Blake Rutherford

White Sox move seven prospects to 40-man roster, protecting them from Rule 5 draft

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USA TODAY

White Sox move seven prospects to 40-man roster, protecting them from Rule 5 draft

The White Sox made some important decisions Wednesday, protecting seven players from selection in next month’s Rule 5 draft by moving them to the 40-man roster.

Dane Dunning, Blake Rutherford, Jimmy Lambert, Zack Burdi, Bernardo Flores, Yermin Mercedes and Matt Foster were moved to the 40-man roster, making them unable to be plucked away by other teams in the Rule 5 draft Dec. 12 during the Winter Meetings.

That’s obviously good news for the White Sox, who will hang onto those prized prospects regardless of what happens next month. But the team opted to leave plenty of other players open to selection, including Alec Hansen, Zach Thompson, Spencer Adams and Kyle Kubat.

The 40-man roster is now full at the maximum 40 players, meaning any offseason additions made from here on out will require a player being removed from the 40-man roster.

Dunning is ranked as the No. 5 prospect in the organization and despite undergoing Tommy John surgery earlier this season still has a bright future as a potential member of the White Sox rotation. In fact, he was moving along so positively in 2018 that general manager Rick Hahn said if not for the injury Dunning could have been part of the team’s Opening Day rotation in 2019. He last pitched in 2018, turning in a stellar 2.71 ERA and striking out 100 batters in 15 starts between Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham.

Rutherford remains ranked as the No. 9 prospect in the organization but finds himself one of many outfield prospects who had disappointing 2019 campaigns. He saw significant statistical dips playing at Birmingham from the numbers he put up in 2018 at Winston-Salem. In 2019, he slashed .265/.319/.365 in 118 games. He failed to do much of anything in the Arizona Fall League, either, slashing .179/.281/.385 in 21 games.

Lambert is ranked as the No. 18 prospect in the organization and, like Dunning, underwent Tommy John surgery earlier this year. If not for the injury, he might have factored into the big league starting staff by the end of the 2019 campaign. He followed up a strong 2018 season (3.67 ERA in 18 starts between Winston-Salem and Birmingham) with a 4.55 ERA in 11 starts at Birmingham in 2019.

Burdi is still ranked as the No. 23 prospect in the organization despite an injury-plagued last couple of seasons. A knee injury ended his 2019 season early, this after missing almost the entirety of the 2018 season (just a few appearances in Rookie ball) while recovering from Tommy John surgery. A first-round pick in 2016, Burdi struggled before the knee injury, with a 6.75 ERA in 22.2 innings between Birmingham and Class A Kannapolis.

Flores is ranked as the No. 28 prospect in the organization. He had a mighty promising 2018 season at Winston-Salem and Birmingham, with a 2.65 ERA in 25 starts. Those numbers jumped up in 2019, with Flores finishing with a 3.33 ERA in 15 starts at Birmingham.

Mercedes was one of the bright spots of the White Sox farm system in 2019, slashing .317/.388/.581 with 23 homers splitting time between Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte. Many fans hoped he would have gotten a September call-up. He didn’t, but Hahn mentioned him as a potential part of the catching mix when the team heads to spring training in February.

Foster had a solid 2019 season, finishing with a 3.20 ERA in 43 relief appearances at Birmingham and Charlotte.

As for those who are exposed to selection in the Rule 5 draft, Hansen was once one of the highest ranked pitching prospects in the organization, thanks to a phenomenal 2017 campaign, when he had a 2.80 ERA and 191 strikeouts pitching at three different levels. But a 2018 forearm injury derailed everything. That year, he didn’t even make his first appearance until mid June and finished with a 6.31 ERA and an outrageous 59 walks compared to just 55 strikeouts. In 2019, he didn’t fare much better, with a 4.64 ERA and 44 more walks (compared with 66 strikeouts). He’s still ranked as the organization’s No. 27 prospect.

Thompson was excellent in 2018, with a 1.55 ERA in 43 relief appearances at Winston-Salem and Birmingham. A year later, he was pummeled to the tune of a 5.23 ERA in 45 relief appearances, most coming at Charlotte.

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White Sox prospects in Arizona Fall League fail to stand out

White Sox prospects in Arizona Fall League fail to stand out

Not all of the prospects the White Sox sent to the Arizona Fall League were there for the same reasons.

Some of them had injury-shortened seasons and the AFL served as a way to make up for lost time on the field. Some of them were there to see high-end minor league competition and see how they fared.

The league wrapped up the regular season on Friday and Glendale, the team the White Sox prospects were on, did not make the championship game. Overall, the results weren’t great. Frankly, none of the seven White Sox representatives distinguished themselves in Arizona.

The best performer of the bunch was reliever Tyler Johnson. Johnson, the No. 19 White Sox prospect according to MLB Pipeline, was out until mid-June with a lat strain this past season. He got an extra 8 2/3 innings in Arizona and will get more with USA Baseball's Olympic qualifying team in November. Johnson had a 3.12 ERA, but strangely struck out just three while walking seven.

Starting pitcher Bernardo Flores, another top 30 prospects at No. 28, also headed to Arizona after missing time in 2019. He made six starts in the AFL, totaling 20 1/3 innings. He struck out 19 and walked just five, but gave up a whopping 32 hits for a 7.97 ERA.

Under-the-radar relievers Bennett Sousa and Vince Arobio didn’t do much to put themselves on the map. Sousa had a 5.59 ERA, but did strike out 12 and walk only one in 9 2/3 innings. Arobio had more walks (8) than strikeouts (7) in 10 2/3 innings.

The hitting side was more interesting with Gavin Sheets (No. 13 ranked prospect) and Blake Rutherford (No. 9) looking to build on their seasons in Double-A. Both players had really slow starts in the regular season before building a bit more success towards the end of the year.

Rutherford played in the league’s all-star game, but hit .179/.281/.385. On the positive side, he finally showed some power with nine extra base hits (four doubles, three triples and two home runs) in 21 games. The three triples were second in the league.

Sheets’ AFL season mirrored his regular season. He got off to a very slow start, but hit .281/.385/.344 in his last 10 games. Overall, the 23-year-old first baseman hit .250/.321/.319 in 20 games. If Sheets had a good AFL run, he could have boosted his trade stock or started to build a case for him to get a 2020 call-up to the White Sox. Instead, he will have to make his case in Triple-A next year.

Micker Adolfo rounds out the group and his overall performance was less important than the fact that he got to play against high level competition and return to playing the field. Adolfo had Tommy John surgery and was limited to 36 games in 2019, all at DH. Adolfo was known for having a big arm before the injury. As right field continues to be a position of need for the White Sox, Adolfo could be a long-term solution there, just not any time soon.

Adolfo hit four home runs in 61 plate appearances, but also struck out 27 times. The power is still there. Maybe the rest of his game will come back with more at-bats.

State of the White Sox: Right field

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USA TODAY

State of the White Sox: Right field

Previous: Center field | Left field | Catcher | Shortstop Third base  Second base | First base

The 2019 season is over, and the White Sox — who have been focusing on the future for quite some time now — are faced with an important offseason, one that could set up a 2020 campaign with hopes of playoff contention.

With the postseason in swing and a little bit still before the hot stove starts cooking, let’s take a position-by-position look at where the White Sox stand, what they’re looking to accomplish this winter and what we expect to see in 2020 and beyond.

We’re moving on to right field.

What happened in 2019

In a word, disappointment. The guys who were supposed to man the position at the big league level barely did.

Daniel Palka went from a 27-homer rookie season to 0-for-his-first-32 and then to Triple-A Charlotte after picking up his first hit of the season. He briefly returned for an 0-for-10 stint in the middle of the summer and then went 8-for-his-last-39 as a September call-up. Even if his defense in the outfield was a huge question mark heading into the season, his bat wasn’t supposed to be. But after his breakout rookie year, he fizzled and ended up being a non-factor in 2019.

The same status befell Jon Jay, one of the team’s veteran offseason additions who was, at the very least, supposed to bring a strong presence to the clubhouse and better on-base skills to the lineup. But an injury suffered in spring training kept him from even entering a major league game until late June. He played in 47 games, with an underwhelming .267/.311/.315 slash line, before hitting the injured list again at the end of August, undergoing season-ending surgery on his hip.

All that led to a rotating cast of right fielders, few of whom produced in any significant way at the plate. Ryan Cordell and his .221/.290/.355 slash line played by far the most games out there, 72. Leury Garcia’s trip around the outfield included 45 games in right. Jay played 33 out there, Charlie Tilson played 30 and Palka played 23.

And so at season’s end, it was unsurprising to see some horrific numbers from the position: a .220/.277/.288 slash line, numbers that ranked 23rd, 29th and 30th, respectively, among baseball’s 30 teams.

As bad as that was, though, the even more concerning developments for the long-term fortunes of the team took place at the minor league level. The White Sox future in right field was always less certain than elsewhere on the field, but until this season that was because of the sheer volume of possibilities to emerge from a promising second tier of prospects.

Nearly all those outfield prospects — save Luis Robert, of course, who’s ticketed for center field — fell victim to an organization-wide rash of injuries and under-performance, leaving few promising options left standing:

— Luis Basabe broke his hamate bone in spring training and slashed .246/.324/.336 at Double-A Birmingham.

— Blake Rutherford slashed .265/.319/.365 at Birmingham, big dips in all three averages from his strong 2018 campaign at Class A Winston-Salem.

— Micker Adolfo had Tommy John surgery in 2018, only to have another season-ending surgery in 2019, this one arthroscopic surgery on his elbow.

— Luis Gonzalez went from a batting average north of .300, an on-base percentage north of .360 and a slugging percentage around .500 in 2018 to a .247/.316/.359 line at Birmingham in 2019.

The only one to emerge relatively unscathed was Steele Walker, who slashed .284/.361/.451 with 36 doubles in 120 games split between Class A squads in Kannapolis and Winston-Salem. But success in A-ball won’t put Walker on a track to help the big league team anytime soon, leaving the cupboard relatively bare in right field for the time being.

What will happen this offseason

So it’s no shock that Rick Hahn has right field as one of the biggest items on his lengthy offseason to-do list.

The White Sox will almost certainly have an outside addition starting in right field when the 2020 season begins. The question now is just who it will be.

As that sampling of the fortunes of the second-tier prospects in the organization illustrates, it might be difficult for the White Sox to pull off a trade for a truly impact player at any position this winter, right field included. That leaves free agency as a more realistic option, and there are definitely some interesting names set to be a part of that market.

Nicholas Castellanos, Yasiel Puig and Marcell Ozuna make up kind of a “big three” in that department. All three would be big-time adds to the middle of the White Sox lineup. Castellanos was obviously excellent with the Cubs in the second half of the season after being acquired from the Detroit Tigers, with whom he made a habit of crushing White Sox pitching. Puig’s numbers were also good following his intra-state trade to the Cleveland Indians, slashing .297/.377/.423 in 49 games there. Ozuna had a down year by his standards, but his excellent performance in the NLDS is part of the reason the St. Louis Cardinals are still playing October baseball.

All three of those players have another thing in common besides their pending free agency, and that’s their right-handedness. The White Sox lineup of the present and future is almost exclusively right-handed, meaning Hahn might take the opportunity this winter to balance that out a bit by adding a left-handed bat. He talked about it at his end-of-season press conference, expressing a desire to do so while also saying getting good players regardless of where they stand at home plate is a bigger priority.

“Ideally, you'd like to balance that out and that would require adding some left-handed power,” Hahn said. “We don't want to get too hung up strictly on handedness in the end and sign an inferior, say, left-handed hitter when a better right-handed hitter is available and fits. But it's a consideration, and in an ideal world we would balance it out.”

If Hahn sees the hole in right field as his best opportunity to add that left-handed hitting, the best free-agent options available who fit such a description are Kole Calhoun, who hit 33 home runs for the Los Angeles Angels this season, and Corey Dickerson, who slugged .565 splitting time between the two Pennsylvania teams. Neither player really revs the engines like Castellanos, Puig or Ozuna would, but that shouldn’t override their potential usefulness. Either would probably look like a pretty solid addition if Hahn were to fill the hole at designated hitter with a star like J.D. Martinez.

And then there’s the trade market, which could also bear fruit if Hahn’s able to cobble together an attractive package. That list of candidates is a mile long, and we went through a number of possibilities on the latest White Sox Talk Podcast.

The bottom line is that this offseason will almost surely feature the White Sox acquiring a brand-new everyday right fielder.

What to expect for 2020 and beyond

It’s hard to figure out what to expect next season before we know who the White Sox right fielder will be. You’d have to expect significant offensive improvement at the position as a whole simply because there’s nowhere to go but up.

If Hahn makes a splash in right by adding someone on the Castellanos/Puig/Ozuna level, even if it’s not one of those three guys, that would figure to be a longer-term solution. But a shorter-term fix is possible, too, with an eye kept on the minors to see who among that list of prospects could have an entirely plausible bounce-back campaign that thrusts their name back into those long-term projections.

In other words, the future in right field remains the mystery it’s been all along.

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