on the shelf for the 2019 season is 23-year-old right hander AJ Puckett. The former Royals farmhand battled injuries for the duration of last season and will miss all of this one after getting his own ulnar collateral ligament replaced. Dunning placed favorably on publication top 1oo lists over the past year and he’s the #6 overall prospect in the White Sox’s system on our preseason list. Right hander Jimmy Lambert (22) and lefties Bernardo Flores (23) and Kodi Medeiros (29) factor into our preseason rankings as well.

Lambert returns to the Barons after throwing 25 innings in the Southern League last year. The 6’2″ righty posted a 2.73 FIP with Birmingham last season. In 70.2 innings with Winston-Salem, Jimmy posted a 2.99 FIP with 10.19 K/9 and 2.67 BB/9 for the Dash. Lambert was a 5th round pick out of the University of California State at Fresno back in 2016 and he could move up to Triple-A for the first time in 2019. Bernardo Flores was a 7th rounder out of USC in the same draft and he’s pitched well since entering the system. The 6’3″ southpaw projects as a back end starter and returns to the Barons rotation after 78.1 innings in the same capacity last year. Bernardo posted a 2.76 ERA and 3.65 FIP but only struck out 5.40 hitters per nine innings. He did post a miniscule walk rate of 1.61 per nine as well however. Prior to joining the Barons, Bernardo posted a 2.55 ERA with a tiny walk rate over 77.2 innings with the Dash.

Medeiros was the 12th overall pick of the 2014 draft out of a Hawaiian high school by the Milwaukee Brewers. Kodi was acquired at last year’s trade deadline in exchange for reliever Joakim Soria. Pitching in Double-A in the Brewers’ system, the funky left-hander lowered his walk rate into the 3.5 per 9 range and the walks have notoriously killed him in the minors. In 34.1 innings with the Barons in 2018, the walk rate increased again to a staggering clip of 5.77 BB/9. He struck out almost one batter per inning but posted a 5.08 FIP in his brief stint. Medeiros repeats the level to start 2019 where he’s hoping for enough success to earn a promotion to the International League. Many scouts think that Kodi’s ultimately best suited to pitch in relief where his electric arsenal would play up but he’ll stay in the starting rotation for now.

Medeiros will begin the season on the injured list and that opens the door for someone else to start. Rounding out the rotation in some fashion should be lefties Tanner Banks or Matt Tomshaw and righties Luis Martinez or Felix Paulino. Banks was an 18th round pick out of the University of Utah in 2014. The 27-year-old lefty threw 61 innings for the Barons last year with an ERA of 2.66. 30-year-old Matt Tomshaw is back with the Barons in some capacity as well. Matt made six starts for the Charlotte Knights last season in addition to 120 innings of 3.17 FIP ball with Birmingham. Luis Martinez is another option to start in Birmingham. The 6’6″ Venezuelan was one of Marco Paddy’s first additions with the organization and he made 23 starts with Winston-Salem in 2018. Martinez threw 137 innings with a 4.03 FIP for the Dash last year. The 24-year-old Felix Paulino was acquired from the Phillies last season in exchange for Luis Avilan. Felix possesses a low-to-mid nineties fastball and a solid cutter.

The Barons announced the rotation for the first week of the season and goes as follows: Tanner Banks, Jimmy Lambert, Bernardo Flores, Felix Paulino and Sean Nolin.

Tyler Johnson is the likely closer for this Birmingham team but he’s not on the opening day roster. Johnson had a mild lat strain in spring training and he will join the Barons soon. The 23-year-old was a 5th rounder out of South Carolina in 2017. The righty is the #20 prospect in the system on our list and he relies on a plus fastball/slider combo. In 31 innings for the Dash in 2018, the fireballer averaged 12.48 K/9 and posted a 1.58 FIP. Righty Danny Dopico could get some late inning work in his place. Dopico was an 11th rounder out of Florida International in 2015. The 25-year-old struck out 11.93/9 with a 2.62 FIP in 57.1 innings for the Dash last year. Southpaw Hunter Schryver is another candidate for late inning work in 2019. The White Sox acquired Schryver from the Tampa Bay Rays at last year’s deadline in exchange for international bonus pool space. The 24-year-old could move quickly after posting a 1.20 ERA with 12.6 K/9 in Winston-Salem in 2018.

The rest of the bullpen will be made up of righties Connor Walsh, Matt Foster and Mauricio Cabrera and lefties Sean Nolin and Brain Clark. Walsh is a former 12th rounder that struggled in Birmingham last year as a 25-year-old. Foster averaged nearly 13 K/9 with the Dash before throwing 32 innings in the Southern League last season. Cabrera is a 25-year-old reclamation project that throws very hard and pitched in the majors with the Braves in 2016. Clark was a 9th rounder out of Kent State in 2014. The 25-year-old lefty posted a 3.48 FIP in 62 innings with the Barons in 2018. Nolin joined the White Sox organization this offseason after pitching in Triple-A with the Colorado organization last year. The 29-year-old spent time in the majors with Toronto and Oakland in the past.

Position Players

Omar Vizquel gets much of his old team from the Carolina League to join him with the Barons in Birmingham to start the season. Gavin Sheets is quite the imposing figure and looks the part of a left-handed masher at first base. Sheets was a 2nd round pick out of Wake Forest in 2017 and received $2 million over-slot to sign. Gavin doesn’t strike out a ton and he walks plenty as well. He posted a 123 wRC+ with the Dash and plays solid defense at first but he must unlock more in-game power which could be tough in Birmingham. Sheets can really hit and his power displays in batting practice will be fun for the locals this upcoming season. On the hot corner will be 22-year-old Ti’Quan Forbes. Forbes is a former 2nd round pick of the Rangers that spent 2018 with the Dash as well. Forbes hit 6 homers and posted a 99 wRC+ from the right side.

Laz Rivera was a 28th round pick out of the University of Tampa in 2017. Laz has flown through the system and has done nothing but hit at every level. The 24-year-old shortstop displays power and great defense on the middle infield but he needs to walk more often. Rivera posted a 158 wRC+ in his time at Kannapolis last year and followed it up with a wRC+ 120 in his time at Winston-Salem. With Nick Madrigal starting the season in the Carolina League, Mitch Roman should get most of the work at second base initially. The 24-year-old Wright State product struggled in 27 games in Birmingham last year after putting up a 112 wRC+ with the Dash. Trey Michalczewski and Ramon Torres will get some work on the infield as well. Trey is calling his 4th season in Birmingham his “senior season” and at least he’s taking some of the struggles in stride. The 24-year-old plays multiple positions and is very familiar with the Southern league. Torres comes over after spending some time with the Royals in the majors the last two years. The 26-year-old is a slick fielder.

The fans at Regions Field have been used to seeing some of the better catching prospects in the league in recent years. Seby Zavala and Zack Collins have moved on to Charlotte now after a time-share in Birmingham. Alfredo Gonzalez and Yermin Mercedes will get the bulk of the work behind the dish for the 2019 Barons. Gonzalez is a great defender that even spent a brief period with the White Sox in the big leagues last season. The 26-year-old is a good defender and game caller who should be an asset to the young pitchers working their way through the league. Yermin is also 26-years-old but with a much different profile. Yermin is a big bodied type that packs a real punch with the bat. He posted a 136 wRC+ in 410 plate appearances with the Dash. He also hit 14 homers and drove in 58 runs. Mercedes and Gonzalez really can be seen as the antithesis of one another.

The outfield for the Barons is absolutely loaded with stellar prospects. Luis Alexander Basabe, Micker Adolfo, Luis Gonzalez and Blake Rutherford are all top 15 prospects in one of the best farm systems in the sport. In his first promotion to Double-A, Micker Adolfo will spend the early parts of the season as the Barons’ Designated Hitter. The 22-year-old has massive raw power and a large prototypical right fielder’s frame. Adolfo underwent Tommy John Surgery to fix a torn UCL but posted a 137 wRC+ with the Dash prior to surgery. Micker hit 11 homers and drove in 48 runs in Winston-Salem as well. Adolfo needs to cut down the strikeout rate but his power potential is absolutely legitimate. He has an 80-grade throwing arm and it’ll be interesting to follow along and see how quickly he can get back into the outfield.

Luis Gonzalez was a 3rd round pick out of New Mexico in 2017. The 23-year-old can play all three outfield spots. The lefty has hit well at every level of the White Sox system to this point. With Winston-Salem in 2018, Luis slashed .313/.376/.504 with a 146 wRC+. Gonzalez packs some pop with a .190 ISO% as well. He could be a top-100 prospect in baseball if he continues to rake in Double-A. Gonzalez should get most of the time in centerfield to start the year. Blake Rutherford will be in a corner spot but could moonlight in center some as well. Rutherford was the 18th overall pick in the 1st round back in 2016. He’s an athletic player with a corner profile but he’ll need to develop more power as well. He’s a former top-100 type and he can really hit as evidenced by the 120 wRc+ he posted with the Dash in 2018.

Luis Alexander Basabe is on the 40-man roster and looked like a guy with an outside shot at making it to the big leagues in 2019. He busted onto the scene last year after hitting a mammoth homer off of Hunter Greene in the Futures Game. Basabe was prepared to receive some major league time in spring training but he broke the hamate bone in his wrist and is still recovering. Luis should see Charlotte at some point but he’ll start his season in Birmingham. The 22-year-old was considered the “third piece” in the Chris Sale haul and he had a nice season in 2018. Basabe can play all three outfield spots and posted a 146 wRC+ in High-A prior to his 111 wRc+ with the Barons. He also hit 15 homers across both levels. Joel Booker will likely be in a backup role for much of the season but could find himself a starting gig early on. Booker was a 22nd rounder out of Iowa back in 2016. The 25-year-old posted a 145 wRC+ in Winston-Salem but was just okay after his promotion to the Southern League.

Overall Thoughts

This team will be a monster offensively in the Southern League and could win the division title. The Barons are loaded with top 30 prospects that should hit and hit a lot from the outset. Birmingham should receive some reinforcements as the summer goes along as well with guys like Nick Madrigal, Luis Robert, Luis Alexander Basabe and Alec Hansen all realistic additions. Players love Omar Vizquel and this club should be one that’s fun to watch. The Barons will be a destination for scouts and prospect hounds on their various stops throughout the season.

The pitching staff isn’t as loaded as the offense but there is enough there to see a substantial improvement from last year. The rotation should be filled with three guys on the club’s top 30 list and the back end of the bullpen will receive some help as well in the form of Tyler Johnson. Birmingham finished the 2018 season with a record of 66-72 and 12 games back of first place. The Barons finished 7th in offense in a ten team league. This season should be much different.

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