Welcome to another entry in the off-season article series here at FutureSox. In the article below, we list our organizational top five right-handed relief prospects.
1. ZACK BURDI – RANKED 25th OVERALL. LAST LEVEL: AA BIRMINGHAM
Going from being the 26th overall pick in the MLB Draft to an afterthought in less than two years does not happen often, but it happened to Zack Burdi. The flame-throwing right-hander rocketed through the minors after the Sox selected him in the first round in 2016, to the tune of 51 strikeouts in 38.0 innings spread over Arizona (1.0 IP), Winston-Salem (5.0 IP), Birmingham (16.0 IP), and Charlotte (16.0 IP). After 29 outings in Triple-A in 2017 (51 strikeouts in 33.1 IP), Burdi was lost to Tommy John surgery. After sitting out pretty much all of 2018, the former Louisville closer was expected to take on a full load in 2019, but things did not go according to plan.
Multiple early reports indicated that his fastball velocity was (way) down, and command of his devastating slider was few and far between. After three mediocre innings in Kannapolis, and 19.2 disappointing innings in Birmingham, Burdi underwent surgery in July to repair a torn ligament by his patella.
I’m full-go [for Spring Training]. I’ll be ready, I’m confident. Arm, knee, full right side of my body feels good. It’s compete-mode. It’s time to get out there, and show people why the White Sox took that investment in me, and why they thought so highly of me.Zack Burdi on the FutureSox podcast / January 8, 2020
If there is a silver lining to the extra time off Burdi received (again), it is that he will be fully charged when the new season rolls around. In a recent interview with FutureSox’ Clinton Cole, Burdi expanded on his off-season, stating that he felt “healthy, [like] in the 2016/2017 off-season”. Over the winter, the pitcher worked out at the Florida Baseball Ranch, where he had experts look at his throwing motion to optimize everything.
Burdi expressed optimism, stating: “[My velocity] hasn’t changed. I know last year in Double-A, people were pretty worried about me, [throwing] 91 to 94, and it was frustrating. [But] the last three outings, if you look at the numbers, everything came back, and I was right where I needed to be”.
Hopefully, the added rest gave Burdi time to fully heal, and he’ll come back with a vengeance in 2020. Despite not having shown much since 2017, he is still the consensus number one right-handed reliever in the system for us. He is slated to take a bullpen spot with the big league team at some point this season; hopefully sooner rather than later. He’ll likely open the season in AAA Charlotte.
2. TYLER JOHNSON – RANKED 19th OVERALL. LAST LEVEL: AA BIRMINGHAM
Going into 2019, Tyler Johnson was one of the leading candidates to hop into the Major League bullpen as the season progressed. The fifth rounder from 2017 out of South Carolina had a tremendous 2018 in Kannapolis and Winston-Salem. He struck out a whopping 89 batters in just 58.0 innings; good for an almost 36% strikeout rate. With a miniscule 1.41 ERA, a .172 AVG and 0.88 WHIP, Johnson proved to be a legit relief prospect.
Then, at 23 years old, Johnson — like Burdi — ran into injury issues. During the Spring of 2019, Johnson strained his right lat muscle, causing him to miss close to half the season, before returning to Arizona and Winston-Salem for two tune-ups, eventually making his way to Double-A Birmingham. Johnson looked more or less like his old self again, striking out 43 in 31.1 innings, while walking 10. After having surrendered just two homeruns in 58 innings in 2018, Johnson was faced with a few long-ball issues in Birmingham, giving up three in 18.1 innings.
BACK TO BUSINESS
Shaking off some more rust in the Arizona Fall League, Johnson was one of the few Sox prospects who performed. He made the Fall Stars Game in the process, after giving up one run in 7.1 innings out of the pen. His trademark strikeout rate abandoned him during the AFL, which can largely be attributed to the work he put in overhauling the mechanics that got him into injury trouble to begin with.
With a retooled delivery, a tweaked slider/curveball, and a mid-90s fastball blessed with substantial ‘carry’, Johnson is ready to take 2020 by storm. He will likely start the season in Birmingham, before making it to Charlotte before long. After that, all bets are off.
3. IAN HAMILTON – RANKED 26th OVERALL. LAST LEVEL: AAA CHARLOTTE
Had everything gone according to plan for Ian Hamilton, he would by now have been a household name for White Sox fans. After a serviceable eight-inning-debut in late 2018, Hamilton appeared to be all but set for Chicago’s bullpen for 2019. However, a car accident — and a subsequent shoulder injury — during Spring Training changed the seasonal outlook for the young fireballer substantially.
Hamilton was placed in the Injured List, and eventually optioned to Charlotte to work his way back into the bullpen mix. The shoulder issue, however, appeared to bother him more than originally expected. Hamilton struggled out of the gate and gave up 9 earned runs in his first 3.1 innings of the season in early April. Things got marginally better from there on out, but a disastrous 6 hit, 5 run outing on May 4 at Norfolk skewed his numbers.
On May 19th, Hamilton saw his last action, giving up one run against LeHigh Valley, and leaving the game with a 9.92 ERA for the season. Not much later, he got hit in the face by a line drive, while sitting in the dugout. On June 28, the White Sox announced Hamilton needed reconstructive jaw surgery.
Needless to say, 2019 was a season soon to forget for the hard-throwing righty. Having had a few months to recover from his injuries, Hamilton is hoping to pitch well enough in Spring Training to earn himself and his 99 mph fastball a spot in the bullpen. Given his horrendous 2019, however, it is more likely he will be placed in Charlotte to find his footing again. When healthy, Hamilton’s upside is substantial enough to place him in our top 3 for right-handed relief pitchers.
4. CODI HEUER – PREVIOUSLY UNRANKED. LAST LEVEL: AA BIRMINGHAM
The first right-handed reliever on this list without a substantial recent injury past, is Codi Heuer. Drafted in the sixth round in 2018 — and after having put up serviceable, yet uninspiring numbers in Rookie League Great Falls — the starter-turned-reliever saw his 2019 kickstarted by being allowed to open his season in Winston-Salem, bypassing Single-A Kannapolis completely. At 22 years old, the White Sox felt Heuer should be up to the task, and boy was he ever.
Pitching multiple frames for most his outings at Winston-Salem, Heuer logged 38.1 innings between April 6 and June 14. He said goodbye to Single-A (Adv.) by throwing three clean innings in relief before being called up to Birmingham. For the Barons, his outings were more often limited to one or one-plus innings. This did not help his strikeout rate, but did boost his overall numbers. Heuer finished the year with a combined 6-4 record, and 11 saves in 16 chances (67.2 innings, 65 strikeouts, 2.39 ERA, 1.09 WHIP).
Relying on a sinking fastball, Heuer sits comfortably at 94 mph, with a range up to 97. A hard, yet unpolished slider around 88 mph supplements the heater, while an 86-ish mph changeup is a continuous work in progress. Heuer is raw, with an at times inconsistent delivery that could use some cleaning up, but the overall talent is there for the 23-year old. He pitched well enough in Birmingham to consider having him open the season in Charlotte.
5. MATT FOSTER – PREVIOUSLY UNRANKED. LAST LEVEL: AAA CHARLOTTE
Few people probably saw coming that the White Sox would add reliever Matt Foster to their 40 man roster prior to the 2019 Rule 5 Draft, but they did. The right-hander flew largely under the radar of the average fan, despite averaging more than a strikeout per inning every season in the minors and a career ERA of 2.52. After 9.2 IP in AA (12 K’s) and 55.0 IP in Charlotte (62 K’s, 1.18 WHIP, 3,76 ERA), the Sox knew they had enough to protect the soon-to-be 25 year old from the Rule 5 draft.
Right now, it appears Foster has the inside track to a spot in the bullpen. Chris Getz certainly seemed to endorse him: “He’s a solid reliever who isn’t too far off from being able to help us in Chicago”, said the farm director in November. Getz even hinted at the fact that Foster was already “in the mix” to pitch for the White Sox in 2019.
2020 BIG LEAGUER?
Foster certainly has the stuff for it. His high-octane fastball is still there, and he uses it effectively to fill the strike zone. His slider/change-up combo works well to keep hitters off balance, with the latter pitch receiving rave reviews across the organization. It appears he all but ditched the cutter he used somewhat effectively in seasons prior. Foster is now a three-pitch reliever with a solid chance to pitch in the Big Leagues in 2020.
Not bad for a guy who, as recently as three years ago, had stepped away from the game.
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Caleb Freeman, Alec Hansen.
Photo credit: Sean Williams