White Sox have elite pitching prospects developing at Triple-A Charlotte

CHARLOTTE — With his focus on repeating his mechanics, the potential future ace of the Chicago White Sox unfurled his lanky but powerful 6-foot-6 frame over and over last Wednesday night in his start for the Triple-A Charlotte Knights. In his 103 pitches against Pawtucket, right-hander Lucas Giolito showed two things — why the ChiSox are so excited about his potential (eight strikeouts) and why he’s still working on his craft in the minors (two no-doubt homers).

It was eerily similar to the previous night, when another potential future ace of the White Sox took the mound at BB&T Ballpark and pitched six strong innings for the Knights. In that one, bespectacled right-hander Carson Fulmer gave up just one run on five hits and struck out three — including rehabbing big-leaguer Jackie Bradley Jr. — on 93 pitches.

And that was really familiar, too. In the Knights’ previous game, yet another potential future ace of the White Sox toed the rubber, this time on the road in Norfolk. Reynaldo Lopez, another right-hander, threw 94 pitches, allowing two runs and striking out four — down from 10 punch outs his previous start — in six solid innings.

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The Knights have almost an embarrassment of riches on the mound this season. And let’s be clear: We’re not saying “potential future ace” with a whimsical anything-can-happen caveat. These three youngsters are the real deal.

For context, let’s look at some Top 100 prospect rankings for this season. According to MLB.com’s assessment, Giolito is the ninth-best prospect in all of baseball, Lopez is 42nd and Fulmer is 66th. By Baseball America’s ranking, Giolito is 25th and Lopez is 31st. FanGraphs has Giolito 19th, Lopez 28th and Fulmer 98th. Baseball Prospectus has Giolito 10th and Lopez 30th. ESPN’s Keith Law has Giolito 13th.

You get the picture. Impressive.

And it’s not just those three on the Charlotte roster. Yoan Moncada, who is MLB.com’s No. 1 overall prospect and BA’s No. 2 overall pick, is the starting second baseman for the Knights. And Zack Burdi, the club’s first-round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft out of Louisville, is prepping for his career as a big-league closer in the back of the bullpen.

There’s a reason the Knights were an easy choice for the No. 1 spot for Baseball America, when that respected publication was trying to determine the minor-league club with the top prospect roster. Lots of elite talent, which is rather unique for a Triple-A squad.

“A lot of the time, most of your top prospects will be in Double-A or Single-A, just seems it works out this way,” Knights pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “I’m really …”

He pauses. “It’s really going to be fun.”

Just the thought of working with pitchers of this caliber would be exciting for any pitching coach, and today, we’re only going to look the four top pitching prospects McCatty will be working with — Giolito, Lopez, Burdi and Fulmer, the right-handers who are second, third, sixth and seventh, respectively, in Baseball America’s ranking of the White Sox organization.

“When you have guys that have ability, and maybe there’s some way to get something across to them that helps them, that is, for a guy like me, exciting to do,” McCatty said. “You can always work on the mental game, but sometimes the stuff will limit what you can do, though of course that doesn’t mean he can’t be good. But these guys, with the stuff they have, to learn how to harness it and use it, that’s really pretty cool.”

All four are relatively new to the organization. Fulmer is the elder ChiSox statesmen of the group. He was the No. 8 overall pick in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft. The Sox took Burdi in the first round the next year, at No. 26 overall. The other two arrived in Chicago’s massive offseason makeover. Well, not massive in that the White Sox traded away most of their big-league team, but massive in terms of the prospects who joined the organization.

Giolito and Lopez arrived, along with pitcher Dane Dunning (a first-round pick in 2016), in a deal that sent outfielder Adam Eaton to the Nationals on Dec. 7. It was a rather stunning haul for the White Sox to get three high-level pitching prospects, though there was risk, too, because all pitching prospects are inherently risks. It was a big gamble on upside. Dunning has a 0.45 ERA in three starts this year for Single-A Kannapolis, which is about 30 miles north of Charlotte, up I-85.

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That trade was a day after the White Sox’s other big offseason deal, a jaw-dropper that sent left-handed ace Chris Sale to the Red Sox in exchange for Moncada (now first in BA’s ChiSox ranking), right-hander Michael Kopech (fifth), outfielder Luis Alexander Basabe (eighth) and right-hander Victor Diaz. Kopech, who owns a fastball that easily tops 100 mph, could be in Charlotte (and possibly Chicago) at some point this year, too; he’s at Double-A Birmingham and has 20 strikeouts in 12 innings over three starts so far this year.

The overhaul of the big-league club isn’t finished, of course.

Lefty starter Jose Quintana is still available for the right price, as are third baseman Todd Frazier, closer David Robertson, outfielder Melky Cabrera, starters James Shields, Derek Holland and Miguel Gonzalez and pretty much anyone in the bullpen. Only Quintana will bring back elite prospects the way Sale and Eaton did, but if GM Rick Hahn plays this correctly — and he did a masterful job with those first two deals — the White Sox should be set up for years to come.

But that’s a topic for another column. For now, let’s take a look at the big four on the mound for Charlotte.

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Lucas Giolito has 16 strikeouts in his 14 innings for the Knights so far this season. (Laura Wolff/Charlotte Knights)

Lucas Giolito

Giolito is only 22, but he’s already had an eventful professional career.

“A few hurdles,” he told SN with a grin a couple of days before the Triple-A season started, “obviously the hardest one being Tommy John surgery when I was 18 years old. Honestly, my rehab process, I really didn’t have any hiccups or bumps, and my arm has gotten healthier and healthier since I’ve moved away from it.”

Yep, Giolito was a fascinating case before he was even drafted by the Nationals 16th overall in 2012. He was in the conversation for the No. 1 pick at one time, but he didn’t pitch during his senior season in high school in Los Angeles because he was rehabbing a strained elbow ligament. Teams knew that Tommy John surgery was a real possibility, which is why he was still available at pick No. 16. The Nationals embraced that risk and, as expected, he had TJ surgery.

Once he returned, though, he steadily progressed through the Nationals’ organization and climbed back up prospect rankings, to the point where he made his MLB debut last fall — he had a 6.75 ERA in six appearances (four starts) for Dusty Baker’s club — and then was the centerpiece in the Eaton trade in December. McCatty, now his pitching coach in Charlotte, was the Nationals’ big-league pitching coach from 2009 to 2015 and is very familiar with Giolito from their time together in that organization.

“In essence, he reminds me a lot of Stephen Strasburg, because everybody expects them to be what everybody else thinks they should be, and not what they are,” McCatty said. “As a young man with that stuff, he’s still learning. He doesn’t even know what he is yet, he doesn’t know what he can do and what he can’t do. Those are all part of the things he has to learn, and hopefully I can help him with that. But the stuff’s all there. It’s just maturing as a man and learning what you can and can’t do, then learning about the situations in the game.”

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His start last Wednesday against Pawtucket was a great picture of where he is in his development. He showed that power arm often, sitting in the mid-90s and using that fastball to get a couple of strikeouts, swinging and looking. And that curveball made several PawSox players look downright silly, chasing balls that sharply dove into the dirt, or just standing there helpless, frozen by the breaking action on the baseball.

But he also left a couple of those fastballs over too much of the plate, and two of them were sent screaming over the wall for no-doubt home runs — one by rehabbing Jackie Bradley Jr., and one by former Astros third baseman Matt Dominguez. That two guys with extensive MLB experience hit the home runs should be noted, because mistakes in the bigs get mashed. That’s one of the things Giolito is working on now, before he begins his full-time career in the majors.

As with the other potential aces in Charlotte, specific results aren’t the most important thing at the moment. It’s more about getting prepared for when the times comes.

“Just consistency with my delivery,” Giolito told SN. “I want to make sure I repeat everything well and then make sure I can attack hitters, keep the ball down.”

Reynaldo Lopez

With this collection of hard throwers in Charlotte, I asked both McCatty and Burdi to name the fastest fastball on the staff. Burdi just laughed.

“Oh, I have no idea," he said. "Probably Lopey. Lopey’s been lighting it up this year.”

McCatty, who already knew a bit about Lopez from their time together in the Nationals organization, agreed.

“I know with Washington, he was up 100 mph, or close to it,” he said. “His last pitch in the sixth inning against Cincinnati in the minor-league game (in spring training), was 97. So I know the velocity’s there.”

Lopez might edge out Giolito in the fastball department, but his start as a professional came with much less fanfare. Lopez began his career by agreeing to a $17,000 signing bonus with the Nationals out of the Dominican Republic in 2012. Arm issues limited him to only 16 total innings in his first two years with the franchise, but from there his fastball — and his career — took off.

Another thing he doesn’t have is Giolito’s stature. He’s just 6 feet tall and listed at 185 pounds. For some, that’s an issue. That’s part of the reason ESPN’s Keith Law kept him out of his Top 100 prospect ranking: “He’s a little guy whose arm action doesn’t use his lower half, and I think he’ll lack the command or durability to start — but could be electric in a relief role.”

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Lopez, now 23, made his big-league debut with the Nationals last year and showed enough that the club put him on the postseason roster; he struck out three in two innings of relief against the Dodgers in the NLDS. During the regular season, he made six starts and five relief appearances in the majors, striking our 42 in 44 innings. His appearances, if nothing else, were fascinating to watch. In his debut, for example, he struck out nine in 4 2/3 innings, but he also gave up 10 hits and six runs.

In his third and fourth starts, he turned in back-to-back seven-inning, one-run efforts, but then failed to make it more than four innings in his next two starts and was sent to the bullpen. The consistency is a working point in Charlotte. He’s made four starts this year, with 22 strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings, with five homers allowed and a 4.87 ERA.

“Unbelievable stuff,” McCatty said. “The thing that I’ve learned more in the few weeks that he’s down is that he’s really an intense competitor. Even giving up hits and coming in, just the way he shows me how he’s feels about it, that he’s a competitor and he knows what he expects of himself. I’m not saying he knows everything he can do yet, but I think he has a better understanding of himself. And when he doesn’t do it, he gets mad.”

Carson Fulmer

Like Giolito and Lopez, Fulmer got his first taste of the majors last season. The difference? His experience was actually with the White Sox. And it was eye-opening. Fulmer, a starter in the minors and in Chicago’s future plans, made eight relief appearances for the parent club in July and August. A couple of rough, short outings torpedoed his ERA (8.49), but he did have two games in which he threw at least two scoreless innings of relief.

“It’s a different game. You can’t really prepare yourself for it,” Fulmer told SN. “It’s a different pace, but I think the more times you get thrown out there, the more comfortable you’ll be.”

Fulmer, who turned 23 in December, grins as he recalls the experience. To be fair, though, Fulmer grins a lot.

“Carson is a competitor,” McCatty said. “He’s a great kid, really a testament to his parents. He’s really a fine young man, and he has a lot of ability, also.”

Fulmer breezed through the first couple levels of the ChiSox farm system after he was the No. 8 overall pick in the 2015 draft, then spent most of 2016 in Double-A Birmingham, before the stint in the bigs and four starts in Triple-A. He’s made three starts for the Knights this season, and he’s allowed only three walks in 17 innings. That’s big for Fulmer, who isn’t going to make his living striking guys out with a fastball that approaches triple digits, like Giolito and Lopez. That’s not to say he’s a finesse pitcher, though. Far from it.

“It’s not the 98-mph fastball, but it’s still a good fastball,” McCatty said. “He’s got action on it, he’s come up from last year and developed his cutter more, and that really, really helps him. He’s throwing the ball outstanding. We’re really happy with what he’s doing.”

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From his first start with Charlotte this year until he’s finally in the big leagues for good, he’s using his time as a learning experience.

“In this game, you’re always trying to improve your craft. The more experience you have in the Triple-A atmosphere, the competition you’re going to face obviously helps,” Fulmer said. “But we’re trying to get ourselves ready for that level. I feel like a lot of us are ready, but we’re young. We need more experience, we need more innings and I think that’s why we’re here. But I think we’ll get the opportunity soon.”

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The White Sox are high on Burdi's power arm as a back-of-the-bullpen force in the majors. (Laura Wolff/Charlotte Knights)

Zack Burdi

Burdi is the only one of this group who hasn’t made the majors yet, but that’s understandable because, y’know, he was playing college ball for Louisville at this time last year. So when the former college closer got the chance to train this spring with the big-league club, he made the most of the opportunity.

“I took a lot from those guys, just picking their brain and seeing how they handle things on and off the field,” said Burdi, who turned 22 during spring training. “A lot more of the mental side, and not overdoing stuff because I’m fresh off the college season. So the way I treated my body and did things then is different from how I need to treat it now. Learning how those guys make it through 162 games, nearly 200 days, is something I took to heart. It’s definitely an experience I won’t forget.”

And when he struck out Salvador Perez, Kansas City’s four-time All-Star catcher, during a spring game, that was a memory he won’t soon forget.

“I remember watching the 2014 World Series, and me and my buddies were all talking in the dorm, saying how good Perez is, and how well he manages the game and just what a great leader he was, and to hear he was coming up to the plate against me was just a really cool experience,” Burdi said. “Definitely something that, going into spring training, you really don’t think about. But once it happens, it’s pretty surreal.”

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Being drafted by the White Sox 26th overall in 2016 was pretty cool for Burdi. He’s from Downers Grove, a Chicago suburb that’s roughly 26 miles from the White Sox’s home ballpark (now called Guaranteed Rate Field).

His older brother, Nick, was a closer at Louisville, too. Nick was a second-round pick by the Twins in the 2014 draft, and he’s at Double-A Chattanooga right now. In his 91 1/3 career inning in the minors, Nick has 129 strikeouts. So, yeah, it runs in the family.

Zack has a fastball that sits in the upper 90s and touches 100 from time to time. His first year as a pro was a whirlwind; he pitched at four levels in the White Sox organization, racking up 51 strikeouts in 38 innings, with a 3.32 ERA. In six appearances for the Knights this season, he has two saves and 11 strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings, but he’s been a bit erratic at times. He’s walked three, given up seven hits and has a 4.76 ERA.

Again, though, the White Sox aren’t too concerned with anyone’s ERA after just 5 2/3 innings.

“Zack’s got an electric fastball. Real good breaking ball,” McCatty said. “Still, him being young, he’s got to understand and learn what he does well and work on his weaknesses. He’s got a chance to have a real, real nice major-league career.”

Embracing the pressure

The players are very aware of the talent on the Charlotte roster, too.

“It’s awesome, being here and getting to grow with the guys you’re hopefully going to be surrounded with for the next couple of years in Fulms, Gio, Moncada, Lopey, all those guys are so talented,” Burdi said. “Not only are you getting to grow with them, but you’re getting to watch some really good baseball. I’m just fortunate to be a part of it.”

Lopey. Fulms. Gio.

Nicknames aren’t unique to these Knights, of course. Nicknames are deeply engrained in baseball culture. Even guys who despise each other will add the “-y” to the end of their teammate’s name, because that’s just what baseball players do.

That’s not the case here, though. The nicknames stem from genuine affection, from a sense of belonging that didn’t take long to develop.

“I’m seeing that same culture that we had at school,” Fulmer said.

Fulms was part of something special in college. His Vanderbilt squad won the 2014 College World Series, and Fulmer started the winner-take-all championship game against Virginia — he struck out five in 5 1/3 innings, allowing just three hits and two runs (one unearned). Vanderbilt made it back to the CWS final again in 2015, but that time Virginia took home the title.

How special were those Commodores teams? Three Vandy players were taken in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft — shortstop Dansby Swanson (first, Diamondbacks), Fulmer (eighth, White Sox) and right-hander Walker Buehler (24th, Dodgers) — and six other Commodores were picked before the draft ended. That’s after five Vandy players were picked in the 2014 draft, including first-rounder Tyler Beede, a right-handed pitcher.

“I was part of a championship culture, a championship clubhouse. The relationships we had there were one of a kind,” Fulmer said. “Being around, being involved in that and being around Coach (Tim) Corbin, you’re in professional baseball now and you want to re-create, re-enact that whole concept of being close to your teammates and doing stuff with them. I think it was very beneficial, and I think we have something special here.”

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That’s something White Sox fans have to enjoy hearing. Is team unity and a sense of being potentially part of something special the most important thing? Nah, of course not.

Talent rules. But these guys have the talent, they have the sense of purpose and they have the drive to improve. They know they’re the next wave — the most important wave — of what could be the next playoff team on the South Side, and they embrace the pressure.

“To be even in the talk about being part of the rebuild is something that’s awesome,” Burdi said. “Being from Chicago, it’s a huge thing for me to be part of an organization from my hometown. ... Something I hold pretty dearly to my heart. Just excited to see where it takes us, and get to grow with these guys.”

White Sox fans are pretty excited about that, too. As they should be.

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