2019 Arizona Fall League Preview: White Sox Edition

The rosters for the Arizona Fall League were released this week. Seven White Sox minor leaguers will be participating, along with hitting coach Cole Armstrong as members of the Glendale Desert Dogs. The Arizona Fall League is an annual prospect showcase that runs from mid-September through late-October. Major league organizations generally send 5-7 players as part of a combined squad to fill the 6 rosters which comprise the league.

Players are usually selected from Double-A or higher but each team has two exceptions to use on players below that level as well. The rosters of these six clubs are loaded with prospect talent, so it’s commonplace for scouts and executives as the big league season is winding down. The White Sox representatives will join the Glendale Desert Dogs along with prospects from the Cincinnati Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. The Dogs will play their home games at Camelback Ranch in Glendale.

This year, the Desert Dogs open the Fall League season against the Surprise Saguaros in Glendale on Wednesday September 18th. The teams play a 30 game schedule culminating with a championship game at Salt River Fields on October 26th. The winner of the East Division (Mesa Solar Sox, Salt River Rafters, Scottsdale Scorpions) will face the winner of the West Division (Glendale Desert Dogs, Peoria Javelinas, Surprise Saguaros).

20 of baseball’s top 100 prospects according to MLBPipeline will be taking part in this year’s AFL. The biggest highlights for prospect watchers are Angels’ outfielder Jo Adell (#4), Twins’ shortstop Royce Lewis (#7), Twins’ outfielder Alex Kiriloff (#16) and Astros’ right hander Forrest Whitley (#17). Giants’ catcher Joey Bart, Phillies’ third baseman Alec Bohm and Mariners’ outfielder Jarred Kelenic were all drafted in 2018 and they’re playing fall ball as well. Here is the schedule for this season.

So how do teams decide who to send? Beyond the AA-level guideline, here are some reasons clubs typically put players in the fall showcase:

  • Key prospects who missed time to injury, to make up reps
  • Minor leaguers with 40-man roster decisions looming in November, so that both the native team and other teams’ evaluators can make decisions on roster additions or possible Rule 5 selections in December
  • Players who the team wants to expose to consistently deep opposing talent, and see how they handle it (these players sometimes are set for accelerated development paths going forward)
  • Showcasing talent to the rest of the league as potential trade bait

So AFL teams are not simply the team’s top upper level prospects. With that background, let’s look at the Sox entrants for the 2019 edition, including the rationale behind the decision, and what to expect from each.

Gavin Sheets, 1B, AA Birmingham (Age 23)

  • Who He Is: A top 20 prospect in the White Sox system who has made significant strides this season. Sheets is the son of former big leaguer Larry Sheets. He was selected in the 2nd round of the 2017 draft out of Wake Forest. His ceiling is that of a starting first baseman with plus power and an above average hit tool with solid defense. He’s not major league ready but he should start next season in Triple-A Charlotte with the Knights.
  • Why He’s Here: To get some experience playing with and against some of the best prospects in the sport. Getting more plate appearances is another factor as well as using the event as a bit of a showcase. The White Sox lack left-handed power but Andrew Vaughn and Jose Abreu get mentioned more often than Sheets does. It’s his chance to impress the other 29 organizations as well.
  • What To Watch For: To see if Sheets can continue his torrid pace. The 6’4″ 230 pound lefty slugger has posted a 126 wRC+ with a .355 wOBA in the Southern League this year. In his last 75 games, Sheets has hit .298/.376/.502 with a 155 wRc+. He’s compiled an .878 OPS with 13 homers and 15 doubles in that span. Gavin has sported a 10.5% walk rate with a strikeout rate of 16.2% in that span. Sheets possesses 70-grade raw power that wasn’t prevalent in games in Kannapolis or Winston-Salem. That has changed in Birmingham.

Blake Rutherford, OF, AA Birmingham (Age 22) 

  • Who He Is: A first round draft pick of the New York Yankees in 2016. Rutherford was acquired from the White Sox in a deadline trade during the 2017 season. Was highly regarded as a high school prospect (albeit older than usual) coming out of California. He posted a 186 wRC+ in rookie ball with the Yankees in a small sample. His prospect shine is waning though and he’s fallen out of top-100 consideration at the majority of publications. 
  • Why He’s Here: The 6’3″ 210 pound outfielder is Rule-5 eligible in December. The White Sox need to decide whether to protect him on the 40-man roster or expose him to the draft. The 22-year-old will be given the chance to shine in front of evaluators playing with and against some of the top prospects in the sport. Playing in an offensive environment away from cavernous Southern League stadiums could help him some. It’s also a showcase for other clubs that may be interested in his services down the line.
  • What To Watch For: Rutherford needs to hit for more power. He posted a 95 wRC+ in Birmingham this year after a 120 wRC+ season the previous year in the Carolina League. The hit tool was his best trait as a prospect but many expected the power to develop more. It’s in there and he’s put on batting practice displays before. A low 100’s ISO for a corner outfielder won’t get it done though and it’s the thing that could be the biggest difference in his development. The former 18th overall pick can play some CF but is better in a corner and profiles there. It will be interesting to see how much he plays in the middle of the diamond in the AFL however.

Bernardo Flores, LHP, AA Birmingham (age 24)

  • Who He Is: A 24-year-old left-handed starting pitcher in the White Sox’s system. He’s one of their top 30 prospects. Flores was selected in the 7th round of the 2016 MLB Draft out of USC. He has been a steady performer and climbed the ranks in the system after pitching mostly out of the bullpen late in his college career.
  • Why He’s Here: There are multiple reasons for Bernardo’s inclusion in the AFL. First of all, he’s eligible for December’s Rule 5 Draft and the White Sox need to decide whether or not to protect him or expose him to the league. The second reason is because Flores has missed a lot of time this year. He spent the past couple months working his way back from an oblique injury. The 6’4″ 190 pounder has posted a 3.33 ERA with a 2.93 xFIP in just over 78 innings with the Birmingham Barons this season. Flores has been pretty solid overall but he needs to increase the amount of innings he’s thrown in addition to showcasing for the rest of baseball.
  • What To Watch For: Flores has thrown with greater velocity this season and sharpened his above average changeup even more. His walk rate has decreased while his strikeout rate has increased. It was his 2nd year experiencing the Southern League and this prospect showcase will be another great test for him. It will be interesting to watch Flores pitch consistently against the top tier hitting talent present in this league. Highlighting his changeup against lefties and staying ahead in counts will be a big focus. Flores has a chance to make his major league debut at some point in 2020.

Tyler Johnson, RHP, AA Birmingham (Age 24)

  • Who He Is: Johnson was a 5th round draft pick out of South Carolina in 2017. He was a closer in college and he closed for Team USA in college as well. The newly turned 24-year-old has pitched out of the bullpen for the White Sox and has made it to Double-A Birmingham. Johnson is 6’3″ 205 pounds and is generally ranked as one of the organization’s top 30 prospects.
  • Why He’s Here: The former Gamecock is pitching in the Arizona Fall League mostly to make up for lost time. Johnson was on the shelf this year for 10 weeks with a lat strain. He pitched in the AZL and back in A ball on the recovery trail and is finishing with the Barons in the Southern League. Johnson doesn’t need 40-man protection as of yet but getting a glimpse of him against top talent will benefit the organization. With the Barons so far, Tyler has posted a 4.40 ERA with a 3.00 xFIP. He’s averaging 11.3 K/9 and 3.77 BB/9. Johnson posted a 1.45 ERA with a 1.58 FIP while striking out 12.5 hitters per nine in Winston-Salem in 2018.
  • What To Watch For: Johnson possesses a 65-grade fastball and he’s been pretty successful overall. Scouts still have some questions about his delivery and off-speed pitches though. He won’t be able to just blow fastballs by the top hitters in the AFL constantly. Improved sliders and changeups are what it will take for him to be successful at the next level. Johnson has the makings of a future high leverage reliever that isn’t very far from the big leagues. Playing in Arizona will be an interesting test for him.

Bennett Sousa, LHP, Winston-Salem (Age 24)

  • Who He Is: Sousa is a 6’3″ 185 pound southpaw in the White Sox system. The 24-year-old was a 10th round selection out of the University of Virginia in 2018. The former Cavalier struggled in college but did manage to post a WHIP under 1.00 in the ACC. Sousa profiles as a left-handed specialist in the big leagues and could pitch in an expedited role.
  • Why He’s Here: Sousa wasn’t injured at all and doesn’t need roster protection so the organization clearly wants to see him against the advanced competition. He’s thrown one inning in Birmingham this year but has been great in Kannapolis and Winston-Salem. The lefty posted a 2.70 ERA with a 3.07 xFIP with the Dash while averaging 9.6 K/9 and 1.5 BB/9 over 30 innings. Bennett also posted a 2.63 xFIP in the South Atlantic League with the Intimidators in 32.1 innings to start the year.
  • What To Watch For: Sousa job in the future will likely be to retire lefties but he’s pitched against both sides in the minors this season. He gets his fastball up into the mid-nineties and his curveball is a plus offering. It’ll be interesting to see how he’s used with the Desert Dogs. Other clubs could have unknown trade interest in the southpaw or the front office might want to see him in an accelerated role going forward due to his advanced age.

Vince Arobio, RHP, Birmingham (Age 24)

  • Who He Is: The 6’0″ 180 pound right hander was a 24th round pick out of Pacific in 2017. He’s put up really good numbers in the White Sox system. Arobio began his 2019 season in Low-A Kannapolis and has advanced to Double-A Birmingham with the Barons.
  • Why he’s Here: Arobio has performed and the White Sox are trying to accelerate his timeline. He has good stuff and the numbers are good. In 27.1 IP in Kannapolis, he posted a 2.63 ERA with a 1.90 xFIP and averaged 11.85 K/9. The righty earned a promotion to High-A Winston-Salem and posted a 1.42 FIP and did not allow an earned run over 8.2 innings. In 25.1 innings with the Barons, Arobio has posted a 5.33 ERA. His peripherals are much better with a 3.05 xFIP and 10.6 K/9. He will get the opportunity to face some better competition in the Arizona Fall League.
  • What To Watch For: The numbers at the end will be important but seeing how his stuff plays against great prospects will be more important. Arobio’s walk rate has increased in AA so that will be something to keep an eye on as well.

The White Sox have a seventh player joining the the Glendale Desert Dogs as well. While we’re unsure of the reasoning behind the delayed announcement, FutureSox has learned that the additional player will be outfielder Micker Adolfo.

Micker Adolfo, OF, Birmingham (Age 24)

  • Who He Is: Micker Adolfo is a 22-year-old Dominican outfielder who is a top 10 prospect in the White Sox’s system for multiple publications. He’s 6’4″ 255 pounds and has a cannon for a right arm. He has been injured a lot in his minor league career and missed much of the 2018 season after undergoing Tommy John Surgery. He re-injured the elbow this season and has just recently worked his way back. Adolfo was signed in 2013 and given a bonus of $1.6 million in one of Marco Paddy’s first moves with the organization.
  • Why He’s Here: Adolfo is getting a chance to play in the AFL mostly to get at-bats and make up for lost time. He’s been injured quite often and needs the work. Micker has posted a 128 wRC+ in a small sample in a rehab assignment with the AZL rookie league affiliate. He started the year in Double-A and struggled with the Barons while posting a wRC+ of 95. Prior to going under the knife, Adolfo had a breakout season for the Winston-Salem Dash in High-A. He posted a 137 wRC+ with a .383 wOBA with 11 homers in 336 plate appearances in 2018. Adolfo is also on the 40-man roster and he could be a trade candidate for other clubs as well.
  • What To Watch For: The most curious thing will be seeing if Micker Adolfo can play in the outfield and how much the surgeries have affected his throwing arm. Playing against the top prospects in the league will be interesting as well though. Adolfo’s hit tool is suspect at times and he strikes out too much. He has massive raw power that is employed plenty in games though. He needs some minor league still but this is a solid first step on the road to recovery and he’s the most interesting prospect of the guys the organization is sending.

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