As the Grading on the Curve staff moves through the minor leagues, we kick off the Double-A previews with the Southern League. The Northern Division is home to the league’s defending champions, as well as some talented players looking to make a move in 2014.
Parent Club: Chicago White Sox
Compared to others, the White Sox have a pretty thin minor league system. That said, the Birmingham Barons were champions last season, and look to defend their 2013 Southern League title with a talented and athletic group on board for 2014. In fact, the Birmingham roster is seemingly the most talented among White Sox affiliates at the start of the full-season schedule.
Three of the top prospects in the system will pitch for the Barons in 2013. Right-hander Chris Beck got the nod to start in the exhibition opener against the big league club, and looks to improve on a strong 2013 season. The 2012 second round pick made five starts for Birmingham last year (2-2, 2.89). Fellow right-hander Chris Bassitt will also factor into the rotation, while lefty Scott Snodgress returns for his second season in Double-A. The trio comprises the top three pitching prospects not named Erik Johnson according to our 2014 Top 15 Prospects List. Right-handed prospect Nestor Molina, a member of the 40-man roster, will also open in Birmingham.
The Barons will start 2014 with a lot of speed and athleticism on the roster. Many of the players featured in our Thick as Thieves feature on White Sox base stealers will either start the season in Birmingham or may find their way over the course of the summer.
Infielder Micah Johnson is one of the most exciting players in the White Sox system, and provided a playoff spark for the Barons at the end of last season. The speedster is likely to play second base and hit leadoff, but could move up to Triple-A Charlotte, or possibly even the south side of Chicago before the season is over.
In the outfield, prospects Keenyn Walker and Trayce Thompson will return to Birmingham after playing all of 2013 for the Barons. Both players have power and speed, though Thompson has displayed more of an ability to go deep thus far in his career. Walker and Thompson have each struggled to hit for average, mainly due to high strikeout rates, but have potential and could move up to Charlotte with strong starts. If either is promoted, look for Courtney Hawkins or Jacob May to take their place.
Kevan Smith is expected to see most of the playing time behind the plate in 2013. A big-bodied hit-first catcher, Smith has 31 home runs in three professional seasons to date. He ended last season strong posting a .313/.399/.470 line in the second half of 2013 for High Class-A Winston-Salem.