Starting in October and running through the end of the year, MiLB.com's State of the System series will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each Major League organization, highlights prospects who've made the biggest strides in 2020 and offers a peek at 2021.
While much of the offseason conversation around the White Sox has focused on Tony La Russa, it’s important to remember why Chicago made a managerial change. The front office feels its roster can contend for a championship, and a new voice at the top might be part of what gets the club from good to great.
Their core suggests that leap is within reach. The 2020 American League MVP and 2019 AL batting champ led the team in bWAR this season, respectively, and surrounding Jose Abreu and Tim Anderson are young cornerstones like Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert and Lucas Giolito.
That group should only grow stronger in the near future. The White Sox have five Top 100 prospects: first baseman Andrew Vaughn (No. 13), right-hander Michael Kopech (No. 18), second baseman Nick Madrigal (No. 36), left-hander Garrett Crochet (No. 89) and righty Dane Dunning (No. 98). All but Vaughn have made their big league debuts. It’s possible all five could be Major League mainstays next year, adding a booster shot of talent to a team that posted the AL's fourth-best record.
Strengths: If Chicago’s Top 100 representatives are that close, what's next? Director of player development Chris Getz broke down the new wave of talent into two sub-groups.
“We've got this younger crop of both position players and pitchers that we're very excited about and feel like they can be another wave to help supplement our Major League club as we continue to push forward here,” he said.
A few individuals in each category stand out to Getz. No. 20 White Sox prospect Benyamin Bailey, a 19-year-old outfielder from Panama who's yet to play above the Dominican Summer League, has shown patience within an impressive 6-foot-4 frame. Cuban third baseman Bryan Ramos (No. 26) won’t turn 19 until March and already shows a solid all-around game. Dominican middle infielder Jose Rodriguez (No. 27) displayed pop with nine homers in 44 games in the Rookie-level Arizona League in 2019. All three, Getz said, looked good at the recent instructional camp in Arizona.
The same could be said for a trio of young pitchers highlighted by Getz -- sixth-ranked Jared Kelley, Matthew Thompson (No. 8) and Andrew Dalquist (No. 11). All three righties are 20 or younger and were selected in the third round or earlier in their respective Drafts. Because the 2020 season was lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, none has thrown a pitch for a full-season affiliate. But the White Sox see their ascension through the system as reason for optimism on a longer timeline.
Areas for growth: One thing missing from that group is a backstop to dream on. Yermin Mercedes is the only dedicated catcher on the White Sox Top 30 list, and he’ll turn 28 before Opening Day 2021. Ivan Gonzalez, a 2018 eighth-round pick out of West Virginia University, fared well in his debut summer. But that feels like ages ago, and Chicago didn’t draft or sign any amateur catchers this year.
Perhaps all of this is trivial, considering Yasmani Grandal is under contract for three more seasons and a lot can change between now and 2024. Speaking of change ...
What’s changed in 2020: Robert went from top prospect on Jan. 1 to $88 million man on Jan. 2 to everyday center fielder by the time games were finally played. There’ll be more on his rookie season below.
In the abbreviated Draft in June, the White Sox doubled down on one of their strengths and went all-in on pitching. They used all five of their picks on arms, led by Crochet out of the University of Tennessee at No. 11 overall. The 6-foot-6 fireballer arrived at the alternate site by mid-July, and club officials knew they had something even more special than expected. Crochet’s velocity was regularly in the upper 90s and often touched triple digits. His advanced arsenal was obvious, even in side sessions. He made big leaguers look silly in intrasquad games and live BP, so Chicago made him the 22nd player ever to go from the Draft -- which began in 1965 -- to the Majors without ever appearing in the Minors, and the first since Cincinnati’s Mike Leake in 2009.
“That was not the plan going in,” Getz said, “but as time progressed, it was tough to ignore what he was capable of doing.”
Crochet allowed three hits over six scoreless innings in the regular season but left Game 3 of the Wild Card Series after nine pitches because of a flexor strain in his forearm. He’s expected to make a full recovery.
Prior to last month’s deadline to protect players from the upcoming Rule 5 Draft, 10th-ranked White Sox prospect Gavin Sheets, Jake Burger (No. 14) and Tyler Johnson (No. 24) were added to the 40-man roster. Sheets was an especially interesting choice because the 24-year-old was not part of the player pool at the alternate training site in Schaumburg, Illinois. But Getz lauded his offensive skills and said the first baseman added versatility by playing the outfield. Chicago likes his instincts and arm out there, and the new project looked promising at instructs.
“And so to add that to being able to play first base, I think, is going to be very valuable to him and certainly to us,” Getz said. “Then the offensive profile with just that starter kit of understanding the zone with the ability to hit the ball hard from the left side, we feel like he's got a chance to be able to help us."
Ranked as the team’s No. 7 prospect at the end of 2019, outfielder Luis Alexander Basabe was traded to the Giants for cash in August.
Alternate site standouts: A summer without Minor League games would seem to be a roadblock to pitchers truly testing their stuff because no number of intrasquad games equates to a season of external competition. In a way, though, that’s a good thing. Because the pitchers at the alternate site had to keep facing the same hitters, they had to keep making adjustments. And that’s as real as it gets.
On the other side, Vaughn was a “pain in the butt for a lot of the pitchers,” according to Getz. No. 13 prospect Blake Rutherford used his time in Schaumburg to adjust his approach to one that found the gaps and pull side.
“Through that setting, we were able to accomplish that he was driving balls regularly,” Getz said. “I would say in comparison to others in our group he was toward the top in regards to power production while he was there.”
And Burger, who lost the 2018 and 2019 seasons to Achilles and heel injuries, was in what Getz considered to be the best shape he’s been since the White Sox took him in the first round of the 2017 Draft. That says a lot about the team's No. 14 prospect, who spent 2020 playing in an unaffiliated collegiate league -- with the club's permission -- in an attempt to regain his form.
“There was nothing showing us that this guy had an Achilles injury, the way his body was moving, his gait, his lateral movements, his explosiveness," Getz said. "There was no hesitation with anything he was doing on the field, which was certainly something to be celebrated because the guy has just been through so much. But to get past that and go out there and be the player that he felt like he could become, we do feel like he's back on track. And it was a matter of just getting at-bats and balls off the bat and running the bases and showing us why we took him in the first round a couple years ago. But all indications are he's back on track and on a nice trajectory to being a Major League player.”
Impact rookies: Luis Robert didn’t win Rookie of the Year honors, but the 2019 MiLBY winner for Top Offensive Player did nothing to erase the hope that he could be an MVP-caliber player for years to come. The 23-year-old center fielder hit .233 with a .738 OPS, 11 homers, nine stolen bases and a 32.2 percent strikeout rate.
“We knew there were going to be Major League adjustments that needed to happen, but he was fearless in how he approached everything," Getz said. "Teams certainly challenged his plate discipline and, at times, I think he became a little overaggressive. But he worked through those struggles and, although there were some of that second-half slump, he was able to make those final adjustments down the final stretch of the regular season and certainly help us in the playoffs. That experience is certainly going to help him next year.”
Madrigal lived up to his billing as a contact hitter, batting .340 in 29 games in a season interrupted by a shoulder injury that required surgery.
Codi Heuer and Matt Foster gave the White Sox a lot out of the bullpen. The former posted a 1.52 ERA over 23 2/3 innings, while the latter logged a 2.20 ERA across 28 2/3 frames.
Next big thing: The easy answer -- and the right answer -- is Vaughn. The third overall pick out of the University of California in 2019 hit .278/.384/.411 in his debut summer while reaching Class A Advanced Winston-Salem. It’s conservative to say he would have gotten to Double-A with a normal season in 2020. But with this year lacking a Minor League season, Vaughn made the most of the situation and is still regarded as the most exciting prospect in the system.
“Even going back to Spring Training 1.0, he came into Spring Training in very good shape,” Getz said. “We challenged him at Major League camp and threw him into games very quickly and he was showing an advanced approach, let's put it that way. He can hit the ball to all fields. He punishes mistakes. But he consistently drives the ball to the gap. He's very under control, both with his body and mind. He has a plan and he's able to execute it regularly.”
Joe Bloss is a contributor for MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @jtbloss.