They’re calling it “Project Birmingham.”
And the White Sox think it can bring some big-time benefits to some of the best young players in their organization.
You’ll see the Twitter updates Monday and think everything’s gone topsy-turvy, a slew of the team’s top prospects at the Class A level promoted to Double-A Birmingham en masse.
These aren’t traditional promotions, though, and what the White Sox are really doing is putting their best minor leaguers all in the same place at the same time.
Enamored with what they saw during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, when a group of minor leaguers spent their summer working out at the team’s alternate training site in Schaumburg, the White Sox are going to see if putting all their top players and all their top minor league coaches and staff together will reap similar rewards on the player-development front — all while actual games are still being played in the Southern League.
“Our top players together with our top staff, all in one place … being coached on an individual basis,” White Sox assistant GM and player-development boss Chris Getz said last week. “Just to be able to provide the instruction for each individual player based on the staff that we’ll have there, just to have our coordinators with our current Birmingham staff, will just allow us to be able to get more personalized time. Whether it be drill work or talking about certain at-bats at perhaps a different pace than what you’re accustomed to during a normal minor league season.
“It’s competitive because you’re playing games on a nightly basis, but you’re also getting the instruction, prior and post, just to fully enhance the development process.”
Getz wasn’t aware of any other organization in the game doing anything like this in-season, so the White Sox are going to have to do a little experimenting along the way, particularly when it comes to finding in-game playing time for everyone on a newly bulbous Birmingham roster.
There are plenty of big names (as far as White Sox prospects go) that will be part of this, including Colson Montgomery and Oscar Colás, the organization’s two highest ranked minor leaguers. Bryan Ramos, Norge Vera, José Rodriguez, Sean Burke, Cristian Mena, Yoelqui Céspedes, Jared Kelley, Wes Kath, Matthew Thompson and Kohl Simas will all be there in the newly expanded Double-A clubhouse, too.
That’s 10 of the team’s top 20 prospects under one roof.
“I view it as an opportunity to celebrate what we’ve done departmentally with bringing these players there and going back to the strides we feel like we’ve made with some of these players and to show the organization, but also outside the organization, the next wave of (what is) hopefully our major league talent here in Chicago,” Getz said. “We’ve had some players recently enter the top 100 prospect list, and we feel like we’ve got some more that are just outside of it. It’s a chance to show baseball and show the White Sox that we’ve got another wave of players coming.”
Getz clarified that because these aren’t traditional promotions, participation in this late-season program doesn’t mean these players will start the 2023 season at Double-A, or advance to Triple-A. Neither, though, does being at Birmingham right now preclude anyone from being promoted before the end of this season.
But with the major league club disappointingly hovering around .500, plenty of fans have already eyed some of these prospects as guys they’d like to see at the major league level right now. That’s unlikely to happen, as the White Sox are typically loath to change a young player’s plan due to a need, real or perceived, in the big leagues.
If all goes well with “Project Birmingham,” however, those individual plans could move along a little quicker than they might have under more traditional circumstances, perhaps leading to more arrivals on the South Side sooner rather than later.
“It’s rare to be able to get your top pool of players together in the minor leagues,” Getz said. “There’s the benefit of the players going up there. Whether it be a Colson Montgomery or Bryan Ramos or whomever is being promoted up, the bulk of their year statistically is at a pretty good place, and going up to Double-A here, it’s not about performance. It’s about getting the individual instruction and the added motivation about being part of this to then fully enhance them for their careers.”
Will Oscar Colás reach the major leagues in 2022?
The short answer is probably not.
But that doesn’t mean the White Sox aren’t just as impressed as you’ve been with the big international signing from earlier this year.
Colás hasn’t played many games to this point at Double-A Birmingham, but he’s impressed with a .312/.395/.615 slash line to go along with 10 homers in just 28 games there. Add in the nearly 60 games he played at Class A Winston-Salem, and he owns 17 homers and an .896 OPS in his first season playing pro ball in the U.S.
“It’s certainly encouraging,” Getz said. “He certainly has the skills to be productive, but just becoming the professional player that we think he can become (has impressed the White Sox). Now that he’s been up at Double-A, it’s been very supportive to what I was hearing about and what I witnessed in Winston-Salem.
“He’s continuing to get better. He’s putting together quality at-bats. He’s hitting for power. He’s playing good defense. There’s still some things that we’re working on with pitch recognition. But for the most part, this is a player that has a chance to be a pretty productive major league player.
“He’s going to be an exciting piece of this organization moving forward.”
If you noticed, there was nothing specific in there about when Colás will be that pretty productive major league player, and it wouldn’t be in line with how the White Sox treat their young stars of the future to put any sort of timeline out there.
“He’s got professional at-bats under his belt, more so than some of these other players. But oftentimes the player lets us know (when they’re ready to move through the system) based on the production that you get on a nightly basis,” Getz said. “It’s been fun to watch him take on the next challenge at Double-A. To be part of this program now, who knows what the next step will be, but it’s certainly worthy of celebration based on what he’s been able to accomplish so far.
“Oscar Colás has had a nice year.”
To fans watching the White Sox struggle to score runs on a nightly basis, bringing a power hitter up from the minor leagues would seem a no-brainer way to inject some something into a middling team still fortunate to be playing for a division crown.
But though circumstances at the big league level have changed since the deepest days of the rebuild, when top prospects were often given ample time to develop without any championships to compete for in the majors, it seems the White Sox’ approach to their young players has not changed. Cite Andrew Vaughn’s flying through the system (and skipping Double-A and Triple-A altogether) all you’d like, that was the exception, not the rule.
And so it seems reasonable to expect that Colás will follow a more standard trajectory, that he will play at Charlotte before playing in Chicago, that he will reach the South Side when the White Sox determine his development has reached an appropriate stage, not when they see the big league club with a hole that needs filling.
“Unclear on (when he will reach the majors), but he’s shown us that he’s got the skills to impact the game in a lot of ways and it continues to get better throughout the season,” Getz said. “It’s certainly a great indication of being able to make quick adjustments and take on challenges.”
Colson Montgomery keeps moving on up
Surely White Sox fans had reason to get excited when they saw early Monday that Montgomery, the No. 1 prospect in the organization, was getting another promotion.
But this one’s obviously a little different.
Again, the rise to Double-A Birmingham is not a traditional promotion for the team’s first-round pick in the 2021 draft, and as Getz said, being involved in “Project Birmingham” doesn’t mean any of these Class A guys are done at Class A.
But certainly Montgomery has impressed, and it would be no shock if he doesn’t see Class A pitching again, not after obliterating it for more than 80 games this season. He slashed .324/.424/.477 in 45 games at Low A Kannapolis before going .258/.387/.417 in 37 games at High A Winston-Salem.
As Getz mentioned plenty, those numbers aren’t everything, and the White Sox are looking at far more data than the traditionally used averages I listed. But Montgomery, who reached base in 50 consecutive games at one point this season, has been damn good no matter which way you slice it.
“It’s been excellent, it really has,” Getz said of Montgomery’s season. “Whether it be spring training, to the beginning of the year in Kannapolis, the way he’s controlled his at-bats, both against lefties and righties, making good decisions at the plate, using the whole field, he’s been hitting for power, and he’s been solid defensively.
“For a kid that split a lot of his time (in high school) with basketball, you don’t quite know how it’s going to take when he’s fully committed to baseball. But he’s proven when he puts his energy toward one thing that he’s a player that’s going to benefit from that. And he’s been as consistent as anyone in the minor leagues. We’re excited to have him, and he obviously has a bright future.”
Just like with the more advanced Colás, though, some eager fans have been wondering if that future can start now. Tim Anderson’s late-season injury and Leury García’s season-long offensive woes have added some fuel to that fire, and it’s now a question of when the Indiana-raised shortstop will reach the big leagues.
Getz’s answer was mostly the same as the one he gave for Colás – showing that the organization’s approach seems pretty consistent in most cases – this one far less surprising considering Montgomery’s lack of experience. Again, Vaughn and Garrett Crochet are exceptions, not rules.
“I once again go back to (the idea that) the player lets you know (when he’s ready),” Getz said. “Obviously, you have the superficial stats that we’re all accustomed to seeing, but underneath, whether it be in-zone contact, zone awareness, hard-hit rates, there are some good signs in there that he is continuing to get better, and he’s been able to handle every level we’ve challenged him with.
“He’ll get the opportunity to be a part of this, what we’re calling ‘Project Birmingham.’ And we’ll see where he starts next year, but I think everyone in the organization should feel proud about what Colson has been able to accomplish, and primarily, he should feel very proud about what he’s been able to accomplish.
“We’ve just focused on his bat and his defensive skills and understanding what it takes to be a professional. We believe (he’ll one day be) a major league shortstop. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the ability to play other positions, either. The bat’s been a real positive for him, and we know there’s power in there, as well. He’s going to be an offensive force who can play the left side of the infield. And perhaps he forces our hand at some point.”
Homer-happy José Rodriguez
Speaking of infielders having big offensive seasons.
Forget this season, though, when it comes to Rodriguez and just look at the last month. Since the final day of July, Rodriguez – the White Sox’ No. 7 ranked prospect – has hit a jaw-dropping 10 home runs, including a recent stretch of five straight games with a dinger. After going two without, he started a new streak Saturday with another long ball.
Rodriguez is one of those guys the White Sox will have to get creative with thanks to the influx of guys from the Class A teams into Birmingham, where he’s been playing all season. He’s been mostly at shortstop but has played plenty of second base, too, with a little third base thrown in there, as well.
After hitting well during the 2021 season – a .301 batting average to go along with a .338 on-base percentage, 14 home runs and 51 RBIs playing at Kannapolis, Winston-Salem and Birmingham – he’s got a .280/.340/.430 slash line this season plus 11 homers, all but one of them coming in the last 22 days.
“He’s been fantastic here recently,” Getz said. “Just looking back on what he did last year, essentially playing at three different levels and just continued to hit. This year … he had a nagging leg injury that could have slowed his spring training down and I think affected him early on, because he didn’t get the ample reps they usually get in spring training. He was having a bit of an uphill battle.
“But for him to dig himself out of a statistical hole like he has and certainly made adjustments in his swing. He’s calmed his base, and he’s gotten much more direct to the ball. He’s using the whole field, and he’s obviously picking his spots where he’s putting his A-swing together and he’s run into some home runs here recently.
“He’s got such fire in him. He loves to play. He’s a fearless baseball player. … Offensively he’s really come alive, and it’s been nice to see.”
More from the minors
– In addition to “Project Birmingham,” the White Sox will be having their usual instructional league after the conclusion of the minor league season. That’s where this summer’s first-round pick Noah Schultz will show up, after he participates in what Getz called a “bridge league” where games will be played between the end of the lowest level of minor league ball in Arizona and the start of the regular instructional league.
“We were very mindful of what he had done prior to the draft. He wasn’t much different than most of these players prior to the draft, where they shut down for a little bit,” Getz said. “We wanted to build them up properly. He’s throwing bullpens right now, and he’s nearing being able to throw in a game type setting. He’ll get some innings both in the bridge and the instructional league.”
– Norge Vera, another one of the White Sox’ recent heralded international free-agent signings out of Cuba, has only logged 27.1 innings this season across his 10 appearances. Vera will be part of “Project Birmingham” after splitting time between Kannapolis and Winston-Salem this season. Getz said his workload by the end of the season should have him ready to assume more of a regular starter’s workload in 2023.
“Norge didn’t have a lot of innings under his belt going into this season. He had a lat strain in spring training that slowed his progression, as well, and we wanted to be mindful of that build-up,” Getz said. “He’s been very good at Kannapolis. Really, we’re just trying to manage his innings, but also keep him moving forward. Norge, for the remainder of the year, he’s going to continue to pitch, and obviously he’ll be part of the Birmingham project. We’ll look back and feel he’s gotten a decent body of work under his belt and set him up to be a starter next year.”
– The White Sox’ power outage at the major league level is so severe that Jake Burger, currently playing at Triple-A Charlotte after an extended stay on the major league injured list, still ranks fifth on the team in home runs, despite appearing in only 51 big league games. In 19 Triple-A games since late July, Burger is batting north of .300 and reaching base at a nearly .400 clip. Yoán Moncada being healthy at third base obviously limits Burger’s potential contributions to only a pinch-hitter and sometime DH in the bigs, hence his current status as a minor leaguer.
“Jake’s playing well at Charlotte,” Getz said. “He’s getting his hits and showing the right-handed power that he has. We’re continuing to work with him defensively, and he’s been playing well there in Charlotte. He’s a guy that’s helped our major league club, and we believe he can be part of this moving forward. I know that he’s down in Charlotte right now and not with our major league club, but we all know how things can change quickly. So it’s just keeping him going. He’s a very motivated player based on the makeup that he has and the adversity he’s been faced with.
“Jake’s a major league player. We believe that. When’s he going to get the next shot with us? It’s unclear. But we know what he’s capable of doing, and he’s going to stay ready.”
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