Minors : : General
Monday, January 30, 2012

Top Prospects: Chicago White Sox

Todd Gold        
Photo: Jim Goins - Dunedin Blue Jays
General Manager:  Ken Williams
Minor League Director:  Grace Zwit
Scouting Director:  Doug Laumann

AAA:  Charlotte Knights (International League)  69-74
AA:  Birmingham Barons (Southern League)  71-69
Hi A:  Winston-Salem Dash (Carolina League)  69-71
Low A:  Kannapolis Intimidators (South Atlantic League)  76-62
Rookie:  Great Falls Voyagers (Pioneer League) 42-34  PBL Champions
Rookie:  Bristol White Sox (Appalachian League) 24-44
Dominican:  DSL White Sox (Dominican Summer League) 35-32

System Overview

General Manager Ken Williams has utilized his farm system as trade bait to make upgrades at the Major League level for years. The results included a 2005 World Series title and consistently competitive clubs. But with the perpetual liquidation of the farm system during the team’s recent history, combined with frequent signing of Type A free agents leading to fewer draft picks, left the White Sox system baron.

Williams has begun the process of replenishing the system with offseason trades that netted RHP Nestor Molina, LHP Angel Hernandez, RHP Myles Jaye, RHP Daniel Webb and RHP Simon Castro. The Sox also received RHP Jhan Marinez and OF Ozzie Martinez from the Marlins as compensation for former Manager Ozzie Guillen.

Still, the years of mortgaging the future in order to win in the short term has painted the southsiders into a corner, with an old and expensive roster at the Major League level and a weak farm system. While Williams has shown the ability to make significant improvement to his Major League roster on an annual basis, he will be challenged to do so again in 2012.

It is also worth noting that the White Sox have spent the least amount of money of any team in baseball on the past five drafts, ponying up just $18.33 Million combined.

If the offseason activity is any indication, the White Sox have entered into rebuilding mode, though somewhat tenatively. They haven't exactly dismantled the big league roster, as there has been little indication that Williams is currently entertaining the notion of eating a portion of the contracts of high dollar veterans like Jake Peavy or Paul Konerko or cash in on a talented young player like Gavin Floyd. It appears that the White Sox intend to take a wait and see approach to the 2012 season, given the relative weakness of the AL Central beyond Detroit. Should they get off to a slow start it could lead to the White Sox becoming big sellers at the July 31st trade deadline.

The future will bring some payroll relief as Jake Peavy’s three year $52 Million deal can be bought out for $4 Million after the 2012 season (after paying him $17 Million this season). But the club will still be on the hook for high dollar contracts with OF Alex Rios and DH/1B Adam Dunn through 2014, with 1B Paul Konerko signed through 2013. While the team’s payroll will fall from the $127 Million mark of 2011, it will be very difficult for them reduce it much further without trading one of their high priced veterans, which would likely require them to eat a portion of their salary.

The farm systems only current area of depth is in relief pitching, as the Sox boast several potential high end bullpen arms, but also a good deal of quantity of relief prospects. Several of the pitchers in the system have currently undefined long term roles, and the Sox hope that some of them can remain starters, but the only area that can reliably be projected to produce multiple quality big leaguers is the bullpen. Outfield looks like a position where the Sox are likely to find some long term help as well, with Trayce Thompson, Keenyn Walker and Jared Mitchell all offering varying degrees of optimism, though each has question marks that will need to be answered first.

2011 Draft

While 2011 was the draft that a lot of teams opened up their check books and got aggressive about landing high upside talent, the White Sox took a more passive approach.

The White Sox did not have a first round pick, after surrendering the 23rd overall selection to the Washington Nationals as compensation for signing Type A free agent Adam Dunn.

In total, the White Sox spent just $2.79 Million on 2011 draft signing bonuses, the lowest of any team. That total barely beat out what their cross town rivals paid to their 14th round selection, RHP Dillon Maples. It was $790,000 more than the Nationals paid University of Kentucky RHP Alex Meyer with the 23rd pick they received from the Sox for the Dunn signing. 

The Sox agreed to six figure signing bonuses on seven players, with top pick (47
th overall) OF Keenyn Walker landing the largest bonus of $795,000. The other players who received six figure bonuses were: second round RHP Erik Johnson ($450,000), third round RHP Jeff Soptic ($320,000), fourth round RHP Kyle McMillen ($120,000), fifth round LHP Scott Snodgrass ($141,300), sixth round MIF Marcus Semien ($130,000) and ninth round LHP Matt Lane ($110,000).

The White Sox inked 34 players in total, with exactly one coming from the high school ranks: 33rd round C Bryce Mosier. While the Sox clearly went cheap and safe, they executed their quality out of quantity approach well, as there are several players who have the potential to become pleasant surprises.

The majority of their selections are seen as high floor, low ceiling players, but several are of the raw with upside variety. For example, their top pick (Walker) has the kind of raw athleticism that should allow him to be at least a quality defensive outfielder, even if he doesn't develop into a quality top of the order type of hitter. Third rounder Jeff Soptic is a 6-foot-6 power arm who has flashed upper 90s velocity, reportedly having touched triple digits on occasion. LHP Scott Snodgrass is a 6-foot-5 lefty who can reach the mid 90s with his fastball, and if he can harness his raw stuff has good upside. C Kevan Smith showed good development as a senior at Pitt after giving up football and is another intriguing prospect as well. Second rounder RHP Erik Johnson also has solid upside potential, though he is less raw than the other players in this group.

The White Sox clearly began the process of rebuilding their farm system with a quantity approach, their 2011 draft may not have made much of a splash but it clearly fit into their long term plan. With a lot of quantity established in the system it would make sense for the White Sox to become more aggressive in the drafts going forward to add impact prospects to their depth. Whether that will happen remains to be seen.

The new signing bonus restrictions on their competition should benefit the White Sox in the draft going forward, as players will have less leverage demanding large signing bonuses than they have had in the past.

Top 10 Prospects

1. RHP Nestor Molina
- Baseball-reference player profile

Acquired in an offseason trade for closer Sergio Santos, Molina has had a long road to AA, after signing out of Venezuela in 2006 as a shortstop. Molina moved to the mound in 2008, with excellent results. In 292 2/3 minor league innings, Molina has a career ERA of 2.21 with 277 strikeouts to just 47 walks. After moving out of the bullpen to the rotation in 2011 Molina flourished, posting a combined ERA of 2.21 over 130 innings, reaching AA by season’s end.

Molina represents the White Sox best chance of producing a big league starter through the farm system. As a starter, his fastball sits in the low 90s, generally topping out around 93. His delivery has some violence to it, but he repeats it very well and pounds the strike zone with an ability to inducing ground balls. Lacking a true out pitch, Molina relies on his ability to work ahead and execute his pitches well, his curveball and splitter both flash above average potential, but neither is likely to generate a lot of punch outs in the Majors. Molina did post very good strikeout rates as a starter in 2011, especially in his short stint at AA, an encouraging sign. Though it remains to be seen how much he will be able to rely on strikeouts at the highest levels.

Molina will need to refine his ability to pitch to contact before he is ready to be a productive innings eater at the Major League level. With the rapid rate of progress he has shown in recent years, it may not take long. While his lack of a true plus offering makes him a likely back of the rotation starter, he could exceed that projection slightly if he can make strides towards sharpening his breaking ball or commanding his splitter better.

2.  RHP Addison Reed
- Baseball-reference player profile

Reed fits into the White Sox recent mold of drafting college players who can move quickly through the system, having reached the Major Leagues in September of 2011, after being selected out of San Diego State in the third round of the 2010 draft. After moving to the bullpen to start the 2011 season he flew through the system, going from Low-A Kannapolis all the way to the Majors.

Reed sits 93-95 with his fastball, with a long stride towards the plate that allows him to get some extra life on his fastball. Reed’s fastball is fairly straight, relying on his ability to throw it by hitters more than inducing weak ground balls with sinkers down in the zone. His second offering is a quality slider that sits in the low-mid 80s with short tight diagonal break that can generate a lot of swing and misses.He also mixes in an occasional changeup to left handers. Reed frequently elevates his fastball and is not afraid to challenge hitters, as a result he doesn't generate many ground balls, relying heavily on his ability to miss bats. His stuff is very good, but when he gets hit he gets hit hard. Reed will need to learn to pick his spots well at the Major Leagues, as there are times where his overpowering stuff alone will not be enough to get certain elite hitters out.

Reed’s long term role will determine his rate of progress. If the White Sox see his future as a reliever he is ready to be a Major Leaguer for good, but if they want to get full value out of him by making him a starter, he’ll need to go back to the minors to refine his fastball command and improve his changeup.

3. OF Trayce Thompson
- Baseball-reference player profile

The White Sox selected Thompson out of Santa Margarita High School (CA) in the second round of the 2009 draft, signing him for an above slot bonus of $625,000 to keep him off campus at UCLA. Thompson struggled to get acclimated to pro ball early on, hitting .229/.302/.433 in his first full season at Low-A Kannapolis in 2010. But in his second stint in the South Atlantic League in 2011 was a big turnaround, as he clubbed 24 Home Runs as a 20 year old.

The tall lean athletic outfielder has the tools to suggest he has a chance to become a highly productive player at the Major League level. Thompson has quick hands and generates good bat speed with a long fluid swing with good strength at contact. He is still pull happy and lacks plate discipline, with a tendency to swing at bad pitches leading to higher strikeout rates and lower batting averages than he is capable of. While Thompson is a solid defender in centerfield at present, he is likely to wind up on a corner as his body fills out and adds strength. Thompson represents the best hope the Sox have of developing a quality big league position player with their current farm system, but he is far from a sure thing.

Thompson will head to High-A Winston-Salem where he will face a higher level of pitching, looking to prove that he can make adjustments and learn to take control of his at bats. If he is able to make progress towards that end, he could be primed for a big season and move himself into the upper echelons of prospect status. But it will not be easy, for now there is reason to be optimistic about Thompson’s potential, but he has a long way to go to reach it.

4. SS Tyler Saladino
- Baseball-reference player profile

A seventh round pick out of Oral Roberts in 2010, Saladino had a very strong full-season debut in 2011, hitting .270/.363/.501 with 16 Home Runs for High-A Winston-Salem. In the Arizona Fall League Saladino put up similar numbers, though his power was noticeably absent.

Saladino is a tough out, not only does he drive the ball consistently, but he works the count well and has displayed good on-base skills since his days at Palomar CC (CA), having posted walk rates close to 10% at every stop from Juco through High-A. While he isn’t likely to hit for a lot of power at the Major League level, he has the ability to put up double digit Home Runs as a middle infielder while also posting good on-base numbers. A serviceable defensive shortstop, Saladino can handle either middle infield position, and should also be able to handle third if needed.

After a strong showing in A-ball Saladino will look to prove he can continue to be in control of his at bats against higher level pitching as he moves up to AA Birmingham in 2012. The White Sox have some MIF depth at the upper levels of the system and no immediate openings at the big league level, suggesting that Saladino will have to hit his way to any promotions going forward.

5. OF Keenyn Walker
- Baseball-reference player profile

The Sox top pick of the 2011 draft (47th overall) is a premium athlete, with excellent speed and centerfield defense. Walker swiped 70 bases as a sophomore in 2011 at Central Arizona College on 73 attempts in 69 games. He also posted a .509 on-base percentage as the leadoff hitter for the NJCAA runners-up.

The question about Walker is his ability to hit enough to get his valuable center field defense into the lineup on a daily basis. The switch hitter posted a solid walk rate in his 54 game debut in 2011, which will be an important part of his offensive profile. Walker showed some improvement as a hitter during his two years at Central Arizona, but he is still below average with the bat at this point. His ability to bunt for hits in addition to drawing walks and legging out infield singles may have to be enough to make up for it. His defense is not a finished product yet, but he possesses the tools to become an elite defensive center fielder.

If Walker can reach High-A Winston-Salem by the end of the 2012 season it will be a positive sign for his development. But he still has some things left to prove at Low-A, so unless he has a big spring he will likely return there to open the season.

6. RHP Simon Castro
- Baseball-reference player profile

Castro dominated his way through the lower levels of the minors, including a strong first half of 2010 at AA San Antonio, earning him a start for the World team in the Futures Game. Things have gone downhill for him considerably since that start. Castro has found success at AA, but has been brutalized by AAA hitters to this point and is coming off an injury plagued 2011 season, after which he was sent to Chicago as part of the Carlos Quentin trade.

At 6-foor-5 and 210 pounds, Castro looks the part, he features a long whippy arm action and gets good downhill angle to his pitches. His repertoire can be overpowering when he’s at his best, with a mid 90s fastball and mid 80s slider with hard bite. But his violent, high effort delivery has led to issues with both control and injuries. If he isn’t able to regain his command and show improvement with his changeup, Castro does have the makings of an overpowering reliever as a fallback option. There is some risk here, but Castro has the highest upside of any pitcher currently in the system.

The soon-to-be 24 year old is likely ticketed for AAA to open 2012, a level he has yet to master. If he fares better in the International League than he has in the Pacific Coast League thus far, he could be close to reaching the Major Leagues.

7. RHP Jake Petricka
- Baseball-reference player profile

Petricka moved through two levels after being drafted in the second round out of Indiana State in 2010, and three more levels in 2011, finishing the year at High-A Winston-Salem. It is the type of progress the White Sox had hoped for when they selected him 63rd overall as a 22 year old.

Petricka has a tall lanky frame with room to fill. He also features an overpowering mix of pitches, including a fastball that routinely sits in the mid 90s, occasionally climbing into the upper 90s. His curveball flashes hard bite and has plus potential, though he will need to learn to harness it and develop his feel for the pitch to be effective at the Major League level. The development of his changeup will be important if he is going to be able to remain a starter, as will be his ability to cut down on his walk rate.

The 23 year old had a passable showing in 13 starts at Winston-Salem last year, but unless he shows significant improvement in spring training the White Sox will likely want to see him return there to open the 2012 season. His rate of progress will depend on his ability to develop his secondary stuff. If he is converted to a reliever he will move much more quickly.

8. SS Eduardo Escobar
- Baseball-reference player profile

The Venezuelan product has reached the upper levels of the minors and earned a cup of coffee with the White Sox in September, getting seven at-bats. Escobar earns his living with the leather, and while he has passable hitting tools for a middle infielder, he will never be mistaken for Alex Rodriguez. Though he has shown flashes of power, most notably during the 2010 Arizona Fall League when he posted a .536 slugging percentage and hit four Home Runs in 119 plate appearances.

The diminutive shortstop has good range and soft hands with good defensive actions. His arm is merely average, making him a potential second basemen down the road, especially if Gordon Beckham fails to establish himself as the White Sox long term solution. Escobar has shown adequate hit tools to hold his own offensively at the Major League level, but he has yet to put together a strong full season campaign at the plate. His mediocre walk rate wouldn’t be a concern if he had shown the contact skills to suggest he can be relied upon to post a batting average in the neighborhood of .280, but his inability to work counts into his favor to this point suggests he will struggle to do so. He has good strength at contact, with frequent hard line drives, though his power is more geared towards driving doubles to the gaps.

Escobar will push Gordon Beckham in Spring Training, though he will most likely wind up back at AAA again in 2012, with a callup as an injury replacement or when rosters expand in September as his most likely ticket back to the south side. Escobar will need to prove he can be a productive member of a big league lineup if he is to become anything more than a utility player.

9. LHP Hector Santiago
- Baseball-reference player profile

Santiago has proven to be a good late round find after being drafted in the 30th round out of high school in 2006 as a draft and follow who went on to pitch at Okaloosa-Walton CC (FL) in 2007. In July Santiago got a brief call up to Chicago as an injury replacement when John Danks went on the disabled list.

Santiago uses a mid 90s fastball that sat 92-95 during his brief big league experience, he backs it up with a mid 70s screwball and occasional mid 80s slider. Santiago’s shorter frame prevents him from getting much downhill angle to his pitches, instead relying on a combination of high velocity, a deceptive rotational delivery which allows him to hide the ball and his unusual breaking ball to induce weak contact. Santiago was converted to a starter in 2011 after being used out of the bullpen during his first three seasons in the Sox system, though he pitched in relief in the Majors.

Santiago will likely head to AAA Charlotte to open 2012, where he goes from there will depend on his ability to spot up his fastball, develop his third and fourth pitches (slider, changeup) and keep the ball on the ground. His ultimate ceiling may be as a lefty specialist if he doesn’t develop.

10. OF Jared Mitchell
- Baseball-reference player profile

Mitchell was a two-sport superstar at Louisiana State University. After reportedly turning down a large signing bonus offer from the Minnesota Twins, who made him a 10th round pick out of high school in 2006, Mitchell went on to become the Tigers everyday center fielder as a freshman. Mitchell earned Most Outstanding Player honors at the 2009 College World Series, leading the Tigers to a National Championship. He and college teammate Chad Jones became the first players to ever win National Championships in both football (2008) and baseball (2009) at the Division I level.

Expectations were very lofty for Mitchell, who the White Sox selected 23rd overall. Mitchell had a promising showing in Low-A Kannapolis after signing in 2009, and entered spring training in 2010 with a lot of optimism. That ended when he tore a tendon in his ankle running into the outfield fence that spring and would miss the entire season. After returning for the 2010 Arizona Fall League, Mitchell advanced to High-A Winston-Salem in 2011, where he struggled to a .222/.304/.377 line. Mitchell still possesses the raw tools of a potential superstar, but the lost time due to injury has slowed his development considerably and his skills are far behind his talent. Mitchell’s walk rate (9.6%) and power (9 HRs) were somewhat encouraging in 2011 in comparison to his disappointing numbers elsewhere. Though there is a concern that Mitchell, whose game relied heavily on speed prior to his injury, will never become the type of player that the Sox had hoped when they made him their top pick.

The now 23 year old should find his way to AA Birmingham at some point in 2012, if he can make up for lost time and put together a strong showing he could quickly get back on track to become a high level prospect that the White Sox desperately need.

Others in the Conversation (listed alphabetically):
RHP Dylan Axelrod, LHP Pedro Hernandez, RHP Jhan Marinez, RHP Greg Infante, SS Ozzie Martinez, OF Tyler Kuhn, 3B Rangel Ravelo, RHP Jeff Soptic, 3B Juan Silverio, C Kevan Smith, LHP Scott Snodgrass
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