Friday, May 19, 2017

Missed Opportunities Haunt Knights

The first stop on my trip to see all of the White Sox full season minor league affiliates was in Norfolk on Thursday evening for the lone road game of the trip for a Sox affiliate.  This was an AAA game between the Charlotte Knights (White Sox) and Norfolk Tides (Orioles) in front of a pretty small crowd at Harbor Park in Norfolk.  The Tides veteran lineup capitalized on opportunities far better than the young Knights on their way to a 4-3 victory.

The game got off to an excellent start for Charlotte.  Two batters into the game, they held a 2-0 lead as Adam Engel crushed a two run homer to left off Norfolk starter Jayson Aquino.  But after that, the Knights let Aquino and Tides relievers off the hook far too often.  The Knights stranded at least one runner in every inning of the game for a total of 13 men left on base.  They recorded a modest seven hits, but reached base via walks on eight occasions plus one hit batter.  Meanwhile, the Tides also missed their share of opportunities while scoring four runs on eights hits.  But it was a couple clutch hits by guys with significant big league experience that proved the difference.

Trailing 3-1 in the bottom of the fifth, veteran slugger Pedro Alvarez, who now moonlights as an outfielder for the Tides, crushed a two out, two run double off Knights starter Lucas Giolito to tie the game.  Here is a video of that hit:

With the game tied at three in the bottom of the seventh, another former big leaguer produced the game winning hit for the Tides.  Johnny Giavotella capped off an impressive ten pitch at bat against fireballer Zack Burdi by singling through the hole on the left side to score Michael Bourn, giving the Tides a 4-3 lead which they would hold.  Former White Sox (and a whole bunch of other teams) pitcher Edwin Jackson recorded the final four outs to nail down the victory for the Tides.

Perhaps the most entertaining moment of the game came in the fourth when Tides manager Ron Johnson was ejected for arguing balls and strikes.  After getting his money's worth with the home plate umpire, he tossed his cap into the seats as he departed the field.  This was the second straight minor league game I've attended in which there has been an ejection.  A Charlotte player was tossed in a game I saw last summer in Indianapolis.  We'll see if that streak continues tonight.

Before I get to my thoughts on a few of the key prospects who participated in this game, I should mention one player who I did not get to see.  Yoan Mocada, the key piece of the Chris Sale trade with Boston and a consensus top prospect in all of baseball, was placed on Charlotte's 7 day disabled list earlier in the day.  That got my trip off to a disappointing start.  He has been playing with a nagging thumb injury, so they decided to give him a break.  Since the move was retroactive to Monday, it is possible I could see him play in Charlotte next Tuesday, but most likely I will have to wait until later this summer in Chicago to see him in person for the first time.

Fortunately, the Sox do have plenty of other prospects worth watching throughout their organization.  Here is my take on a few of the guys I saw on Thursday evening:

Lucas Giolito

The headliner of the Adam Eaton trade with Washington, Giolito has really struggled in his first month and a half in Charlotte.  In this game, he was mediocre at best, surrendering six hits, three walks and three earned runs in five innings.  That actually lowered his season ERA to 6.41.  The big problem on this night was contact management.  Of the six hits he allowed, five were rockets that went for extra bases.  Pedro Alvarez and Chance Sisco each recorded a pair of extra base hits against him (HR/2B for Alvarez, 2 2B for Sisco).  Most of the hits came off fastballs, which were registering in the low 90s on the stadium gun (I'm not going to read much into the velocity because I don't trust minor league guns).  Giolito didn't miss many bats.  He struck out four, but two of them came in the middle of the manager/umpire dust-up in the fourth.  He did finish his outing with a nice whiff of Robert Andino on a breaking ball, I believe.  Clearly, Giolito still has some work to do to regain his status as one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball.  I wouldn't expect to see him in Chicago anytime soon.

Zack Burdi

At this time last year, Burdi was finishing up the regular season as the closer for Louisville.  A supplemental first round pick last June, he is clearly on the fast track to the majors already having reached AAA.  He has saved five games for the Knights this season, but interestingly, they brought him into this game in the seventh inning of a tied game and had him pitch two innings.  He wound up getting tagged with the loss after giving up the hit to Giavotella I mentioned above.  Burdi throws heat.  He was registering in the 97-98 range in both of his innings and has routinely hit triple digits in other outings this year.  No balls were crushed against him in this game, but he wasn't able to throw it by many guys either.  Here is his lone strikeout facing Robert Andino to end the bottom of the seventh:

Despite a so-so outing on Thursday, I expect Burdi to reach the big leagues in short order.  I doubt the Sox will throw him into the fire as the main guy at the back of the bullpen anytime soon, but he clearly has the stuff to be their closer of the future.

Jacob May

The White Sox Opening Day centerfielder really struggled in his first month in the big leagues.  Back in AAA now, May has been very productive hitting to a tune of .339.  He was probably the Knights best offensive player in this game, despite only recording one hit.  That hit was a RBI single to left.  But he reached base safely in all five plate appearances, walking four times.  This was probably an anomaly as he's never had an especially high walk rate.  However, just seeing him get on base was refreshing considering how poor his stint with the Sox went.  He played left field in this game.  If he continues to hit, I'm sure the Sox will find room to give him another shot in their outfield.

Adam Engel

Engel lost the spring training battle to May for that CF spot in Chicago.  He then proceeded to have a brutal start to this season in Charlotte.  However, of late, he's been hitting the ball with authority.  His first inning home run was his sixth of the season, most coming in the past few weeks.  He needs just one more dinger to match his professional single season high water mark.  So the power is nice to see, but his biggest obstacle is his strikeout propensity.  He is currently whiffing in over 25% of his plate appearances, which is a problem for a guy known mostly for speed and defense.  In addition to the homer last night, he also struck out twice leaving runners in scoring position.  Having said that, the Sox obviously have a black hole in CF, so if Engel continues to show power upside and Charlie Tilson never gets healthy, he could get his shot sooner than later.

Nicky Delmonico

I have a feeling Delmonico will make his big league debut before this month ends.  After optioning Cody Asche earlier this week, the Sox are currently fielding a roster with an extra pitcher in the bullpen.  Once they decide to add another bat to the bench, I believe Delmonico is the most obvious choice.  This particular game wasn't a sign of that though.  He went 0 for 5, including three groundouts to second.  And his defense is a problem.  He made a couple nice stops in this game, but a bad throw on an attempted double play proved costly in the fifth inning.  He has committed an alarming 10 errors this season.  But bad defense seems to be part of the job description for third basemen who have come up through the White Sox organization in recent years.  He has also played a few games in the outfield this week, which leads me to believe the Sox see him as a utility left-handed hitter off the bench.

Chance Sisco (Norfolk)

I will end with one player from the opposing team.  The Orioles system lacks top end talent, making Sisco the consensus choice as the top prospect in their system.  The young catcher has had a modest season with Norfolk to date, but he was pretty impressive in this game.  Twice, he crushed Giolito fastballs for doubles into the gap, once to right-center and another to left-center.  Here is the latter of those two hits:

There have been some questions about his defense, particularly his throwing arm.  The Knights didn't do much running in this game though, so I can't really comment on that.  His bat looks very promising though.

Up Next

Today, Friday, I will be heading to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to see the Sox high A affiliate, Winston-Salem Dash host a talent-rich Carolina Mudcats (Brewers) squad.  The trip is off to an ominous start for the Sox organization as a whole.  On top of Moncada being placed on the DL, the organization went a combined 0-5 yesterday, including a walk-off loss for the White Sox in Seattle.  Hopefully today will be a better day.

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