Harvesting Opinion: Chicago White Sox--Minor League Pitching Depth

Harvesting Opinion is a regular feature on Seedlings to Stars. Each week, a handful of FanSided’s MLB sites send S2S a question relating to their team’s minor league system, and we answer them in this space–each question gets one article devoted to answering it. In this way, we make sure we regularly get to discuss hot-button issues relating to the systems of every team, as we cover the teams in a regular, recurring cycle.

Please note that any statistics used may be a day or two out of date, as we prepare our answers over the course of a week.

In this edition, we tackle a question sent to us from our Chicago White Sox blog Southside Showdown:

The White Sox starting rotation, with or without Mark Buehrle, appears secure for the 2012 season, but pitching depth in the minors seems iffy. Beyond Zach Stewart, who was acquired from Toronto in July, do the White Sox have ample reinforcements in case of injury?

Nathaniel says:

The Chicago White Sox have a very interesting minor league system. There’s not a single guy there that I’d consider a top 100 prospect, yet I feel like I’ve dedicated a ton of articles along the lines of “Here’s an underrated White Sox prospect!” since we launched this site in June.

The biggest knock on Chicago’s stable of arms is that they’re old for their levels and don’t have the most impressive “stuff” out there, but nonetheless, there are a number of guys who get the job done. The first who comes to mind is Dylan Axelrod, who, like Stewart, is currently in the White Sox starting five. Axelrod relies on hitting his spots with an 88-92 mph fastball and plus slider; it’s not the flashiest approach, but his Triple-A numbers and profile are somewhat similar to Dillon Gee of the Mets, who had a similarly huge year in the International League last season and has turned himself into a solid MLB starter in 2011.

Deunte Heath is another starter in Triple-A who showed promise, as he struck out 88 batters in 76 1/3 IP as a starter. Released by the Braves last April after an arrest in a prostitution sting (yeah, there’s some baggage here), he’s pitched much better since changing organizations, but Heath, like Axelrod, is 26, and he doesn’t come with Axelrod’s plus command. Still, he’s a big guy with heat and could at least be useful in a bullpen role.

In fact, bullpen depth is a huge strength of the system. Addison Reed is phenomenal in the big leagues already, Dan Remenowsky’s nearly big-league ready, and Ryan Kussmaul (an independent-league find like Axelrod), had a huge year in High-A and should turn into a solid MLB reliever himself.

Back to starting pitching: One guy who I’ve followed for a couple of years, like Axelrod, is Terry Doyle. Doyle has always been very old for his levels, as he’s about to turn 26 and has yet to see Triple-A, but like Axelrod, he’s got excellent command and a plus breaking pitch. The big righty could serve as a back-of-the-rotation innings-eater for Ozzie Guillen’s ballclub by this time next year. Hector Santiago, Doyle’s teammate in Double-A much of the season, has looked good in relief with the White Sox in September and could get a look as a starter at some point as well.

One of the Sox’s more dynamic starting prospects is Andre Rienzo, a Brazilian (don’t see those often) power righty in High-A who struck out over a batter per inning this season. Like Heath and Santiago, he’s got some work to do on lowering his walk total if he’s going to stay in the rotation, but the 23-year-old has plenty of time to work on that. Chicago also has 2010 second-rounder Jake Petricka in High-A; the 23-year-old has been very effective at suppressing longballs in the minors and could evolve into a solid fourth starter or setup man.

Overall, I suppose none of these guys come without warts, at least as starting pitchers, and I understand the tendency to bite one’s nails over that. Still, as an A’s fan, I’d much rather have this bunch of upper-minors arms than Oakland’s; what they lack in flash, they make up in productivity. In the end, productivity, not placement on top prospect lists, is what wins ballgames, and I believe there’s going to be enough coming out of this system to keep the big league pitching staff afloat, especially under Don Cooper’s tutelage.


Wally says:

Okay … well let me take a moment to rummage around and try find some scraps that Nathaniel missed here. The short answer to the question at hand – if the White Sox have ample reinforcements in case of injury in 2012 – is no, they really don’t. At least not in the minor leagues.

As you are probably already aware, I’m a Royals and Twins fan, so I’m a bit of savant when it comes to mediocre – and yes poor – starting pitching. I make that point up front, because all of the guys Nathaniel referenced as options don’t strike me of offering much to a major league rotation, at least not one that presumably has designs on competing in 2012. Can they provide you a decent or quality spot start here and there? Sure they can, but pretty much any starter in the upper minors is capable of coming up and throwing one good game.

But presumably the question revolves around guys being pressed into longer term service at the major league level, and that perspective paints a different picture.

Heath especially strikes me as a guy who would get torn apart in the majors. In 5 seasons in the minors, he has a 4.25 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, 4.5 BB/9 and 8.1 SO/9. Those numbers do not figure to translate well to the majors, and his numbers in AAA this season were worse than his career marks with the exception of his strikeout rate.

Statistically, Terry Doyle is basically a lesser version of Dylan Axelrod. They have similar walk rates, but Doyle gives up more hits and strikes out fewer guys. He’s also just 3 months younger, and made 15 starts this season in Double-A. At the same time, Axelrod made 15 starts in Triple-A this season and got better as he moved up from Birmingham (AA) to Charlotte (AAA). Axelrod has had success in 8.0 major league innings this month, but my suspicion is that once hitters get more of a feel for how and what he throws, those numbers are going to fall off quite a bit.

Andre Rienzo is admittedly an intriguing arm, and I like him as a prospect, but there are a few red flags for me. The first is that his walk rate jumped from 2.9 with Kannapolis (A) in 2010 to 5.1 with Winston-Salem (A+). The second is his frame. Listed at 6’3″ and 160 lbs – by mutiple sources* – and featuring a long arm action, he may not have the durability to stay in the rotation.

While he may have a future in the majors, unless he fills out my guess it that it comes by way of the bullpen. He might be able to add a little bulk, but I don’t see his body type changing too dramatically since we’re talking about a guy who is 23 as opposed to 18 or even 20.

*There is some video of him pitching in winter ball last offseason on You Tube that would suggest he may have added some weight but he still looks rather slight to me.

That’s not to say the White Sox don’t have an intriguing rotation option; he just happens to be pitching out of the major league bullpen as opposed to the minor leagues. For me the answer lies in the electric left arm of Chris Sale. There is no question in my mind he should be in a major league rotation, and given Chicago’s apparent need in the rotation and the strength of their bullpen, he is the answer and the future ace of the team.


For more on the White Sox, check out Southside Showdown

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Tags: Addison Reed Andre Rienzo Chicago White Sox Dan Remenowsky Deunte Heath Dylan Axelrod Hector Santiago Jake Petricka Ryan Kussmaul Terry Doyle Zach Stewart

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