If there’s a sweet spot in the White Sox rebuild, you will find it in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
That’s where first-time manager Omar Vizquel and a surge of talent have quickly burst onto the scene in the Carolina League. From big names like Dylan Cease, Luis Robert and Blake Rutherford to under the radar types like Jimmy Lambert and Ti’Quan Forbes, Vizquel has been in charge of an overflow of prospects the White Sox minor league system hasn’t seen in years.
Injuries this year to Robert, Eloy Jimenez, Alec Hanson, Jake Burger, Dane Dunning, Micker Adolfo and Ryan Cordell may have put a damper on your spirits about the White Sox rebuild and the speed in which it will take for the big league club to be good again. But despite those setbacks, the organizational depth Rick Hahn has preached about and has attempted to create in the farm system is starting to become a reality.
Even after some of Vizquel’s best players like Cease, Joel Booker, Luis Basabe and Bernardo Flores were promoted to Double-A Birmingham in June, Vizquel has inherited a brand new wave of talent from Class-A Kannapolis in the form of Luis Gonzalez, Laz Rivera, Tyler Johnson and Blake Battenfield and they haven’t skipped a beat, excelling in a higher league, creating more late-game drama like we saw from the Dash in the first half of the season.
Here’s 28th round pick Laz Rivera hitting a walk-off grand slam Tuesday night in the 10th inning.
If you want to feel down about the lost development time for Burger, Robert and Dunning, go ahead. It’s real. Their timetables to the big leagues might be pushed back (although Basabe told me at the Futures Game that Robert “is going to learn very quick.” Store that in the back of your mind when he returns, possibly in the first week in August).
But if you ask Vizquel about the players he has managed this year, he believes that many of them are on an accelerated path for the major leagues.
“We’re seeing a lot of explosive players who can go through the system and maybe surprise some people and be in the big leagues a little sooner than people expected,” Vizquel said in a phone interview.
Who is Vizquel speaking about? Let’s start with Cease who started the year in Winston-Salem. Vizquel likened him to Justin Verlander. Yeah, he went there.
“A guy I can compare (Cease) with, I would say he’s a Justin Verlander type. I was with Justin the last four years in Detroit and obviously he’s one of the most veteran pitchers in the game. Just the way he handles the situation when he’s on the mound, he’s just amazing. What impressed me about Cease was his composure. The way he takes the mound every time,” Vizquel said. “Obviously, he’s got a really good fastball that can go up to 98, 99, and he can go to 100 pitches and he still has the strength to go out there in the ninth inning and shut people down. At his age it’s really tough to find guys like that who can handle the pressure and everything that goes around the pitcher’s mound. And he has that.”
Cease and Basabe both played in the Futures Game. If Robert wasn’t injured, he very likely would have joined them in Washington, D.C.
Basabe made a big splash in the game, drilling a 102 mph pitch from Reds prospect Hunter Greene deep into the right field seats. The third player in the Chris Sale trade, Basabe battled a knee injury last season. Healthy this year, he’s showing off all the tools and promise the White Sox were expecting.
“He’s one of those guys who can run balls down in every outfield position. We used him in every spot. Right, center and left. With his speed and his arm he can play anywhere. He can hit the ball with power, he can hit consistently for average,” Vizquel said about Basabe. “He can be one of those players who can change the game with one at-bat. He can bunt, he can hit for power and he can also steal a base. When you have a player that is complete in every aspect of the game, he can be a really good player for anybody.”
Basabe and Joel Booker have both had big comeback seasons. Booker has been a revelation, raising eyebrows in the White Sox farm system.
“Joel Booker is the most underrated guy we have,” Cease said during an interview before the Futures Game.
Booker was named the MVP of the Carolina League All-Star Game, got promoted to Birmingham where he’s leading off for the Barons, hitting ahead of fellow outfielder Basabe.
“(Booker) is another guy who has the same tools that Basabe has, except he’s a little faster than Basabe,” Vizquel said. “I think he wasn’t being mentioned too much in the White Sox organization because there are so many high top prospects here that he probably gets lost in that group of people. Obviously, when the game starts you can see that he’s one of those players who can bring a lot of attention. He can steal bases, he can hit the ball hard. Even though he’s a leadoff guy he can hit the ball a long way. He’s a guy who is still learning the game and I think because he hasn’t played baseball that long, people overlook him a little bit, but he’s going to be a great player, too."
When Booker got promoted to Birmingham, that opened up a spot in the Winston-Salem outfield for Luis Gonzalez. The White Sox third-round pick from 2017 immediately became one of the Dash’s best players.
“Luis Gonzalez is one of these guys who can hit in every spot in the lineup. He’s a good leadoff guy and is very aggressive with the count. He likes to swing the bat. As a matter of fact, he got mad at me because I don’t let him hit in the 3-hole sometimes. He can tell you that he’s ready to swing at every pitch,” Vizquel said about Gonzalez who is slashing .306/.349/.449 in 22 games in Winston-Salem.
“He’s a left-handed hitter who doesn’t care if he has a left-handed pitcher on the mound. He still sticks his nose in there and he’s going to give you a great at-bat every time. That’s who I have at the top of the lineup right now and he’s another player who’s learning the game real quick. Even in his young age, he looks like a veteran out there.”
But wait, there’s more. Outfielder Blake Rutherford, who the White Sox acquired in the Todd Frazier/David Robertson/Tommy Kahnle trade last July, has quickly made people forget about his struggles in Kannapolis last year (.213/.289/.254 in 30 games). This year in a higher league, he’s been one of its top hitters (.300/.345/.459), ranking second in RBIs and fourth in hits.
“Rutherford is a guy who is really young too. I love to have him with runners in scoring position because he can bring an RBI anytime,” Vizquel said about the Dash right fielder, who turned 21 in May and is batting .343 with 57 RBIs with RISP. “He’s a guy who makes contact. He’s going to be good. He’s another great outfielder, not as good as defensively as (Booker and Gonzalez), but he still does have great tools to be out there playing everyday.”
When it comes to starting pitching, Cease, Dunning, Hansen and Michael Kopech get most of the attention in the minor leagues. But there are some other pitchers making names for themselves this year. Left-hander Bernardo Flores has combined for a 2.56 ERA in 109 innings for Winston-Salem and Birmingham. Since being called up to Double-A, Jimmy Lambert is 3-1 with a 3.13 ERA. He flirted with a no-hitter in his last start against the Cubs Double-A team, giving up one hit over seven innings with 10 strikeouts.
“He’s gross,” Cease said about Lambert. “He throws his fastball 92 to 95. Disgusting change-up. He can throw 15 change-ups in an inning and he’ll get 11 swings and misses on it.
"Good curveball and slider. He’s gross.”
Cease and Lambert are now throwing to catcher Zack Collins, who leads the Southern League with a .409 on-base percentage and 77 walks. The next closest in the league in walks has 53.
We know Collins can hit and get on base. What about his defense?
“From when I threw to him during spring training to now he’s like almost a new guy,” Cease said about Collins. “He’s framing well, calling a good game and blocking and that’s all you need from a catcher.”
In Charlotte, there’s 23-year-old reliever Ian Hamilton, who got called up last month and gave up only 2 hits in his first 6.2 IP with nine strikeouts and one walk. His fastball can hit 98 mph and he has a hard slider that can reach 90. He’s a possible future closer for the White Sox.
He also has a teammate named Eloy Jimenez. I hear he’s having a big season as well.
In a perfect world, every White Sox prospect listed here will stay healthy, all of them will max out their potential, and in the coming years they’ll win every World Series title from 2020 to 2023.
But life isn’t perfect, especially in baseball. Too much can go wrong, and often does.
The way to withstand the inevitable setbacks is by stocking your organization with waves of talent. For a long time, you could only find ripples of this in the White Sox farm system.
Now in Winston-Salem, it’s surf’s up! The hope is that one day they’ll be hangin’ ten from Kannapolis to Chicago.
For now, Omar Vizquel is handing out longboards to his first-place Dash who have been the class of the Carolina League.
If he can create a winning culture like he experienced with the Cleveland Indians in the 1990s, and have that success flow upstream into the big leagues, the future at 35th and Shields will be very bright.
“I’m glad that I have this opportunity to be involved with all these young bright stars and make a difference and teach them the right way to play fundamental baseball and just play the game the right way,” Vizquel said. “It’s something that I learned with all my years of experience. I think we’ve been trying to let these guys know how to play the right way and I think it’s paying off.”