System Overview: Despite being perennial contenders for the American League Central Division, Chicago’s farm system is among the worst — if not the worst — in all of baseball. It not only lacks front-end talent, but the overall prospect depth is exceptionally weak. And the majority of system’s better prospects — Trayce Thompson, Kennyn Walker, Andre Rienzo and Carlos Sanchez — all have glaring red flags.
#1.Courtney Hawkins, Age: 19, Position: OF
Hawkins, the 13thoverall pick in last year’s draft, is the only certifiable five-star prospect in the Sox’s barren system. And Chicago, who’s quickly pushed upper-tier prospects through the system in years past, gave the then-18-year-old brief stints at three levels (rookie, A-ball and High-A).
Hawkins hit a combined .284/.324/.480, showing above-average power with solid speed and defensive play.
The lone red flag thus far is a troublesome BB-rate, walking in just 4.4% of his plate appearances. He did show a modest improvement upon his promotion to A-ball (5.6%), though that came in just 72 plate appearances.
Projection: Other than middle-infield depth, the Sox’s farm clubs are barren, making Hawkins a prime candidate to be pushed too fast through the system. He has the potential to be a five-tool star, but the low walks rates could cap his potential.
Ceiling: 4.0-win player, conservative
#2. Trayce Thompson, Age: 22, Position:1B
A big hulking first baseman with the system’s best in-game power, Thompson, who’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, has been surprisingly nimble on his feet, nabbing 21 bases in 24 total attempts.
He spent the majority of his season in High-A, with the Winston-Salem Dash, hitting .254/.325/.486 with 22 homeruns, and his total offensive production, according to Weighted Runs Created Plus, was 19% better than the league average.
Projection: The tools are obviously present for Thompson: above-average power, decent speed and good plate discipline (9.3% BB-rate in his career). But the K-rate, 29.1%, are a big red flag. If he can keep those in check as he continues to move up, he has a chance to be an above-average big league regular.
Ceiling: 3.0- to 3.5-win player
#3. Keenyn Walker, Age: 21, Position: CF
Walker, the organization’s first round pick in 2011, has the potential to become a quasi-five-tool player, showcasing plus-speed, a tremendous eye at the plate, above-average defense with a solid arm, and maybe double-digit homerun power.
Like the majority of the system’s better prospects, Walker spent time at more than one level, playing 74 games in A-ball and 37 in High-A, hitting a combined .267/.378/.379.
Projection: After showing very little power during his debut in 2011, Walker’s power took a tremendous step forward, nearly doubling his ISO, to .112. He also showed one of the better eyes at the plate last season (15.2%), but like Thompson, his K-rate, 29.3%, is quite troublesome.
Ceiling: 3.0-win player
#4. Marcus Semien, Age: 22, Position: SS
Semien was a touch young for the Carolina League, but showed a solid overall offensive approach at the plate, combining promising power (.199 ISO) with a strong eye (11.3% BB-rate) and decent speed (11 swipes in 16 tries). In total, his offensive production was 31% better than the league average, fourth highest mark in the league.
Projection: Semien shows the potential to be the type of player Gordon Beckham was supposed to be, an above-average bat with the peak of a solid two-type hitter. Defensively, he’s raw and is probably better suited at the keystone.
Ceiling: 2.5- to 3.0-win player
#5. Erik Johnson, Age: 23, Position: RHP
Another high round pick out of UC Berkley, Johnson made 17 starts, throwing only 92.1 innings, averaging 8.5 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9. He wasn’t dominant; instead, par for the course for a polished collegiate pitcher in the lower rungs of the minors.
Projection: Johnson battled control issues throughout his three-year college career, walking 111 batters in 249 career innings, including 59 during his final year. During his eight-game stint in High-A, he showed what could be a major improvement (1.82 BB/9) or just the result of a smallish sample size, especially given his numbers in a similar sample size in A-ball (3.98 BB/9). If can keep it around 3.4 walks per nine innings or so, Johnson could be a 3.0-win pitcher.
Ceiling: 2.5- to 3.0-win player
#6. Andre Rienzo, Age: 24, Position: RHP
Rienzo’s kind of a ‘tweener, possessing enough talent to become a good big league starter, but he hasn’t learned how to harness it quite yet, either. He’s averaged nearly 10 punch outs per nine innings throughout his career, but his control has been spotty at best.
He’s tall and lean, and at times has shown average command, but in larger sample sizes (2011 and 2012) it’s been below average, though it did show modest improvement.
Projection: Rienzo’s approaching that point in his career where if he doesn’t start making consistent strides forward the Sox may be forced to push into a bullpen role where he would likely become a dominant backend option, potentially one of the pen’s best arms.
Ceiling: 3.0-win starter; 1.0-reliever
#7. Carlos Sanchez, Age: 21, Position: 2B/SS
Sanchez breezed through two levels of competition (High-A and Double-A) before finishing with an 11-game stint in the International League. He hit a combined .323/.378/.403 with 26 stolen bases, despite being young for each level.
The majority of Sanchez’s offensive value is derived from his ability to put the ball on the ground — his groundball rate since 2011 is nearly 49% — and use his speed to beat out hits. He did show an average-ish eye at the plate, but the complete lack of power really hinders any type of long term value he may have.
Projection: Sanchez’s value is not only tied directly to his speed, but it will also be susceptible to fluky BABIP seasons as well. And the question remains to be seen if he can maintain decent enough walk rates despite carrying such little pop.
Ceiling: 2.0-win player
#8. Chris Beck, Age: 22, Position: RHP
The organization’s most recent second rounder out of Georgia Southern University, Beck appeared in 15 games, six of which were starts. In all, he tossed 40.1 innings, while averaging 8.0 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9. During his career at GSU, Beck’s control continued to improve, going from 5.34 BB/9 as a freshman to 3.41 BB/9 to 2.52 BB/9 during his final year.
Projection: Beck won’t develop into a frontline starter, but he could slide nicely into the middle of a rotation within a couple years. He pitched far more effectively than his ERA (4.69) would suggest during his professional debut. He’s likely headed for A-ball in 2013, where he’ll help paint a more complete picture on his future.
Ceiling: 2.0-win player, conservative
#9. Nestor Molina, Age: 24, Position: RHP
Acquired last winter from the Blue Jays in exchange for Sergio Santos, Molina’s development stalled in Double-A as his strikeout rate, which was 9.55 K/9 in High-A in 2011, declined precipitously, to 6.16 K/9 in 122.2 innings. He suffered from some bad luck (.361 BABIP) and still showed his trademark control (1.91 BB/9), but unless he rediscovers his strikeout numbers, he’ll have hard time being anything more than a backend starter.
Projection: Molina, a former third baseman and outfielder, didn’t convert to pitching until 2008 and then only became a fulltime starter in 2011.His K-rates have historically yo-yoed, peaking at 9.55 K/9, but his total this year was the lowest of his career. He’s got a solid build for a starter (6-foot1 and 180 pounds) and a relatively fresh arm, but he’ll need to compensate by adding more punch outs or generating more groundballs (43% this year).
Ceiling: 1.5- to 2.0 win starter; 0.5-win reliever
#10. Keon Barnum, Age: 20, Position: 1B
The second first rounder for the Sox in 2012, Barnum appeared in just 13 games, hitting .279/.347/.512 in 49 plate appearances. The data is extremely limited, so it’s unfair to draw any significant conclusions at this point. On the down side, he already turns 20 in January so he’ll have to adjust quickly so as to not fall too far behind the developmental curve.
Ceiling: Too soon to tell
#11. Scott Snodgress, Age: 23, Position: LHP
A big, tall left-hander out of Stanford University, Snodgress, like Johnson, didn’t dominate during in his first full season, posting rather vanilla overall numbers for a collegiate pitcher. And like Johnson again, Snodgress’ numbers improved noticeably following his promotion to High-A. His strikeout rate increased nearly two punch outs per nine innings while his walk declined by more than one full free pass.
His ERA in High-A, 1.50, is quite misleading. He benefitted from a tremendous amount of luck thanks in large part to an unsustainable BABIP (.233), a high strand rate (81.6%) and a low homerun rate (0.43 HR/9), especially considering his low groundball tendencies (36.4%)
Projection: Snodgress was a fulltime reliever while at Stanford, making only nine starts in his three-year career. And while his control has improved mightily since those days — he walked 57 batters in 68 innings over the final two years of his collegiate career — it remains to be seen whether it can ultimately take another step forward. If not, he’s likely headed back to the bullpen.
Ceiling: 1.5- to 2.0 win starter; 0.5-win reliever
#12. Jared Mitchell, Age: 24, Position: CF
Very toolsy, but despite coming from a highly competitive collegiate program — LSU — Mitchell remains exceptionally raw, thanks in large part to losing the entire 2010 to injury.
Mitchell hit .240/.368/.440 with above-average power (10 homeruns and .201 ISO), speed (20 stolen bases in 25 attempts) and eye at the plate (15.2% BB-rate) in 94 Double-A games. The problem, however, is a strikeout rate (30.9%) that continually plagued him throughout the entirety of his big league career. He still managed to finish among the Southern League’s top 10 offensive producers though.
He was eventually promoted to Triple-A three-quarters of the way through the season, where his numbers dipped noticeably (.231/.329/.364).
Projection: Mitchell certainly has the tools to develop into a Mike Cameron-type player: above-average power, speed and walk rate, to go along with a strong arm in center field. But he’s already approaching his mid-20s without showing serious developmental progress, both with his strikeout rates and overall defense. Throw in his struggles against lefties (.220/.316/.368) and it’s safe to assume he’s headed down platoon path.
Ceiling: 1.0- to 1.5-win player
#13. Joey Demichele, Age: 22, Position: 2B
Demichele put together a decent debut, hitting .261/.319/.436 in 256 plate appearances in A-ball. A 2012 third rounder out of Arizona State University, he showed doubles power, an average-ish eye at the plate and decent contact numbers.
Projection: The initial returns are good, not great. But at an age-appropriate level, Demichele managed to barely top the league average offensive production. He could develop into a quasi-starter as some point, maybe. But he’s probably better suited as a role player.
#14. Franco Pizzoli, Age: 19, Position: C
One of the very few interesting rookie-level prospects in Chicago’s farm system, Pizzoli hit .282/.355/.340 in the Dominican Summer League, showing good contact skills, a decent eye, but very little power (.058 ISO). Defensively, he managed to throw out a staggering 57% of would-be base stealers.
Projection: At 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, Pizzoli’s fairly small and doesn’t project to add much power. Couple that with the fact that his groundball rate was nearly 55% and it looks like he’s headed down the road to being a defensive minded backup.
Ceiling: 0.5- to 1.0-win player
#15. Kevin Vance, Age: 22, Position: RHP
A former 19th round pick out of the University of Connecticut, Vance showed some intriguing potential in High-A as a fulltime reliever, posting a 6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Projection: Chicago toyed with the idea of making his a starter, allowing him nine A-ball starts. But given his track record — he didn’t make one start while in college — and his dominant showing, it seems prudent to push him through the system as a reliever.
Ceiling: 0.5-win player
#16. Simon Castro, Age: 25, Position: RHP
Twice among Baseball America’s top 100 prospects, Castro’s stock has tumbled quite a bit. He’s never really been a strikeout artist per say, but rather relies on an above-average feel for the strike zone. And despite repeating Double-A, he failed to show any significant progress either, though he did suffer from quite a bit of luck (58.7% strand rate).
Projection: Castro’s peak is now something between a fifth starter or serviceable middle reliever. And the fact that he’s yet to top 140.1 innings in a single season yet, highly suggests that the latter is quickly approaching.
Ceiling: 0.5-win player
Photo of Courtney Hawkins Courtesy ofCSNChicago.com