There’s an old theory in baseball that says for every ten pitching prospects, two become major leaguers, making being confronted with a career crossroads inevitable for the vast majority of players. This year three prominent pitching prospects within the White Sox organization including a couple of former first-rounders could be on the wrong side of the equation without a successful 2019 campaign.
While Fulmer has too many major league innings to be considered for our top prospect list (MLB Rookie Status), he is an important player in the White Sox system. While a poor year in 2019 is unlikely to result in his release, it would have a significant impact on his viability as a top prospect. It’s apparent that Fulmer understands this as he worked hard to improve this offseason. He spent much of it training at Driveline baseball in Seattle and changed his diet which resulted in a 15-pound weight loss. Named the fifth starter to launch the 2018 season, Fulmer struggled in eight starts that covered 32 innings posting an 8.07 ERA with a WHIP of 1.887. After being sent down to Charlotte, the right-hander appeared in 25 games, the majority of them out of the bullpen, where his ERA was reduced to 5.32 and WHIP to 1.64. He allowed 70 hits over 67.1 innings, walking 41 while striking out 62. These numbers don’t equate to the Sonny Gray comparisons that he was tagged with coming into the draft, nor are they indicative of the 70-grade fastball and 60-grade curveball in his arsenal.
Fulmer was called up to the White Sox twice in April, pitching an impressive three innings allowing one run, one hit to go with two walks and three strikeouts. He was promptly returned to Triple-A Charlotte, only to be brought back up a few weeks later with far less success. With the bullpen situation shaky, it’s likely Fulmer needs to find a way to stick at the big league level to find a long term role in the organization. The alternative is a place in baseball purgatory, where he is no longer a top prospect, but a guy looking to recapture the magic that earned him that title and lofty draft status.
The Downers Grove native was taken number 26 overall out of Louisville in 2016. He skyrocketed through four levels of the minors that season before settling in Triple-A Charlotte. He established himself there until the dreaded UCL tear forced him to have Tommy John surgery in July of 2017. In 33 innings that season, he notched seven saves, 51 strikeouts versus only 17 walks and WHIP of 1.410 most observers felt he was on the fast track to the closer role on the Southside as guys with 102 mph fastballs with good movement are prone to do.
Unfortunately, except for a rehab stint in Arizona, Burdi has yet to return to the mound. He will be starting a rehab stint in Kannapolis before moving to Charlotte. How effective he’ll be is an open question given this assessment offered by Fangraphs.
Burdi was often throwing, just 92-94 and his slider spin rate had dropped to 2200 rpm from 2700 when he was healthy.
To play the role of Captain Obvious, that’s a significant drop off from his peak. If he is unable to bounce back when he returns from the injured list, his future as a top prospect is in jeopardy. Some players heal slower than others, so there’s hope that Burdi can to recapture his pre-injury form. Further complicating his future is that he’ll need to be on the 40 man roster to protect him from exposure to the Rule- 5 draft next season. In his current state, it’s unlikely another team would claim him as a Rule-5 selection must remain on the MLB roster the entire season or be returned to his original team. If things start to turn around for him late, the White Sox could be faced with a difficult decision.
The second round draft pick in 2016 needs to bounce back from a particularly rough 2018. He began the year rehabbing from a forearm injury that held him out until mid-June. Upon arrival In Birmingham, he struggled with wildness and ineffectiveness until he was sent down to Winston-Salem. Reuniting with pitching coach Matt Zaleski didn’t change the outcome for Hansen as the same problems plagued him the remainder of the season.
Having experienced control issues while at Oklahoma, there’s optimism that he’ll be able to repeat the corrective actions, he took a few years ago under the guidance of Zaleski. However, others wonder if his 6-7, 235 lb. frame is conducive to repeating his mechanics consistently.
Finally, some encouraging news from this bunch as Hansen is off to a promising start at Winston-Salem. In six innings this year, he has struck out nine while walking only two. He has yet to give up a hit notching a WHIP of .33 in the early going. His fastball has returned to 2017 levels, consistently registering in the upper 90s. With so many positives, it appears that Zaleski has made some progress.
2019 will be a pivotal season for Hansen. As a 24-year-old former second-round draft pick, Hansen is at an age where he should be approaching the Triple-A level. With the stuff, Hansen has shown when he is right that certainly is within reach. The guess here is the White Sox will take it slow giving him plenty of time to return to form. If he isn’t ready to progress to the upper minors by the end of the season, it’ll be difficult to view him as an upper-echelon prospect. Like Burdi, he also requires Rule 5 protection after the season, and also like Burdi, it’s doubtful another team would be willing to risk an MLB roster spot on someone with his track record.
Given their draft status and lofty expectations, the team will provide all three of these prospects ample opportunity to turn things around. However, there comes a time when both the team and the player are forced to deal with the harsh reality of life in minor league baseball. Hopefully, success will make it a simple choice for everyone involved.