Anderson, Montas right on Chicago's track

Top White Sox prospects continue grow, young bats show promise

Top Chicago prospect Tim Anderson finished strong, batting .336 in 30 August games for Birmingham. (Ed Gardner/MiLB.com)

By Tyler Maun / MiLB.com | October 14, 2015 10:00 AM

This offseason, MiLB.com will be honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organizations. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League baseball.

With the Windy City's postseason focus on the North Side at the moment, the White Sox look back on a heavy investment in a 2015 run that didn't quite pan out at the Major League level. In their system, however, key performers took big steps toward the South Side this summer, keeping the promise of October tantalizingly close.

The youngest White Sox shined brightest in 2015. Chicago's Arizona League affiliate passed its final test, capping off a 30-25 regular season by sweeping three games to the title. The AZL White Sox were paced by the league's best offense whereas Class A Advanced Winston-Salem boasted the third-best Carolina League staff ERA as the Sox's other postseason qualifier.

Charlotte saw Erik Johnson capture the International League's ERA title in Triple-A. Speedy outfielder Adam Engel swiped his way to a Carolina League crown with 65 bases, the third-highest total in the Minors. Throughout the system, Chicago's biggest prospects took steps forward in a productive 2015 campaign.

White Sox Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Omar Narvaez, Winston-Salem (98 games): The 23-year-old backstop proved he could keep his mind centered between both parts of his game in a strong first full season in the White Sox system. Not only did Narvaez reach base at a .352 rate in his first taste of Class A Advanced, but he also threw out 35.4 percent of would-be basestealers.

 "He could turn on that switch, and he could be out early and work on his hitting and do all that stuff," Dash manager Tim Esmay said. "Not only was he there to hit -- then he'd be in the film room; then he'd be in with our pitching coach; then he'd be in talking to his pitchers. He had the ability to be good at both, and sometimes that's unusual with catchers."
    
First baseman -- Corey Zangari, AZL White Sox (48 games), Great Falls (six games): The questions posed of Zangari were where he would start in the field as a professional. A high school catcher, he also flashed tantalizing potential on the mound, but he made noise with his bat as a full-time first baseman in his professional debut. The slugger led the AZL with 40 RBIs before finishing his season in the Pioneer League.

"He's going to concentrate on playing first base and hitting," said White Sox director of player development Nick Capra. "It takes a little bit of the pressure off him. He's very athletic for a big kid. There are some strikeouts in that bat, probably some swings and misses, but he doesn't offer out of the strike zone a lot. He's got a pretty good eye. He's disciplined at the plate. He's going to run into some balls and has a chance to be a power guy down the road. We really like Corey."

Second baseman -- Micah Johnson, Charlotte (78 games), Chicago (36): The speedster Johnson arrived on the scene with a breakout first full season in 2013. After tailing off a bit last year, the second baseman was back in full force in 2015, starting and ending his season in the big leagues.

"Micah's a diligent worker," Capra said. "He works his craft as hard as anybody else. Defense is a tick behind his offense. Going back to Charlotte, he put a lot of time and effort into it, and he got better."

Johnson boosted his on-base percentage from .351 last year to .376 and posted an .843 OPS with 28 stolen bases in 83 Minor League games.

"Sometimes you get to the big league level and you're still developing there, which is a little bit tougher because you're exposed to a fanbase, media base, general manager, manager, whatever," Capra noted of Johnson, who batted .270 in 74 Major League at-bats in April and May. "It was tough for him to swallow to have to go back to Charlotte and work on his craft, but sometimes that's the nature of the beast. He ran with it once he got there and obviously did a good job of getting better."

Shortstop -- Tim Anderson, Birmingham (125 games): It's still hard for many to believe that Anderson didn't play baseball until his junior year in high school. The organization's top prospect went wire to wire in Double-A in 2015 and had just one month -- July -- during which he didn't post a .300 average.

"His athleticism on the baseball field, you can see it day in and day out," Capra said. "Everybody knows he's going to hit. The question mark was defense, and he has gotten so much better over the course of the last couple of years defensively."

Though Anderson did commit 25 errors at shortstop, the White Sox are pleased with his growth at the position.

"His range has gotten better," Capra continued. "His baseball savvy has gotten better, his positioning. He's learning how to position hitters. He's learning how to go in the 5-6 hole, stay down in his legs, get the ball across the diamond with some carry. His baserunning has improved. This kid's got a chance to be real good at the big league level."

Third baseman -- Johan Cruz, Great Falls (65 games): In just his second season in the States -- and first away from his team's complex in Arizona -- Cruz starred. The 20-year-old led his team with a .312 batting average, and in addition to 58 games at third base, Cruz saw action at shortstop where the White Sox view him long term.

"We put him at third base just out of necessity," Capra said. "We've had him at shortstop in instructional league, and we think he's going to be a shortstop down the road. We're happy with his progress."

Outfielders

Adam Engel, Winston-Salem (136 games): Engel's Twitter handle is @ManofSteal_10 and for good reason: the fleet-footed outfielder swiped 65 bags this year, tops in the Carolina League and third-most in the Minors. But that's not all.

"We call him 'Superman'," Dash manager Esmay said. "He just never stops. He's very durable. There were days when I'd come to him and say, 'We need to give you a day off tomorrow,' and he'd look at me like, 'No, you're not giving me a day off.' He's one of those guys."

In addition to his game on the bases, Engel walked a career-high 65 times for the Dash and was tabbed an end-of-season All-Star.

"He's a game-changer offensively," Esmay said. "Obviously he's a well above-average defender in the outfield. He really goes and gets them, a lot of range gap-to-gap. He's just a phenomenal defensive player. Now if we can get his offense up to par, which he has improved over the course of the last couple of years, we've got something special."

Landon Lassiter, Great Falls (49 games): A 21st-round pick out of the University of North Carolina in June, Lassiter transitioned quickly to the professional game with an impressive .312/.420/.447 slash line in Rookie ball. 

"Scouting did a really great job finding him where we did," Capra said. "He handled the Pioneer League rather well. If we had had room for him in [Class A] Kannapolis, he could've very well gotten to the South Atlantic League. He does a lot of things very well on the baseball field."

Christian Marrero, Birmingham (129 games): Back in the White Sox system after two years away, the 29-year-old was a mainstay for the Barons. Marrero batted cleanup for 122 games and registered a .282/.390/.431 line with 13 homers and 63 RBIs. He also committed just three errors in the field while splitting time between first base and the two corner outfield positions.

Utility player -- Trey Michalczewski, Winston-Salem (127 games): Switch-hitting Michalczewski is headed to the Arizona Fall League to build on a profile that excites the White Sox. At just 20, the infielder held his own with a .259/.335/.395 slash line and matched a career high with 75 RBIs in Class A Advanced. Michalczewski was named a midseason and end-of-season Carolina League All-Star.

Right-handed starter -- Frankie Montas, Birmingham (23 games, 23 starts), Chicago (seven games, two starts): The thunderbolt right arm that slings fastballs into the triple digits is no secret, but Montas' strong 2015 came with a complement of other steps forward. 

"Command has been kind of a question mark, but he's getting better," Capra said. "He still needs to pound the strike zone with a few more strikes. His breaking ball has gotten better. His changeup has gotten better. Everybody knows about his power arm."

After going 5-5 with a 2.97 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 112 innings for Birmingham, Montas made his big league debut Sept. 2 and posted a 4.80 ERA over seven appearances, fanning 20 in nine frames.

Left-handed starter -- Jordan Guerrero, Kannapolis (16 games, 16 starts), Winston-Salem (nine games, nine starts): In his second year in full-season ball, Guerrero got his first in-season promotion and handled it exceedingly well. After going 6-1 with a 2.28 ERA for Class A Kannapolis, he climbed to Winston-Salem and went 7-3 with a 3.56 mark.

 "For a young guy, maturity-wise, he's one of those guys who just pays attention to everything," Esmay said. "He's not a guy who believes that he just works on his talent. He's that guy who, when he's not pitching that day, he's in the dugout. He's talking. He's asking questions; he's in tune; he likes to watch what other guys are doing -- all those things."

More Organization All-Stars

Reliever -- Brian Clark, Winston-Salem (29 games, five starts): Whether it was making spot starts, getting regular relief work or pitching in a piggyback role behind Major League rehabbers or Chicago's first-round pick Carson Fulmer, Clark handled it all in 2015.

The 2014 ninth-rounder went 2-2 with a 1.85 ERA in limited work as a starter and registered eight wins and a 2.51 ERA in 24 relief outings that totaled 64 2/3 innings pitched.

Tyler Maun is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @TylerMaun. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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