COMMENTARY | The more things change, the more they stay the same for the Chicago White Sox.
In a game that typifies the new direction of the franchise, three players making their first career appearances in the major leagues were not up to beating CC Sabathia and the New York Yankees on Wednesday. While the injection of youth has not immediately turned the White Sox into a winner in the final stretch of the season, there is cause for optimism moving forward.
Despite mixed results Wednesday, the arrival of Erik Johnson with the big-league club is another positive sign for the White Sox's farm system. While the farm has been rightfully maligned, it has consistently churned out productive pitchers -- Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Hector Santiago, Nate Jones, and Addison Reed being the most recent of them. Most prospect rating services have indicated that Johnson will be ranked in their top 100 prospect lists entering next season, a fairly rare distinction for a White Sox prospect. Chris Sale was ranked just outside the top 20 in most lists in his one year of eligibility after being drafted, and Courtney Hawkins found himself in most top 100 lists last year before his immensely disappointing 2013.
Johnson has the makings of an upper-tier starting pitcher, with a ceiling just below that of a true ace. Out of college, many had him pegged as a reliever, as he only had two serviceable pitches. While his fastball-slider combination still makes up the bulk of his pitches thrown, the White Sox gambled on him by counting on their player development staff to work with him on tertiary pitches. He has since added in a changeup and thrown his breaking ball at two speeds, using a curve ball in addition to his hard slider that often breaks 90 mph.
The big righty had a sub-1.00 WHIP to go with a 1.96 ERA over 142 innings in Double-A and Triple-A this season. His dominant production, big fastball and slider combination, and excellent control have made experts nationwide very optimistic for Johnson's future. He is indubitably the top prospect for the White Sox at present, but his time in the minor leagues is likely over; the White Sox will find a way to make him a full-time starter by the time next season rolls around.
Not to be out-shined, Marcus Semien truly broke out this year before earning his call-up Wednesday. The Double-A Southern League MVP Award winner was never a bad prospect, considered a good glove at shortstop with a good approach at the plate. Those who follow the White Sox's minor leagues closely often noted Semien's extremely impressive ability to draw walks and avoid strikeouts; on the season, his 98 walks outnumbered his 90 strikeouts, a rare feat for a player at any level.
Around midseason, Semien put things into overdrive at the plate, going from an above-average bat at his level to an absolute force at the top of the order. While maintaining his impressive walks-to-strikeout ratio, Semien began hitting for a higher average and slugging home runs at the spacious ballpark in Birmingham. After putting up a .903 OPS with 15 home runs in Birmingham, Semien earned a promotion to Triple-A Charlotte. Semien had some adjustment period at the higher level, but he still swatted 4 homers and posted a .802 OPS in 32 games.
Semien is less of a finished product than Johnson, with so few games above Double-A as a hitter. While a hot finish could make him a sleeper to be a starter in Chicago next season, the odds are that he will begin his next season in Triple-A Charlotte. There is good reason to be optimistic about his bat, but he has typically had just a half-season or more to adjust at each level in his career. In that case, the White Sox may be looking to give him more time to settle in at Triple-A before risking his confidence in MLB over an entire season.
A final consideration is his position; he is a natural shortstop and a fine defender there, but he has also taken many reps at second base. As he began to break out offensively, he started playing third base, suggesting that the White Sox see that as his clearest path to the majors. A trade of Alexei Ramirez or some other shuffling in the lineup could change this, however.
The final face to debut Wednesday was Daniel Webb, a reliever who should not be overlooked as an afterthought in this threesome of rookies. Originally acquired as a return for Jason Frasor, this highly talented righty put things together when he was moved to the bullpen permanently this season. As a starter, Webb battled poor control and general ineffectiveness despite a very impressive arsenal of pitches.
In July, FanGraphs scout Nathaniel Stoltz identified Webb as a potential closer-in-the-making. He recalled having scouted him as a starter and being baffled at how such a talented pitcher could have such poor results, especially when bases on balls were not the primary culprit. As a now-successful minor-league closer, Stoltz remained impressed by Webb, who was running a fastball from 95-100 mph with an easy motion.
Despite giving up a run in his debut, Webb is a player to watch moving forward. He has raw stuff that rivals Nate Jones, but with a more conventional and deceptive delivery. Webb, Jones, and Addison Reed could very well combine for a dominant back end to the bullpen for years to come, with Webb as a potential replacement for Reed down the road.
These three players, coupled with other rookies like Avisail Garcia, Leury Garcia, Josh Phegley, Andre Rienzo, Jake Petricka and Charlie Leesman, should give White Sox fans hope for the future. By no means is it reasonable to expect all or even perhaps most of these players to turn into everyday major leaguers.
However, converting several of them into key cogs puts the White Sox in a great position to compete sooner rather than later, particularly as they have shed a great deal of payroll, allowing them to add veteran free agents as needed.
Jacob Long, a native to the Chicago area, is a writer for the Yahoo Contributor Network. He has experience covering sports and news for WMC-TV in Memphis, TN and owns the film and TV blog The Renegade's Film Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jlongrc.
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