The Charlotte Knights opened International League play last night at BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte, NC against the Durham Bulls (sounds like something from a movie). 15-year major league veteran, Mark Grudzielanek will lead the team for the third consecutive season. The rest of the coaching staff includes hitting coach Frank Menechino, pitching coach Steve McCatty and bench coach Guillermo Quiroz.
Here is a look at how the Knights roster is constructed, who to watch, and what to expect from the club.
Charlotte Knights (2018 Record: 64-75; 4th Place)
Pitchers: Thyago Vieira, Colton Turner, Zach Thompson, Jordan Stephens, Donn Roach, Josh Osich, Juan Minaya, Evan Marshall, Jacob Lindgren, Ian Hamilton, Jordan Guerrero, Carson Fulmer, Dylan Cease, Zack Burdi**, Aaron Bummer**, Spencer Adams
** 7 Day injured list
Triple-A always presents the most interesting mix of players among the minor league designations. In some ways, it serves as an extended bench for the MLB roster. One such example is reliever Jose Ruiz being called up before the minor league season even started to hold down a roster spot for while shortstop Tim Anderson is on paternity leave. Surprisingly he stuck with the team as Dylan Covey was released. Then there are prospects with a legitimate chance of having a successful major league career (Dylan Cease, Jordan Stephens, and Spencer Adams). You’ll also find players with a similar profile to Juan Minaya who has pitched 103 games in the majors and is looking to get back into the bigs with the White Sox or another club. In the middle, there’s a mix of guys with high ceilings (Zack Burdi, Carson Fulmer, Thyago Vieira) and other players looking at a shot to make their childhood dreams a reality.
All of this gives you plenty to watch in 2019. Will Dylan Cease develop into the top line starter that everyone expects him to become? Can Jordan Stephens and Spencer Adams get a crack at making the back end of the rotation and staying there for the next 10 years? Is Zack Burdi able to complete his rehab from Tommy John surgery and become a back end of the bullpen fixture? Can Carson Fulmer regain the form that made him the 8th overall pick out of Vanderbilt in 2015? Will Thyago Vieira be able to harness his velocity and become a major league bullpen piece? Do Ian Hamilton, Aaron Bummer, and Zach Thompson deserve spots on the big league club. Who will emerge out of the rest of the pack to shock everyone by showing major league potential? All of these questions will be answered in one way or another by the beginning of September.
Catchers: Seby Zavala, Zack Collins Infielders: Danny Mendick, Alcides Escobar, Gerson Montilla**,Ryan Goins, D.J. Peterson, Matt Skole Outfielders: Nicky Delmonico, Brandon Guyer, Charlie Tilson, Preston Tucker.
**7 Day injured list
Like the pitching staff, the position players are an eclectic collection of talent. The most compelling players are behind the dish. Most people expect Seby Zavala, who turns 26 this year to get his shot on the Southside. Catcher is a frequently injured position, so he needs to be ready to hop a plane to Chicago at a moment’s notice. Once a question defensively, he leaped ahead of former first-round pick Zack Collins on the depth chart due to superior defense. He struggled with the bat upon being promoted to Charlotte, but many observers attribute his poor performance to a pesky wrist injury he suffered early last season. If Zavala can regain his 2017 form which he led all White Sox minor leaguers with 21 home runs, then he’ll be looking for an apartment in Chicago at some point in 2019 and possibly even a more permanent type of residence.
The overall 10th pick for the White Sox in the 2016 draft, still fields questions about whether he can stick behind the plate at the MLB level. Zack Collins will split time behind the plate with Zavala and see time at DH. Despite tripling in his first at-bat of the 2019 season, Collins has his detractors on offense. A walk machine (101 in 531 plate appearances in 2018) against 158 strikeouts, he slashed .234/.382/.404 with an ops of. 786 in Double-A Birmingham. With 15 long balls, he has the pop from the left-side that major league teams covet, but he’ll need to put the ball in play with positive results more consistently to match the expectations of a top 10 pick. A position switch could be in the offing, as we’ve seen how Yoan Moncada has improved with the bat by having less to worry about on defense. With a position as demanding as catcher, Collins could benefit from not worrying about what he has to do behind the plate and focus on what he does at the plate.
Danny Mendick had an interesting spring to follow up on a successful 2018 season in Birmingham. Most people don’t project 22nd round draft picks to make it to the big leagues, but exceeding expectation is what Mendick does. The versatile infielder out of Lowell MA, provides solid defense at three infield positions and under the radar offensive capabilities. He clubbed 14 home runs, while providing solid contact rates. Former FutureSox Editor-in-Chief Matt Cassidy uncovered this gem of a statistic. Mendick was the only hitter in the organization to finish in the Top 20 in BB percentage, strikeout rate and highest number of pitchers per plate appearance. This speaks of a polished hitter who understands the zone. Once considered a long shot, Mendick now has betting people putting hard-earned cash down on him to make the majors.
Matt Skole, Nicky Delmonico, Brandon Guyer, Charlie Tilson, and Preston Tucker all have MLB level chops. With outfield being a weaker area on the big league club a couple of these guys will get their chance to take a few rips at Guaranteed Rate Field at some point this summer.
This team is stacked with pitching prospects. Obviously, Dylan Cease will receive Michael Kopech level attention this season. He’s on track to start April 13 in Indianapolis, if anyone is in the mood for a road trip. Jordan Stephens and Spencer Adams are solid prospects. Carson Fulmer will also attract a lot of eyeballs as it’s a make or break year for him. Zack Burdi’s comeback from Tommy John surgery also makes for compulsory viewing. Backstops Seby Zavala and Zack Collins are the marquee attraction both offensively and defensively. And don’t go the sleep on Danny Mendick.