Alec Hansen

The White Sox top two pitching prospects continue to struggle in the minors

The White Sox top two pitching prospects continue to struggle in the minors

We haven't exactly entered the darkest timeline of the White Sox rebuild. But things throughout the farm system have seemed to taken a bummer of a turn all at the same time.

Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert, the organization's top-ranked position player prospects, will both miss weeks with a pair of injuries. Pitcher Dane Dunning is out weeks, as well. And third baseman Jake Burger is out for the remainder of the season. Injuries happen. And while they aren't welcome, they don't exactly cloud the White Sox bright future.

The more surprising of the recent bevy of bad luck and bad news, however, are the continued struggles of the organization's top two pitching prospects.

Michael Kopech and Alec Hansen could very well be the 1-2 starting-pitching punch on the next contending White Sox team. But right now, things are not going well. The two combined for a whopping 363 strikeouts in 2017, but so far in the 2018 campaign, they own a combined 5.20 ERA.

Kopech was expected by many onlookers to breeze through Triple-A and crack the White Sox starting rotation in a manner of months. There were plenty out there on social media who believed he should've been the team's Opening Day starter. But after a dominant beginning to the season — he had a 3.00 ERA and 38 strikeouts through his first six starts — things have been a struggle over the past seven starts. He's got a 6.10 ERA in that span with 31 walks. After posting a 2.65 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2017, he's got a 1.98 mark in 2018.

Thursday night, Kopech issued four first-inning walks, threw 42 pitches and gave up two runs. After allowing a two-run homer in the third inning, his night ended after recording just nine outs. It was the seventh time in his last nine outings he's issued at least four free passes.

It snapped a streak of limited damage on the scoreboard for Kopech, who entered Thursday's game with just three earned runs allowed over his previous three starts. He still issued a fair number of walks, with 10 of them in those three games, but also piled up the strikeouts, with 23 of them in the same span.

Rick Hahn has insisted all along that the White Sox are waiting to see things from Kopech that don't always show up in a box score, that the dominant start didn't make Kopech ready for the majors. And the inverse would figure to be true, as well: The ugly numbers of late don't necessarily tell the whole story of Kopech's development. Thursday was no exception to that line of thinking, as Kopech — not to mention his manager and pitching coach — were in visible disagreement with how the home-plate umpire was calling balls and strikes. A different guy behind the plate, and maybe Kopech's Thursday-night line looks a lot different.

Instead, the walks piled up again. And that's the same problem that Hansen keeps running into.

Hansen's season started late due to a significant forearm injury, a worrisome enough issue considering the missed developmental time. But in his first four starts of the season, he's looked like anything but the No. 46 prospect in baseball. Hansen has 16 walks in those four starts, 15 of those coming in the last three starts. He's reached the fifth inning just once and has recorded just 49 outs on the season, owning a 7.71 ERA after Tuesday's outing.

Pitching slumps are not uncommon, and these struggles from Kopech and Hansen are not causing the slightest bit of danger to the White Sox rebuilding effort. But watching these two having trouble finding the strike zone on a consistent basis is not what White Sox fans want to see right now, not when so many other prospects are battling injuries.

The White Sox farm system is loaded, the depth the strength of this rebuild at the moment. But with the organization's two top position player prospects on the disabled list and its two top pitching prospects struggling, this is not the happiest stretch of the rebuild.

Alec Hansen's 2018 debut was ... not great

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AP

Alec Hansen's 2018 debut was ... not great

The first start of the season for the White Sox No. 4 prospect left plenty to be desired.

Alec Hansen was on the shelf for quite a while battling a forearm injury, and he finally made his 2018 debut Saturday at Double-A Birmingham. It did not go well, with Hansen tagged for six runs on nine hits and a walk in 4.2 innings of work. He struck out four batters and gave up a home run. He threw 78 pitches, 48 of which went for strikes.

This less-than-ideal outing from Hansen comes as the organization's top-ranked pitching prospect, Michael Kopech, continues to struggle at Triple-A Charlotte. Kopech surrendered five runs and walked eight opposing hitters in three innings in his most recent start, and he's got a 5.20 ERA on the season.

Hansen and Kopech were two of the top strikeout pitchers in minor league baseball a season ago, with Hansen punching out 191 hitters and Kopech fanning 172. As of right now, Hansen and Kopech are ranked the Nos. 46 and 8 prospects in the game.

None of this does much to dampen the excitement over these guys and all the other highly touted prospects in the White Sox loaded farm system. Both figure to be key pieces of the team's starting rotation on the next contending group of South Siders.

But these kinds of performances do well to remind that these prospects won't breeze through the minor leagues and reach the big leagues as superstars. Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito are reminding folks of that at the major league level. This is a developmental season at all levels of the organization, and development isn't always pretty.

Alec Hansen to make 2018 debut this weekend with Double-A Birmingham

Alec Hansen to make 2018 debut this weekend with Double-A Birmingham

One of the top pitching prospects in baseball will finally be returning on a minor league mound.

Alec Hansen, ranked as the second-best pitching prospect in the White Sox loaded farm system and the No. 46 prospect in baseball, will make his 2018 debut this weekend with Double-A Birmingham, general manager Rick Hahn announced Monday.

It’s been a long layoff for Hansen, who has been battling a forearm injury since spring training. Substantial updates on Hansen’s progress had been few and far between until Monday’s announcement, a big deal for the rebuilding White Sox, who get one of the key pieces of their bright future back pitching in games again.

Hansen, a second-round pick in the 2016 draft, was incredibly impressive last season, when he was one of the minor leagues’ strikeout leaders. He punched out a combined 191 batters between three different levels. He had a 2.48 ERA in 13 starts with Class A Kannapolis and a 2.93 ERA in 11 starts with Class A Winston-Salem. He allowed five runs in 10.1 innings over two starts with Birmingham at the end of the season.

Hansen’s return to action comes quick after the return of outfielder Luis Robert, meaning the top eight prospects in the White Sox system will all be active.

Hansen is one of the most intriguing names in a crowded field of candidates for spots in the White Sox rotation of the future. Michael Kopech, Dane Dunning, Dylan Cease, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and others all figure to be competing with Hansen for one of those five spots.

Returning to the mound is the first step in Hansen showing he deserves one of those spots on the starting staff.