Today begins the offseason prospect coverage at FanGraphs. This winter, we decided to take a two-pronged approach to the coverage, since we have two writers covering this stuff. You’ll be happy to know we will again have Marc Hulet rank the top 10 prospects for all 30 organizations (this time presenting them in power ranking format). The rankings are Marc’s own, because he’s the only one of the two brave enough to tackle them. Bryan Smith will flank the rankings with a pair of articles on each team: one a micro view at the top prospects (for the fan whose minor league interest is only centered on the top couple players) and a macro view on the system (for the farm-obsessives). Marc or Bryan will sporadically have chats to discuss recently written-about organizations. The order will not be revealed in advance.
Chicago White Sox
Affiliates: Charlotte (Triple-A), Birmingham (Double-A), Winston-Salem (High-A), Kannapolis (Low-A), Bristol (Appy) and Great Falls (Pioneer).
The White Sox have a hole at third base, and a prospect is likely to fill the position. If Paul Konerko or A.J. Pierzynski were to bolt the South Side, the team hase enough youth to compete for the jobs. And when Bobby Jenks and Matt Thornton were hurt in September, a guy that still qualifies for prospect status dominated and racked up four saves. For the casual follower of the White Sox farm system, things are looking pretty healthy in the player development department.
This a farm system where ignorance is bliss. Those fans aware of only Brent Morel, Dayan Viciedo, Tyler Flowers, and Chris Sale should be happy with the team’s upper level ability to plug holes in 2011. I have previously written that Morel, in particular, would be a good bet to produce 2.0-2.5 WAR as early as next season. I’m not as high on Viciedo or Flowers, neither of whom are going to work anywhere defensively. Viciedo, you’ll notice, managed to rack up -3.2 UZR in just 190 innings. This isn’t a case of small sample size polluting the truth — if Viciedo’s wRAA ceiling is about +15 (most I could concede given his BB and K rates), his defense threatens to be equally bad in a full season.
So, it really is Sale that represents the only sure-fire Major Leaguer with a ceiling above, say, 3.5 WAR. And that is only the case if Ozzie Guillen can resist the temptation to put the proven reliever in his 2011 bullpen. What Ozzie and the White Sox front office needs to realize is that the things that scouts thought might put Sale in the bullpen over the long-term — specifically, how his stuff and delivery could leave him exposed vs. RHH’s — weren’t faults at all in the big leagues. There were concerns that Sale’s change-up was too fringy, and his 5/8 delivery would allow right-handed hitters to see the ball too long.
In 56 plate appearances (so, sample size alert), Sale held right-handers to a .120/.214/.240 batting line. He did it while throwing them six change-ups in 220 pitches (2.7%), which accounted for 3 balls, 2 called strikes and 1 swinging strike. It was a non-factor. as he went with a two-pitch approach: 66.8% four seamers, 26.4% sliders. And, to my surprise, looking at his Texas Leaguers chart, he wasn’t just back-dooring the slider everytime. It’s a pitch he trusts, and a pitch that works, against right-handers.
There are two concerns about the move to the rotation: facing hitters multiple times per day, and how the reduction in velocity will effect his raw stuff. Sale hasn’t had a hitter see him twice on the same day since college, as his batters faced maximum through a lineup as a professional is eight. We will just have to see how the velocity changes the effectiveness of his arsenal. Obviously, the development of the change-up will be important, and his bullpens and another Spring Training with Don Cooper bode well for that pitch. But the other problem is that Sale won’t be able to blow people away with 98 mph heat in the rotation, so some of those mistakes in the zone he got away with will end up out of the yard.
There is no reason that Sale should be expected to induce groundballs at a 51% clip in the Majors. He doesn’t pitch low in the zone, and his arsenal is one that is usually seen from flyball pitchers. We know that his command is shaky at best, and that his BB/9 will almost always have a 3-handle. Sale’s success will be predicated around the ability to strike out hitters at a 7.5 clip or better. His ability to strikeout left-handers, which with his delivery will work even if the velocity drops in the low 90s, bodes well for this hope. But if the reduction in velocity makes 7.5 K/9 an impossibility, then Sale is destined for a good relief career. And this farm system will be even worse than we think.
Recently returning from the Arizona Fall League, there are two other players that die-hard fans need to be aware of: Jared Mitchell and Eduardo Escobar. Escobar is the guy with helium, the guy following up a .322 wOBA season with a .377/.422/.688 Arizona Fall League line, good enough for first place in Carson Cistulli’s SCOUT rankings. I saw one of Escobar’s triples, an opposite field down-the-line shot against Manny Banuelos, and I can tell you the guy has legit speed. It has not been evident from the stolen base column, but he goes from first to third quickly. Escobar is also blessed with a good arm, and from what I’ve been told, good range at shortstop. He will stick at the position if they let him.
The question is how much he’s going to hit. His walk rate is downright Viciedo-esque, and it did not improve between 2009 and 2010. His contact rates are about average, maybe a touch better. Overall, Escobar is a much better hitter from the right side with these batting lines in his three leagues this year: .326/.343/.495 in CAR, .321/.333/.491 in SOU, and .542/.577/1.208 in AFL. It should be said that his patience is non-existent from that side, but he swings a big stick. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised he tripled off the best southpaw prospect in Arizona. It’s clear that Escobar has grown since his initial listed weight of 5-10, 150, so there’s slight optimism for 10 home run power potential. Strength is where the similarities with Jose Vizcaino (one of those lazy comps you’ll hear people use) end, and where you can see his ceiling is that much higher.
This is a guy who probably doesn’t have a future grade below 50 on any tool, playing the most elite position on the diamond. There are improvements to make, but if you don’t think Ozzie Guillen is going to love a slick-fielding, switch-hitting Venezuelan shortstop, well then you just aren’t a White Sox fan.