Sep 30th, 2009
The Highlights of 2009
Entering this season, the focus of the White Sox minor league system was on the Birmingham Barons. The Barons had all five of our Preseason Top 25 Prospects on the Opening Day roster and when Jordan Danks got promoted in early May, the top seven were all Barons. Most of those prospects had successful seasons and the Barons went 92-47, the best record in the Southern League by 10.5 games. The playoffs were a bust, likewise for the other three affiliates that qualified for postseason play, but almost all of the biggest non-rookie prospects of the 2009 season put on a Barons jersey some point this year.
The most notable Baron would have to be Gordon Beckham. Beckham was only in Birmingham for a couple months, but he impressed enough to make it to the Majors by June and is currently a Rookie of the Year candidate, if not favorite. Beckham has the ability to hit .280-.300 with 20 HR at a premium position (either 3B , SS or 2B) with a good walk rate and big RBI potential. He is the type of player the White Sox can build around. The Sox definitely needed a solid young positional player to come through because the best hitters of the lineup were aging free agents to be like Jim Thome and Jermaine Dye. Beckham has put up an OPS over .800 on an 80-90 RBI pace for a whole season. What more could a Sox fan ask for?
Replacing Beckham as the top positional prospect in the system has undoubtedly been Tyler Flowers. Flowers was the main returning piece in the Javier Vazquez trade with Atlanta. Initially, there were questions about his defense and how his bat would make the transition to AA. Flowers answered both positively. His defense made major improvements, Southern League managers even voted him the best defensive catcher in the league, and he absolutely mashed the ball (.302 average, .445 OBP, .993 OPS). His AAA numbers weren’t spectacular, but he didn’t have much of a chance to adjust. Jim Thome’s trade before the August waiver deadline opened the door for some September playing time for Flowers, though he has still only seen limited action.
In the Majors, Flowers has looked like Josh Fields with a much better batting eye. Now before everyone freaks out with a Josh Fields comparison, I did say Flowers was going to strike out a lot this September. His swing is still long and the stats have translated as expected. What’s interesting is that while his contact rate is awful, his walk rate and batting eye has been very impressive. Flowers has 8 strikeouts and 3 walks in 16 at-bats. He should be able to adjust and this is a tiny sample size anyway, but I’m more encouraged about his ability to draw walks and go deep into counts despite a horrid contact rate. It’s not like pitchers are giving him any respect. The power hasn’t shown up yet, just one double, but I’m not worried about that right now. All things considered, 2009 has been a great year for Flowers. General Manager Kenny Williams and Manager Ozzie Guillen have a lot of tough decisions this offseason and Flowers’ situation for 2010 is going to be one of the tougher ones. Can they trust his bat to play DH? Can they risk having him backup A.J. Pierzynski and only play a few times a week? It will be one of the bigger storylines of the offseason.
Probably the biggest storyline of the White Sox minor leagues this year has been the emergence of Dan Hudson. Hudson, an ‘08 draftee like Beckham, has recorded wins at five levels of pro baseball this season. A mind blowing feat for two reasons: that he successfully moved through the system so quickly and that he did so without skipping a level. He entered this season as a sleeper prospect, but quickly asserted himself as the top pitching prospect in the system. In 16.2 innings with the Sox so far, Hudson has been mostly impressive. His velocity is as advertised in the 93-95 m.p.h. range and he has a 3.24 ERA. His strikeout rate has remained solid, but he has walked 9 batters in his 2 starts. For the first start you might be able to argue nerves, especially after he didn’t walk any in his 3 relief appearances. He seemed to be nibbling, afraid to attack hitters. Hopefully the issue is a mental problem that can be easily fixed, as opposed to an actual lack of control. Like with Flowers, I’ll be optimistic because it’s really hard to evaluate a September call-up. Hudson was probably getting a lot of his strikeouts in the minors by getting hitters to chase with 2 strikes. That won’t work in the Majors, but Hudson has the ability to be a solid Major League starter down the road. If he doesn’t get traded, he will probably enter 2010 as the favorite for the 5th starter spot.
The other candidate for the 5th starter spot in 2010, Carlos Torres, has had control problems in the Majors that look more like a long-term concern. He was barely on the prospect radar to start 2009, but had a spectacular season for Charlotte. I think he will be a future long reliever type, but watching him walk 4 in 6 innings today against the Indians doesn’t make you think he can start in the bigs. You simply can’t walk 17 in 27.1 innings and expect to succeed in the Majors. Sure, he could get better, but it’s really hard to see a major improvement. Still, Torres had a great 2009 to put himself in this discussion and you can never have enough pitching options.
The four mentioned so far all are with the big league club currently. Others lower in the minors have had successful years as well. Brent Morel had a strong second half while playing at high-A in his first full professional season. C.J. Retherford continues to prove people wrong and will have another chance in the Arizona Fall League. The system still isn’t top tier, especially after two in-season trades, but the depth is improving after being one of the worst systems in baseball in 2007.