Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Countdown to Camp: Prospect outlook
By Doug Padilla
Erik Johnson figures to earn one of the two spots in the rotation this spring.
With Chicago White Sox spring training set to begin Feb. 15 when pitchers and catchers report in Glendale, Ariz., we're taking an early look around the diamond.
Look no further than the White Sox's outfield prospects when trying to understand how fickle the process of developing players can be.
Largely believed to be the strength of the organization just one year ago, a slew of White Sox outfield prospects stalled out enough on their road to the major leagues that the team traded for a new right fielder and new center fielder in the past seven months.
Fast forward to 2014, and the White Sox no longer are being looked at as the organization of rising outfielders. They have hardly given up on those players, but now they are bunched in with a number of prospects from other positions to actually give the system its most overall upside in years.
Outfielder Jared Mitchell, 25, has long been viewed as the outfielder who would make the first impact, but his struggles now have him off the radar. He is being passed in the depth chart by guys such as Courtney Hawkins, 20, Trayce Thompson 23, and Keenyn Walker, 23.
Hawkins is the furthest away but could end up being the most talented. He struggled last season, but much of that is being written off to playing against more experienced players as a 19-year-old at the high Class A level (Carolina League).
It still might be too soon to see any of the outfield prospects in the major leagues this year, although Mitchell, Thompson and Walker will get a chance to show what they can do in big league camp this spring.
In Baseball America's latest ranking of top 10 White Sox prospects, none of the top six are outfielders. At the top of the list, three of the first four listed figure to get an opportunity in the major leagues.
Top prospect Jose Abreu, 26, who was signed in the offseason for $68 million as the heir apparent at first base, is expected to make the roster. No. 2 prospect, 24-year-old pitcher Erik Johnson, appears to be a lead candidate to take over two available rotation spots.
No. 4 prospect Matt Davidson, a third baseman obtained from the Arizona Diamondbacks for closer Addison Reed, will get a chance at some point this season, but his prospects of making the Opening Day roster will be challenging.
The White Sox will not hesitate to start the 23-year-old Davidson at Triple-A Charlotte if he struggles at the plate this spring or his defense looks raw. Davidson is prone to striking out, and by spending most of his time as a pitcher before he was drafted by Arizona in 2009, his defense continues to be a work in progress.
Two infielder prospects held in high regard are Marcus Semien and Micah Johnson. Semien, who made his major league debut as a September call-up last season, is further ahead in his development and even has an outside chance at winning the third base spot in spring training.
It's more likely that the 23-year-old Semien heads to Triple-A Charlotte to get at-bats every day and sit poised for a promotion.
Micah Johnson isn't in the major league plans this season, but the 23-year-old is coming fast. He not only was the Southern League playoffs MVP after leading Double-A Birmingham to the title in 2013, he led all minor league players with 84 steals. In 77 games to start the season at Class A Kannapolis, he had a .422 on-base percentage and nearly scored a run a game.
Another of the organization's fastest risers is 23-year-old right-hander Chris Beck, who had his own breakthrough season in 2013. The second-round pick in 2012 advanced as high as Double-A last season, posting 3.07 ERA over 26 starts at two separate levels.
OUTLOOK: Barring an unexpected spring collapse, Abreu will be the starting first baseman on Opening Day. The same scenario is likely for Erik Johnson, who would have to struggle mightily during Cactus League games to not earn the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Just how high are the White Sox on Micah Johnson? He was invited to participate in SoxFest last month even though he still figures to be another two years away from making the major leagues.