2019 Birmingham Barons Season in Review: Hitters

This is the first of two articles recapping the Chicago White Sox 2019 Double-A affiliate, Birmingham Barons. Included in this first piece is a breakdown of position players. The second will feature a recap of strictly pitchers. 

Newly appointed Birmingham Barons manager Omar Vizquel worked with 52 players throughout the 2019 Southern League campaign. With 28 pitchers ranging from 22-year-old Codi Heuer to 30-year-old Matt Tomshaw, as well as 24 hitters that included Luis Robert, Blake Rutherford and Nick Madrigal, the White Sox Double-A affiliate amounted to a 64-72 finish, good for third place in the Southern League North division in 2019.

Team: Birmingham Barons

League: Southern League (AA)

Overall Record: 64-72 (First half: 27-42, Second half: 37-30)

Final placement: 3rd place Southern League North Division, missed playoffs

Final Team Stats

Among our midseason top 30 prospect list, 12 White Sox played in Birmingham this season, which included seven position players and five pitchers. Some spent most, if not all, of 2019 in Double-A, while others were there just as a pit stop for various reasons.

Birmingham is not particularly friendly to hitters. Regions Field plays bigger than its dimensions (320 ft. to left field, 400 ft. to center and 325 to right) due to its wide gaps in the outfield on top of the typical hot and muggy weather conditions throughout a central Alabama summer.

Plus, the competition level is often considered the evaluation as it pertains to certain prospects. In theory, if a player has success in Double-A, he is one phone call away from the highest level of the sport. With that being said, let’s take a look at several key names who spent the most time in Birmingham beginning with the hitters.

Gavin Sheets, Blake Rutherford, Laz Rivera, Luis Gonzalez, and Ti’Quan Forbes each spent their entire 2019 campaigns as Barons, while playing in a minimum 116 Southern League contests. It was the first time the aforementioned reached as high as Double-A. The first among the names that pop is Gavin Sheets, our 16th ranked White Sox prospect.

Sheets, a 2017 second-round draft selection, was thrusted into Double-A at the start of the year following what was largely considered a successful stint in Winston-Salem a season prior. In Advanced-A, Sheets smacked 28 doubles, drove in 61, hit for a .293 batting average and combined it with an impressive .368 on-base percentage. The issue surrounding the 6-4, 230lb lefty is an expectation of power associated with his defensive position of first base.

In Birmingham, the power was better. The 23-year-old increased his home run total from six last year to 16, which led the team, and managed 18 doubles and 83 RBI. He got off to a rough start in April slashing .207/.286/.293 with nine walks and 23 strikeouts in 91 plate appearances. Take that month away, however, and his numbers look much better.

April aside, Sheets slashed .280/.358/.440 (.798 OPS) with 14 home runs and 45 walks compared to 76 strikeouts. He finished the season with a career-high in RBI (83) and walks (54). The jury is still out whether plus-power will be a part of his skill set moving forward, but the fact that he was able to perform the way he did in a pitcher’s league is encouraging.

Sheets tied for third place in the Southern League in total hits with 124 and 9th in walks. He also ranked 10th in the league in home runs. The feats were accomplished with a deadened baseball, too. It will be curious to see Sheets’ power numbers after he takes his hacks at the International League baseballs.

Sheets is at a disadvantage, though, as it pertains to organizational depth at the position, which includes Jose Abreu, Zack Collins and 2019 third overall pick, Andrew Vaughn. The Wake Forest product is one of several intriguing prospects in the Sox system trying to find his way.

Included among them is Blake Rutherford, our 10th ranked prospect who completed his second full season as a member of the White Sox. Rutherford was among the pieces involved in what eventually was a seven-player trade with the New York Yankees in 2017.

The now 22-year-old through 263 Minor League games with the Sox is slashing .271/.327/.383 (.710 OPS) with 47 doubles, 14 home runs and 132 RBI. Rutherford had a positive stint in Winston-Salem, but was challenged in Birmingham.

The left-handed hitting outfielder struck out 24.6 percent of the time accompanied with an eight percent walk rate. A major value of Rutherford at the time of his acquisition related to his projectable power tool combined with slightly above average speed. Two years later, he managed 27 total extra-base hits across 438 at-bats in his first season as a Baron.

Rutherford was another who struggled in the early part of the season. He had an abysmal April, a poor May, but had his best month of the season in June where he hit .365 with an .871 OPS.

The White Sox also view him as a corner outfielder. He played in 97 games in the field with 68 in right and 29 in left. It was an up and down year for Rutherford, who will likely get another crack at Double-A at the start of 2020.

Laz Rivera, meanwhile, slowed down a bit after a breakout 2018 season where he combined to slash .314/.361/.481 between Kannapolis and Winston-Salem. The shortstop spent all of his 121 games played in Double-A throughout 2019 and hit .248 with two home runs, 22 doubles and a .605 OPS.

The Southern League was quite the hurdle for the 28th round draft pick of 2017, as Rivera struck out 81 times compared to 17 walks in 455 plate appearances. He will enter his 2020 campaign as a 25-year-old in his fourth season with the organization and will, in all likelihood, get a second chance in Birmingham to start.

Luis Gonzalez is yet another standout prospect who spent his entire 2019 in Double-A. The White Sox third rounder of 2017 made the leap to Birmingham following a successful campaign in low and high-A last year. He is our 14th ranked prospect in the Sox system. Our scouting report on Gonzalez indicated five-tool potential, but there is an emphasis on his plate approach.

“He consistently gets himself into favorable hitters’ counts and makes loud contact to all fields, then uses his speed on the base paths,” our report states. “Contact is consistent and he draws walks at a decent clip as a result of that plate discipline.”

The report also mentions that MLB Pipeline at the time compared Gonzalez to Ender Inciarte. Gonzalez played 60 games in centerfield, 20 in left and 29 in right in 2019.

Offensively, his year wasn’t much to write home about, but the results were encouraging enough to remain optimistic that Gonzalez will take the next step in 2020. The power is still there and he worked 47 walks – just one off his total from a breakout 2018.

Gonzalez took a while to adjust to the competition, but finished his season strong. Throughout the month of August, he slashed .280/.370/.398 (.768 OPS) across 108 plate appearances with five doubles, two home runs and notched seven stolen bases in nine attempts. The freshly turned 24-year-old completed this year hitting .247 with an unsightly .675 OPS (BUT! Give him 20 more hits and all those numbers look much, much better!!).

Double-A is a major test for anyone – especially those who are experiencing the level for the first time. Sheets, Rutherford, Rivera and Gonzalez all struggled through the early months of the season, which strongly influenced their overall numbers, but adjusted overtime.

This also applies to Ti’Quan Forbes. Despite being ranked just outside our midseason top 30 list, a blind eye should not be turned toward this 23-year-old.

The White Sox acquired Forbes, a 2014 second round pick, via trade with the Texas Rangers in exchange for right-hander Miguel Gonzalez in August of 2017. Playing strictly third base for the Sox, Forbes slashed .242/.333/.327 (.660 OPS) in his first taste of Southern League baseball.

I saw Forbes in Minor League Spring Training in 2019 and I was immediately struck by his size. He is listed at 6-3, 220lb and looks like a ballplayer. There is not much hype surrounding his stock following a forgetful 2019, but Forbes is the type of player to quickly catch fire based on his pure athleticism and rise through the ranks. He will enter his seventh season as a professional next year.

That does it for the full-season position players. There were several bats who played in less than a full year in Double-A for various reasons, but key prospects among the crowd included Luis Alexander Basabe and Micker Adolfo.

Both Basabe and Adolfo own valuable spots on the White Sox 40-man roster, but both dealt with injury throughout 2019, which slowed their progression in what could have been a year in which they lobbied for legitimate big-league spots going into 2020. Alas, injuries are a part of life, and life goes on with relatively underwhelming production in this particular instance.

Basabe’s 2019 got off to an inauspicious start after breaking his hamate bone in February. Following a brief rehab stint in Kannapolis, he was assigned to Birmingham and eventually suffered a quad injury in June that kept him out for a week. He was put on the 7-day injured list again on June 23 and returned July 12.

The now turned 23-year-old slashed .246/.324/.336 with three home runs, 12 doubles and 30 RBI across 69 Double-A games. Basabe is our 12th ranked prospect with a profile that suggests he offers more power than he’s showed through two seasons spent in Birmingham. The reason could be linked to his injury history, but his inability to remain on the field is getting to be concerning at this point.

Similar can be said about Adolfo, who is our 11th ranked Soxpect. The 6-4, 255lb slugger played in 79 games in 2018 before needing Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm. He played in 23 games with the Barons in 2019 before needing arthroscopic surgery on the same elbow, which ended his season.

Adolfo is back, though, hitting in the Arizona Fall League trying to catch up on lost at-bats over the past two seasons. In his first stint in Double-A, the new 23-year-old slashed .205/.337/.295 with no home runs and seven doubles.

For both Basabe and Adolfo, an offseason of good health offers a chance at the reset button come Spring Training 2020. In a positive light, both Nick Madrigal and Luis Robert ripped through the Southern League and finished their campaigns with the Triple-A Charlotte Knights. So, that’s nice.

To conclude the hitters of Double-A Birmingham, 25-year-old Zach Remillard earned his first promotion to the level in four seasons within the Sox system and managed two homers and three doubles in 109 plate appearances. Shout out to Yermin Mercedes, as well.

He was on such a tear throughout 2019 that some fans were calling his name on the Southside. The 26-year-old Mercedes slashed .327/.389/.497 with six bombs before he was promoted to Charlotte for the first time in his career, where he mashed 17 more home runs.

2016 22nd round draft pick of the White Sox, Joel Booker, worked his way out of Birmingham this season thanks in large part to his game changing speed. Following an encouraging 2018, Booker did enough to earn the right to play 26 Triple-A games, which should provide the soon-to-be 26-year-old plenty of initiative to work toward his big-league debut in 2020.

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