Oct 2nd, 2009
Kanny Pitching Staff Emblematic of Sox System Turnaround
By Matt Cassidy
As recently as 2007, the White Sox farm system seemed a bleak wasteland of disappointments and filler. There were few noteworthy prospects in the system, which ranked near the bottom among MLB organizations by most prospect-focused publications. This combined with a ballooning payroll, aging players on the major league club and an awful 2007 performance quickly deflated what was left of the 2005 championship enthusiasm among the fan base. All was not well down on the farm.
But in the last two years or so, the White Sox have made big strides in getting their system restocked with legitimate talent. Three improved drafts combined with some shrewd dealings from “The Gambler” Kenny Williams, have put the Sox system back into the middle of the pack, or even better than that, if you look at the talent that has already ascended to the major league team in that period. The system is producing prospects with real chances at major league success at a much higher rate nowadays.
In order to best illustrate this ascension, some might point to the meteoric rise of Gordon Beckham, the team’s first round pick in 2009 and current Rookie of the Year candidate. Or Dan Hudson’s march from Low-A all the way to the big club in one season. Surely no one would deny these shining examples, but they are single players in a huge organization, and one might be tempted to call them flukes, or simply very good luck combined with 2008’s high draft position. Show me something more, you say? Show me the depth of talent required for a minor league system to truly stand out?
I give you, the pitching staff of the 2009 Kannapolis Intimidators.
Kannapolis, the Sox Low-A affiliate, put up a chubby 5.12 ERA in 2007. In 2008, it dropped more than a full point to 4.08. And here in 2009, it dropped 80 more points to 3.24, 2nd best in the South Atlantic League by just .01. They were also 2nd in strikeouts, 2nd in WHIP, and led the league with 15 shutouts. Not surprisingly they finished the season at 82-57, best record in the 16-team league, despite being below the median in most offensive categories. And the pitching staff that achieved this was filled mostly with players drafted or signed since the 2008 June draft, not much more than a year ago.
Kanny’s starting rotation featured a number of very talented arms, led by Hudson, drafted in the 5th round in 2008. Hudson appeared in just 4 games, but dominated, posting a scant 1.23 ERA to go along with 30 strikeouts against just 2 walks in 22 innings. No wonder he was quickly promoted to Winston-Salem, then Birmingham, then Charlotte, and ended his improbable season with the big club. Lefty Charlie Leesman (11th round in ‘08) opened some eyes by finishing at 13-5 with a solid 3.05 ERA, while increasing his velocity. Stephen Sauer started in the bullpen, but was quickly moved into the starting rotation, where he displayed plus control (just 19 walks in 142 IP), posted a nice 3.38 ERA and struck out nearly a batter an inning to give him a stellar 6.47 K/BB ratio. Dexter Carter (13th round, ‘08) staked a 3.13 ERA and struck out 143 batters in 118 innings, which helped out the big club as he was traded to San Diego as part of the Jake Peavy package. Gregory Infante (free agent foreign signee, 2006) posted a 3.26 ERA and a skill for inducing ground balls, before being promoted to Winston-Salem.
Replacing some of the departed starters were Nevin Griffith (2nd round, 2007) and bolt-from-the-blue 2009 37th round pick Joe Serafin. Griffin had a 3.86 ERA while coming back from major injury. Serafin, a lefty out of Vermont, was promoted after dominating in rookie ball and contributed a 3-1 record, 2.98 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 42 innings for the Intimidators. A soft-tossing, control-focused lefty picked in the late rounds inexplicably succeeding in A ball in his draft year? I could swear I’ve heard this story before.
But the talent didn’t end with the rotation; the Kanny bullpen was rock steady, and propelled some new names onto the prospect radar. The pen was anchored by closer Dan Remenowsky, who posted numbers that were nothing short of eye-popping: In 63.1 innings he posted a 1.99 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, just 16 walks (2.27 BB/9) and a staggering 109 strikeouts (15.49 K/9). All this plus 25 saves and 7 wins from a guy who went undrafted, and was signed in 2008 as a free agent out of an independent league.
Setting up Remenowsky in the pen were a number of prospects worth keeping an eye on. The best prospect of the bunch is hard-throwing right-hander Nathan Jones (5th round 2007), who posted a 2.41 ERA, a miniscule .129 average against and 25 strikeouts in just 18.1 innings, before being promoted to Winston-Salem. Eventually replacing Jones in the setup role was 2009 5th round pick Kyle Bellamy. The right-hander pitched a brief 3 games in Bristol (Rookie) before being promoted to Kanny, where he was nothing short of dominant: 1.42 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, and 30 strikeouts against just 2 walks in 19 innings. 2008 4th round pick Drew O’Neill contributed a solid 2.54 ERA to the bullpen as well, and while his K and BB numbers weren’t great, he displayed an ability to induce ground balls, posting a 3.41 GO/AO. Other solid contributors who were all promoted in-season to Winston-Salem included Charlis Burdie (1.76 ERA, .122 BAA, 60 K in 56.1 IP), Tyson Corley (0.95 ERA, 5.55 GO/AO, 38 K in 38 IP), Daniel Albritton (1.76 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 18 K in 15.1 IP) and Kevin Asselin (2.74 ERA, 49 K in 49.1 IP). Keep an eye on 21 year-old Santos Rodriguez, acquired from Atlanta in the Vazquez/Flowers trade. He only pitched 4 innings at the end of the season, but made an impression by striking out 8 in 4 innings of work against just 1 walk, allowing no runs. Rodriguez can really dial it up with the fastball and is worth following.
What does all this mean for the organization? The Kanny pitching staff represents a wave of pitching talent moving through a Sox system that hasn’t seen a deep group like this in some time. As they start 2010 in Winston-Salem (High-A), or in some cases Birmingham (AA), they will reach a make-or-break point, and we’ll get a better idea of who among them has the right stuff. Odds are against any given prospect, but that’s why it is far better to have a depth of talented prospects to begin with, then to have only a few and hope for the best. So keep an eye on the Barons and Dash’s box scores next year, and you just might see some future major leaguers separating from the pack.