In a farm system that is widely regarded as being ranked in the bottom third of the MLB, there is a larger need for the scouting and development teams to find under-the-radar hidden gems. The White Sox may have found just that in Cristian Mena, whose case to be viewed as a top pitching prospect continues to grow stronger and stronger with every start he makes.
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2019 for $250,000, Mena had to wait until the 2021 season to make his professional debut. He skipped the Dominican Summer League and came stateside to instead pitch in the Arizona Complex League, where he put up an unsightly 7.82 ERA. A deeper dive into his performance, however, showed that luck was against him as highlighted by his 4.46 xFIP. His 11.5 K/9 rate provided further evidence that the White Sox had something there.
Even with signs of better things to come, his promotion to Low-A Kannapolis appeared to be an aggressive one. It ended up being the right call, however, as this was the beginning of his 2022 break-out season where he pitched very well across three minor league levels. Through 94.1 innings between Low-A and High-A, Mena had a 3.53 ERA with 113 strikeouts and continued to hold his own during a brief stint in Double-A for the Project Birmingham experiment.
Mena seemed to prove enough to the White Sox during his few starts in Birmingham, as they continued their aggressive approach by starting him at the same level to begin the 2023 season at just 20 years old. Now, he has taken his abilities on the mound to a new level, and while many outlets were ranking fellow White Sox pitching prospects like Noah Schultz, Norge Vera, and Sean Burke ahead of him in preseason rankings – although we, at Sox On 35th, had him as the top-rated pitcher and fourth overall in our Preseason Top 30 – he is solidifying himself not only as arguably the best pitching prospect in the organization, but one of the top prospects altogether.
Through 25 innings so far in the 2023 season, Cristian Mena has struck out 42 batters and only walked six, and his 3.98 ERA, while solid, appears to be inflated by some bad luck, as proven by his 3.12 FIP and his 2.40 xFIP. The most impressive aspect of his season is the fact that he won’t even turn 21 until the offseason, meaning he is putting up dominant numbers as one of the youngest pitchers at the Double-A level. And while control and command tend to be issues with younger pitchers, Mena has looked beyond his years by throwing 67% of his pitches for strikes. While he may not have the same upside as a pitching prospect like Schultz, his mid-90s fastball paired with his hammer curveball and his ability to pound the strike zone give him a significantly high floor with the ceiling of a number two or three pitcher in an MLB starting rotation.
So, what is a reasonable timeline that we can expect Mena to be called up to the big leagues? Based on his age and other options such as Davis Martin and Sean Burke currently sitting in Triple-A Charlotte, a debut in 2023 seems like a stretch. Not many people expected Lenyn Sosa to be called up straight from Double-A last year, however, so we can’t completely rule it out if he forces Rick Hahn and co.’s hand by continuing his dominant stretch.
More likely, Cristian Mena could receive a call-up to Triple-A at some point this year and is then discussed as a potential rotation piece for the 2024 season. Even as a 21-year-old, that should seem unlikely, but the White Sox have been aggressive with his ascent within the organization and he has so far been up to every challenge. That, paired with the uncertainty of the rotation heading into the 2024 season, and a Cristian Mena debut could be in the cards. The last thing the White Sox should be doing is rushing his development, though, so for now we can all enjoy the possibility that the White Sox have found a true diamond in the rough.
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Featured Photo: Kannapolis Cannonballers/Twitter