The White Sox minor league system is not in particularly impressive shape overall, to put it lightly, but the organization does have a few notable performers at the AA and AAA levels that could put the team in an uncomfortable position. On one hand, September call-ups are limited to just two additional players this year, so several arguably deserving players will not get MLB reps this season. At the same time, several other players are either running out of minor league options, will need protection on the 40-man roster, are simply too good for AAA, or some combination of the three. Below, I will highlight a few players that have caught my attention and attempt to outline where I see them fitting in the organization’s plans.
Jake Burger is hitting .309/.359/.574 with 11 home runs, 39 runs batted in, a .905 OPS, and a 142 wRC+ in 48 games for AAA Charlotte. In a brief 15 game stint in MLB, he hit .263/.333/.474 with 1 home run, 3 runs batted in, an .807 OPS, and a 122 wRC+.
Clearly, Burger falls into the “too good for AAA” category. He still has minor league options, so he will not need to begin the 2022 season in MLB. However, Burger’s prospects to make a further MLB impact this year are unclear, since one of the two 2021 September promotions will almost certainly be a pitcher, and the other could be Billy Hamilton’s return from his injury, which some have speculated could magically heal once rosters expand on September 1st. Burger could make an appearance should a current starting infielder need a stay on the injured list, but the odds of him making the MLB or postseason roster are slim for 2021.
Despite his terrific journey and powerful potential at the plate, I have assumed that the White Sox will trade Burger since he is likely limited to third base or designated hitter, two areas for which the White Sox have long-term pieces. I was a little surprised that he was not traded for an impact right fielder or reliever at the trade deadline this year. Unfortunately, unless the White Sox want to keep him around as injury insurance or as a backup third baseman with occasional designated hitter appearances, I think it would make sense to gauge trade interest in Burger in the offseason.
Speaking of power hitters, the immensely strong Micker Adolfo appears to be acclimating well to AAA Charlotte. After putting up a .249/.318/.525 line for AA Birmingham, Adolfo is hitting .290/.353/.581 in his first 18 games in AAA. While he still carries high strikeout rates, it is safe to say that Adolfo looks more like the player the White Sox signed way back in 2013. An unfortunate byproduct of that date is that Adolfo will be out of minor league options next season. The White Sox can either add him to the active (MLB) roster following the season, or they can designate him for assignment.
Adolfo, who is still only 24, would also be tough to let go. It is not too difficult to envision him being a Franmil Reyes-lite type of slugger in MLB, and he was long thought to be a key member of the post-rebuild White Sox starting lineups. However, the only way he would make sense on the 2022 MLB roster would be as an everyday right fielder or designated hitter, and with right field options such as Adam Engel, Andrew Vaughn, and Gavin Sheets, as well as the latter two and Eloy Jimenez at designated hitter, Adolfo’s playing time opportunities would be scarce.
Since Chicago will be forced to either move or commit to Adolfo this winter, perhaps a National League team (assuming the universal designated hitter is approved) would acquire him and let him compete for RF/DH at-bats. Either way, Adolfo’s time in the organization is likely running out, and part of me would like to see him get regular right field starts in MLB in September — both as an audition, and because it is obvious that he will not get another everyday shot with the team, unlike Burger and Sheets, who still have minor league options.
As impressive as Burger and Adolfo have been in AAA, Gavin Sheets might be the most remarkable. He has tapped into his raw power to the tune of a .298/.359/.500 line, but more importantly, he held his own across 99 MLB plate appearances, hitting .225/.293/.483 for a 110 wRC+. Sheets also was the victim of some tough luck lineouts, which is reflected in his .347 xwOBA relative to a .328 wOBA.
Like Burger, Sheets has minor league options, but he too has outgrown AAA. If you ask me, Sheets should be getting the majority of right field opportunities for the White Sox right now, especially with Engel on the injured list. But, for 2022, he figures to compete for regular at-bats as a DH/RF, especially if Vaughn, Engel, and a high payroll preclude the White Sox from targeting a big name right fielder in free agency. It certainly does not hurt that Sheets is left-handed, and that MLB pitchers struggled to find a weakness in his swing.
Carlos Perez is another player who will require protection on the 40-man roster in 2022, although he will be eligible to start the season in the minor leagues. The White Sox could leave him off the 40-man roster and expose him to the Rule 5 Draft, but this would be surprising given that Perez is a fairly polished, defense-first catcher who appears ready for AAA. Surely, a team would be interested in selecting him in the draft and having him spend the 2022 season as their backup catcher.
Backup catcher is exactly where I envision Perez for the White Sox in the near future. He is lauded for the way he calls games, prepares defensively, and he is a patient hitter with solid strikeout-to-walk ratios and newfound pop (his total of 9 home runs in 2021 is already 3 times as high as his previous career high). Perez is hitting .261/.316/.404 for AA Birmingham this season, which is perfectly fine for a homegrown, defense-first projected backup catcher. I believe the organization will protect him on the 40-man roster, send him to AAA, and let him grow into the MLB backup catcher role late in 2022 or early in 2023.
Yoelkis Cespedes is not in danger of needing 40-man roster protection, nor is he running out of minor league options. He is just performing much better than I thought he would, which makes him a more viable long-term outfield option for the White Sox than I initially presumed.
Cespedes was recently promoted to AA, but was showing off his speed and power combination at A+ Winston Salem to the tune of 10 stolen bases, 7 home runs (45 games), and a .278/.355/.494 line for an .850 OPS and a 128 wRC+. Many White Sox fans have assumed that Cespedes is the de facto long-term right fielder, and while there are still plenty of performance obstacles and other options in his way, he does figure to spend a good portion of 2022 in AAA, which puts him very close to MLB-ready. The organization should employ a “wait and see” approach with Cespedes, but if he continues to produce, he will be an easy candidate to receive MLB playing time as soon as late 2022.
Between (two) September call-ups and the upcoming 40-man roster decisions, the White Sox will be forced to make some difficult choices. These are good problems to have, as having too many talented position players is not really a negative, but nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what the White Sox do with Burger, Adolfo, and Sheets in the short-term. In theory, Perez and Cespedes are still one cycle behind them in terms of making an MLB impact. Other AA names I neglected to mention that are also worth watching as the 2021 regular season nears its conclusion are utilityman Romy Gonzalez infielder Yolbert Sanchez.
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