Thursday, April 4th kicks off another season of Carolina League play where the defending first-and-second-half champion Winston-Salem Dash hope to make it two postseason appearances in a row. 2018 will be tough to top after the Dash finished 30 games above .500, but there is still more than enough talent expected at the White Sox Advanced-A affiliate this year to make BB&T Ballpark a prime destination for fans and scouts alike.
This past January, Chicago announced they would be promoting 2018 Winston-Salem manager Omar Vizquel to Double-A Birmingham, making way for former Kannapolis Intimidators skipper Justin Jirschele to get the call-up to take over the post in Winstom-Salem. Following a four-year Minor League career in the Sox system, Jirschele will begin his third season at the helm at the ripe age of 29-years-old, making him the youngest manager in full-season Minor League Baseball. Matt Zaleski will serve as pitching coach, while Jaime Dismuke fills the role as hitting coach.
Here is how the Dash look to open the season and what you can expect from the talent.
Opening Day ages of the players are listed in parentheses, along with position for non-pitchers.
Winston-Salem Dash 2018 Record: 84-54
First Half: 41-29 – 1st Place
Second Half: 43-25, 1st Place (Tie)
– Repeats: Blake Battenfield (24), Lincoln Henzman (23), Kyle Kubat (26), John Parke (24), Alec Hansen (24)*
– From Kannapolis: Jake Elliot (24), Kevin Escorcia (24), Will Kincanon (23), Luis Ledo (23), Zach Lewis (23), Jose Nin (23)
– From Great Falls: Codi Heuer (22)
– New to the organization: Cristian Castillo (24)
*Hansen suited up for both the Barons and the Dash in 2018. Hansen ended the year with Dash.
The Dash will open with one pitcher who is among the White Sox top-30 prospects in 2019 in Alec Hansen. The big righty led Minor League Baseball with 191 strikeouts over 141.1 innings in 2017, but took a step back last season. Hansen was bothered by forearm soreness during Spring Training that kept him out until June and managed to total only 51.1 innings over 14 starts in 2018.
Since then, he has proved to be healthy, which shifts the primary focus of Hansen’s development to his command and consistency with his mechanics. Following a season in which the right-hander walked more batters than innings pitched (59 BB in 51.1 IP), the Sox have elected to start the 24-year-old in Winston-Salem’s bullpen in an attempt to get him back to where he was in 2017.
The positioning of Hansen has more to do with the White Sox developmental team’s wishes to reunite him with his former pitching coach Matt Zaleski in an effort to bring Hansen back to form. Zaleski has held the pitching coach title at Great Falls (R), Kannapolis (A) and Winston-Salem (A+) and has received a large portion of credit related to Hansen’s early dominance in the White Sox organization. Entering his age-24 season, Hansen’s progress with Zaleski and the Dash should serve as one of the biggest storylines for the 2019 season.
As for the Dash starting rotation, right-hander Blake Battenfield has a great opportunity to climb the system in what will be his second full season as a starter. Battenfield’s 2018 ended prematurely due to shoulder inflammation, but the righty went at least six frames in six of his nine starts with the Dash following a midseason call-up. Battenfield put forth a 2.98 ERA in 121 innings across Kannapolis and Winston-Salem in 2019. Turing 25 this coming August, the Oklahoma State product should lead the way for the Dash’s rotation.
Past Battenfield, left-hander John Parke, righty Lincoln Henzman, lefty Kyle Kubat are all repeats at Winston-Salem who will fill out the rotation. Left-hander Cristian Castillo will round out the starting five.
Of Kubat’s 111 Minor League appearances, only 14 have been starts. However, the White Sox saw production out of the left-handed pitcher after completing the Carolina League season with eight consecutive starts; one included a five inning, 10 strikeout, no walk performance in a 5-1 win over the Carolina Mudcats. Kubat walked only six while striking out 33 in 41.1 innings as a starter to end 2018. Drafted as a senior-signed by the Royals in 2015, Kubat has been older than his competition at every level but has shown great results with his peripherals. The 26-year-old boasts a sparkling 1.6 BB/9 across his Minor League career.
Kyle Kubat warms during Minor League camp
Similar to Kubat, Henzman is a reliever-turned-starter. Although, the difference between the two is the White Sox transitioned Henzman from reliever to starter immediately after he completed his final season at the University of Louisville. The 23-year-old right-hander is set to begin his second full season in the system and is coming off an encouraging cumulative 2.35 ERA in 107.1 innings pitched. Henzman’s 18 total walks resulted in a fantastic 1.5 BB/9 ratio.
Lefty Cristian Castillo takes the fifth spot and has the experience of starting in 61 of his 80 total Minor League appearances. The lefty did make nine starts last year for Carolina League foe Wilmington to go along with eight relief appearances. It would make sense if the White Sox utilized Castillo’s flexibility as both starter and reliever this season given the whims of a Carolina League season that typically features stretches of stormy weather, postponements and a steady helping of 7-inning double headers.
An interesting name to keep an eye on this year will be 22-year-old right-hander Codi Heuer. A 7th-round-draft-pick out of Wichita State, Heuer spent his first two college seasons as a relief pitcher, but 15 of his 16 appearances in 2018 were starts. He then managed 14 starts in short-season Great Falls, totaling his workload to 109.1 innings. Heuer was perceived as a nice value in the 7th round for Nick Hostetler’s draft team. The right-hander will skip Low-A to begin the year and be featured out of the Dash’s pen, despite serving as a starter throughout all of last year’s collegiate and professional seasons.
Jake Elliot, Zach Lewis, Kevin Escorcia, Will Kincannon, Luis Ledo and Jose Nin will join Hansen and Heuer in the bullpen.
John Parke warms during Minor League camp
–Repeats: C Daniel Gonzalez (23), C Nate Nolan (24), 2B Nick Madrigal (22), INF Zach Remillard (25), SS Yeyson Yrizarri (22), OF Luis Robert (21)
–From Birmingham: OF Jameson Fisher (OF), UTIL JJ Muno (25)
–From Kannapolis: C Carlos Perez (22), 3B Tate Blackman (24), INF Johan Cruz (23), OF Craig Dedelow (24), OF Tyler Frost (23)
– New to the organization: OF Jordan George (26)
Nick Madrigal and Luis Robert headline the class of position players entering 2019, but they shouldn’t plan on getting comfortable in Winston. Should all things go accordingly, the White Sox will likely promote the two to Birmingham early in the season.
The focus, first and foremost, is for the two to remain healthy – especially for Robert who has struggled with nagging injuries since his record-breaking deal brought him to the White Sox. Aside from health, it’s imperative they put together a full Minor League season and experience all that comes with a 100-plus game schedule and workload. Robert was hurt with a thumb injury that limited him to just 50 games in his first year in the system, while Madrigal managed 43 games across the Arizona League, Kannapolis, and Winston-Salem following his impressive junior year at Oregon State University.
Luis Robert vs. live pitching during Minor League camp
A fun note on Madrigal is that he did not strikeout over the course of 17 games in the Arizona League or Kannapolis, and totaled just five strikeouts in 107 plate appearances with the Dash. An early 2020 call-up to the White Sox is not out of the question for both Robert and Madrigal, should things go the organization’s way. Madrigal in particular should fly through the system with his strong defense, makeup and strong baseball acumen carrying him.
Tate Blackman is at third base in his first stint at Winston-Salem, while Yeyson Yrizarri will pick up where he left off last season at short.
Blackman started the season red-hot in Kannapolis batting .280 with nine homers, 12 doubles and 42 RBI from April to the end of June. The 2017 13th round draft pick earned a South Atlantic League All-Star nod, but struggled offensively in the second half of 2018. With a full season under his belt, Blackman looks to turn last year’s first three months into an entire season’s worth of production.
Yrizarri was acquired from the Texas Rangers in exchange for international signing bonus pool money back in July of 2015. He has not yet played above Advanced-A while with the Sox. The shortstop may have a tough time moving up at his position with Laz Rivera laying claim to the shortstop position in Double-A. Regardless, the athlete plays a smooth shortstop and any progression at the plate could elevate his prospect status quickly.
Aside from having a pretty impressive name, Tyler Frost was able to put together an even more impressive 2018 season. The 23-year-old outfielder showcased his power in his first full year in the minors with 18 home runs, 21 doubles and .445 slugging percentage. Winston-Salem will be the highest level of Frost’s professional career.
Walker struggled in his first go around as a professional at Kannapolis following his season at the University of Oklahoma. The White Sox related Walker’s early pro struggles to the heavy workload college draftees experience following their collegiate campaigns. His impressive bat speed and command of the strike zone projects Walker to be a legitimate hitter with his ceiling considered to be a Major League starting outfielder. His struggles are the reason he is not starting the year at Winston-Salem, but his talent suggests he will be with the Dash by year’s end and likely sooner-than-later.
As for Burger, he continues to rehab from two ruptured Achilles, but has been rehabbing throughout the spring. He was back on the field taking ground balls during Minor League camp in March, so once he is fully ready to go, Winston-Salem will likely be his first destination back. Given the unusual circumstance of his injury, it isn’t entirely clear what to expect for his rehab and return to the lineup, but as a high-character guy who was shelved for all of 2018, it is safe to assume Burger will be pushing to get on the field as soon as possible.
It’s hard to compare this season to last because of the sheer mass of talent that passed through Winston-Salem in 2018. 16 of the White Sox top-30 prospects got a taste of the Dash purple in the impressive first-place-finishing season. However, looking at the depth at Kannapolis, Winston-Salem should still be filled with names that will grab your attention. Starting with some of baseballs best prospects in Madrigal and Robert helps the intrigue, but it will be on the 2018 draft class to keep the attention on the Dash in 2018. Speaking to that 2018 draft class, you may have noticed a theme across this roster. There is prospect after prospect coming in at the 22, 23, & 24 year range entering their first or second full season as professionals. That’s all part of the White Sox plan as they continue to implore their specific draft strategy.
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Filed under: Focus
Tags: Alec Hansen, Blake Battenfield, Carlos Perez, Codi Heuer, Craig Dedelow, Cristian Castillo, Daniel Gonzalez, Jake Burger, Jake Elliot, Jameson Fisher, JJ Muno, johan cruz, John Parke, Jordan George, Jose Nin, Kyle Kubat, Lincoln Henzman, Luis Ledo, Luis Robert, Nate Nolan, Nick Madrigal, Steele Walker, Tate Blackman, Tyler Frost, Will Kincanon, Yeyson Yrizarri, Zach Lewis, Zach Remillard