If This is Rock Bottom, Sign Me Up: 33 reasons why everything is (still) fine

We’re not White Sox fans because we’re optimists. Or maybe we are, actually, I don’t know — why else would we still follow a team that has made the playoffs nine times in its 100+ year existence? In either case, here we are. Our top 80 prospects all need elbow surgery. The major league roster was paid for via GoFundMe. The front office put pillows under their bedsheets to convince us that they were still there and then made their escape in the dead of night.

“But it’s not all bad!” she croaked from inside a full-body cast as Mothra reigned down carnage from a blood-red sky. It’s so easy to get hung up on the bad news about the big-name prospects, a lot of strong performances are being overlooked. So here’s some hope to keep you hanging on.

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The Charlotte Knights, who are usually either in last place or in last place by a whole lot, are currently 20-17; they’ve had 10 winning seasons in their 30-year history, so this is both mediocre and an impressive achievement. They haven’t finished anywhere near .500 since 2015, their last year above water, itself an island. Charlotte’s team ERA of 6.17 is almost a full half-run higher than the next International League runner-up. They’re the first team by a long shot to give up over 200 earned runs; nobody else in the 14-team league is even in the 190’s yet. Matt Foster deserves at least a mention; he gave up one run in his first 17.2 IP this season, that one coming in his first 8 innings with the Knights. He’s now given up three runs total on the year for an overall ERA of 1.45.

So the pitching isn’t great, and maybe this post isn’t off to the most encouraging start. It’s ok! Have you heard the good news about Danny Mendick? After a torrid spring, he’s slashing .273/.368/.462, bouncing back from a decent but not amazing 2018 in AA. He’s doing it playing all over the field, too; he’s spent time at second, short, third, and left field this season, with just a single error to his name (shortstop. His name is Danny. The position was shortstop). The currently concussed but soon-to-return Zack Collins is another bright spot. Of his 22 hits this season, 13 have gone for extra bases — that’s seven home runs, five doubles, and one triple for the apparently-not-glacially-slow catcher. He has grounded into exactly zero double plays — not glacially slow! #NotGlaciallySlow

You know what? Let’s not focus on Charlotte. It is a silly place.

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The Birmingham Barons are notable both for their solid core of top prospects and for the poor performance of that solid core of top prospects. I’m not going to waste words on Luis Robert; he’ll be fine. For the rest of them, batting averages ranging from .149 to .234, it’s a little different. Birmingham is notorious for being unfriendly to hitters, and they’ve been slow to adjust. But adjusting they are. Gavin Sheets is batting .306 over his last 10 games. So, oddly, is Laz Rivera. Luis Basabe is the assumedly-not-proud owner of that .149 average, but he’s drawn 12 walks in his 18 games back from a broken hamate bone, good for a split-level OBP of .316. Please, do not forget Yermin Mercedes — the catcher just spent a week on the IL, but like a trap card in Yu-Gi-Oh, he was just activated and is ready to rain down a Torrential Tribute of his own. In his 66 at-bats this year, Mercedes is slashing .379/.419/.561; he’s also caught 12 of 28 trying to steal. Sure, he has eight passed balls already, but let he who has never passed a ball cast the first stone!!

It’s the pitching that really sets the Barons apart, although they rank dead last in the league in team strikeouts. I know I just said that whole thing about Birmingham being a hitter-unfriendly park, which implies that it’s a pitcher-friendly park, which it is, but the numbers Barons pitchers are putting up are still impressive. My vote for best under-the-radar reliever is southpaw Hunter Schryver, whom the Sox acquired for international bonus pool space from the Tampa Bay Rays midway through last season. They basically got him for allowing the Rays to spend their own (Kevin?) cash.  All he did last year was put up a 2.12 ERA over 63.2 IP, striking out 80 and walking 17 (two levels, three teams). His dominance has continued this season, his first at AA: over 17.1 IP, he’s given up just two runs. The walks are a little higher and the strikeouts are a little lower, but so far he’s been managing just fine.

Bernardo Flores delivering a pitch for the Winston-Salem Dash, 2018 (Clinton Cole / FutureSox)

Bernardo Flores delivering a pitch for the Winston-Salem Dash, 2018 (Clinton Cole / FutureSox)

Meanwhile, the Jimmy Lambert/Bernardo Flores one-two punch at the top of the rotation is basically picking up right where they left off. Lambert is issuing a few too many walks and a few too many dongs for his other numbers to be sustainable, but both categories are significantly above his career norms and he should be back to strikes soon. Flores is sporting a 2.84 ERA over his 38 innings of work, not walking a lot of guys or giving up a ton of hits. Felix Paulino, currently IL’ed, and Tanner Banks, who’s started and relieved this year, are putting up extremely decent numbers as well. Kyle Kubat is having a remarkable reintroduction to AA as a starter; he’s given up just one run in his last three outings and has gone seven full innings in each. He has yet to walk a batter at the AA level. Between the Dash and the Barons this season, he’s thrown 43 innings over seven starts and has given up four runs for an ERA of 0.84. Blake Battenfield is the Barons’ newest starter and gave up one run over five innings in his first game. He left the Dash with a 2.83 ERA over 35 innings, but will have to work on cutting down his walk rate of 2.3 BB/9.

Zach Remllard, Winston-Salem Dash, May 2018 (Clinton Cole / FutureSox)

Zach Remllard, Winston-Salem Dash, May 2018 (Clinton Cole / FutureSox)

The Winston-Salem Dash aren’t the team they were last year (are any of us?), but despite the lack of big names on the roster, they’re filled with bats having stealthily impressive seasons. Chief among these is Zach Remillard, who’s repeating the level after an okay 2018. He just received Carolina League Player of the Week honors for the first time in his career and is 14 for his last 33. He’s 25 years old and has spent the majority of his time in the field this year at shortstop, where he has nine errors (the same as Tim Anderson!). He’s the definition of versatility, though, and did everything except pitch and catch in 2018.

Then there’s Jameson Fisher, who’s back for a redo after struggling with the Barons last season. Fisher spent almost all of his professional career up to this point as an outfielder, but has returned exclusively to first base, his college position. Just from the six or so games I’ve seen him play in person this season, I’d say he fields it quite well, even doing the splits a couple of times to nab errant throws (there are a lot from this Dash infield). Fisher, a left-handed batter, had an ice-cold start to the season offensively, but something clicked near the end of the April and he’s been on a tear since then. On April 28, he was batting .205. Today, he’s batting .282, paired with a .377 OBP and .443 slugging percentage. He’s walked 20 times and struck out 24.

Craig Dedelow, like Fisher, throws right and bats left. Dedelow is a big guy, drafted by the Sox in the 9th round in 2017. The outfielder has had hot and cold streaks this season, and currently has a 10-game average of .325. He’s hit six home runs, and his home runs are not cheapies.

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There’s also Steele Walker, who was promoted to the team about two weeks ago after tearing up the South Atlantic League with Kannapolis. Walker’s bat has had a slow start, but Walker’s feet haven’t, giving him a weird-looking line of .200/.373/.325. Walker has safely reached base in all but four games played this season, between both levels.

The pitching is weaker now that Kubat and Battenfield earned their promotions, but they still have Codi Heuer out of the bullpen. He’s notable for his sheer ability: standing at 6’5” and listed at 195 pounds, he can generate a fastball that touches 97 mph. He doesn’t strike out as many guys as you might expect, but at age 22, he still has some time to figure it out. Last year’s third-round pick Konnor Pilkington gave up five of just about everything in his first Dash start (hits, runs, walks, strikeouts), but prior to that, he had only given up six total runs in 33.1 innings with the Intimidators. Speaking of the I’s…

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The Kannapolis Intimidators are more exciting every day. Ian Dawkins is leading a high-performing outfield: the 23-year-old is hitting .347/.407/.456 and is 22 for his last 37, coming around to score 12 times. He’s stolen 12 bases and has only been caught twice, and has 13 doubles to add on top of that. He doesn’t seem to be a huge power guy, but he did recently hit his first homer of the season. Romy González, new to the level, has also had a strong start: he’s batting .309/.387/.418 over his 15 games, although the initial hot streak has cooled a bit. Alex Destino was promoted to the Dash very briefly to fill a roster spot earlier this year and didn’t have the time to find a groove; he’s been much more comfortable at the plate with the Intimidators, where his line is .298/.365/.456. 

Rounding out the outfield (return of the many-headed outfield!) is Bryce Bush, one of the most interesting prospects on the Sox. Bush, who won’t turn 20 until December, had an abysmal start to the season. His batting average reached a low point on April 20 — .096 — and has slingshotted up to .230 since then, joining a .317 OBP and .397 SLG, all respectable numbers, considering. The teenager now has two homers, three triples, and nine doubles.

Lenyn Sosa is another 19-year-old prospect who, like Bush, saw a significant slump at the plate, and who, like Bush, has rebounded admirably. Sosa, a shortstop, is still working to get his numbers back up to “decent,” but he’s turned a corner in the last two weeks and has a 10-game average of .325. His 38 strikeouts this season already eclipse his 36 from last year in 30 fewer games, but he’s not a free swinger and his OBP should only continue to climb.

Gunnar Troutwine is kind of the reverse of some of the above: he had a very strong start and has fallen off recently. Troutwine, a name so incredible I feel blessed to be able to type it out as many times as I possibly can, hasn’t shown a lot of power but does get on base to the tune of a .387 OBP. The Intimidators have had four catchers on their roster at some points this season, so Troutwine hasn’t gotten a huge amount of playing time, but Evan Skoug is now with the Dash and Michael Hickman, for some reason that I’m sure makes sense in-world, was recently promoted directly to Charlotte. This likely means we should be getting more Troutwine behind the plate in the coming weeks, and it’ll be interesting to see what he can do with more consistency. Perhaps he can work on the 10 passed balls, 4 errors, and 6-for-30 caught stealing.

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Of course, no catcher is anything without a pitching staff, and the Intimidators aren’t wanting there. Lefty Taylor Varnell, who was excellent in the AZL last season, is continuing his excellence in North Carolina. He’s made eight starts and has a 2.89 ERA over his 43.2 IP, accompanied by 53 strikeouts. 2018 fifth rounder Jonathan Stiever had a couple of rough outings to start the season, but he’s gone at least six innings in his last five starts and has only walked three total in that span. Kade McClure, who missed most of last year with a knee injury, hasn’t missed a beat. He’s been good overall, and best start of the season came on May 8th, when he produced a line of 7 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, and 10 K. Like all of these guys, his walk rate is a little high, but if everyone has to work on the same thing it’s like it’s not even a problem! I just made that up.

The bullpen also has its strengths. Vince Arobio has given up eight runs this season in his ten appearances, but seven of those runs are clustered in three of those games. He’s fought his ERA down to 3.66, and he’s struck out 26 over 19.2 IP. Andrew Perez, a lefty from last year’s eighth round, is matching his Kannapolis numbers from last season. He’s the owner of a 2.45 ERA over 18.1 IP, and has struck out 27 for a K/9 of 13.3. Bennett Sousa, another lefty from last year’s draft, has put up some eye-popping numbers: he’s given up three earned runs in 12 appearances spanning 16.1 innings this season (enough for his record to be 0-3). Yes, they’re all walking far too many batters, but as someone wise once said, if everyone has to work on the same thing it’s like it’s not even a problem.

So, yes, it is disappointing that we’re moving through 2019 with no Kopech, Dunning, Adolfo, etc. But to say that the farm system is nonexistent after the top five or so prospects is just inaccurate.  The Sox are still stacked. It’s unusual to have so many superstar-potential guys at the very top, and even without them, this is the strongest system they’ve had maybe ever. There’s no second Robert or Jiménez, but we already have them both, and the parts to build a team around them. It’s easy to be a cynic. It’s hard to be an optimist. But it’s fun to try.

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  • Julie: Obviously you aren't old enough to remember how good the Sox minor league system was in the 50's and through the mid-60's. Today's system is a vast improvement over the past garbage but it isn't close to being the "strongest" ever.

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