The two blockbuster trades the Chicago White Sox made during the offseason could likely benefit the club for years to come.
For now, the Charlotte Knights, Chicago’s Class AAA affiliate, will reap the rewards.
When the Knights open the season against the Norfolk Tides at 7:05 p.m. Thursday, their roster will likely feature five of the organization’s top seven prospects, according to MLBPipeline.com.
Some of them could find themselves with the big-league club this season. However, the newfound depth throughout the White Sox system could help make for a special season in Charlotte.
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Here are five storylines to note ahead of opening day:
One of baseball’s best
Second baseman Yoan Moncada, the No. 2 prospect in all of baseball according to MLBPipeline.com, was the prize of Chicago’s December trade that sent ace Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox. Moncada will start the season in Charlotte.
Last season, Moncada shined in the minors, batting .294 with 15 homers, 62 RBIs, 45 stolen bases and a .918 on-base plus slugging percentage in 106 games. However, he showed room for improvement after going 4-for-19 at the plate in eight games with the Red Sox.
Moncada’s stay with the Knights might not be long. Meantime, he said he’ll work on continuing to improve while also balancing the significant expectations surrounding him.
“The most important part is just to keep up with the process, and keep going along with everything (I’ve) been doing and work hard,” Moncada said through a translator about handling the hype. “It’s obviously not easy, but (I’ve) just got to keep up with everything (I’ve) been doing.”
Giolito seeks improvements
Right-handed pitcher Lucas Giolito, baseball’s No. 10 prospect according to MLBPipeline, headlined the White Sox trade that sent outfielder Adam Eaton to the Washington Nationals.
Giolito entered last season as baseball’s consensus top pitching prospect. However, after making his Major League Baseball debut in June, he went 0-1 with a 6.75 ERA in six games (four starts) with Washington.
Because of his big frame, questions have surfaced about whether or not Giolito, 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, can consistently repeat his delivery. He said that will be one of the things he plans to work on in Charlotte.
“Last year, I did get that experience in the big leagues and I didn’t perform as well as I would have liked,” Giolito said. “That’s why the minor leagues exist. You can work on your game and you can do all of the things you need to do to be successful.”
Elite pitching rotation
Giolito will be a part of a talented Charlotte starting rotation that will likely feature a mix of talented prospects and veterans, including right-hander Chris Volstad and lefty David Holmberg.
Right-handed pitchers Reynaldo Lopez and Carson Fulmer, Chicago’s No. 4 and No. 5 prospects according to MLBPipeline, will team with Giolito to form an effective front end of the rotation.
In 2012-15, Joel Skinner managed the Knights, setting the franchise record with 285 career wins during his tenure.
Since Skinner took over the same position with the Class A Winston Salem Dash before last season, Charlotte is on its second manager in as many years, with Mark Grudzielanek replacing Julio Vinas.
Grudzielanek played 15 years in the majors with six teams.
“He’s been there before, has a ton of experience and has a lot of knowledge to share with us,” Fulmer said of Grudzielanek. “We definitely love him being here and leading us hopefully to wins every night.”
Few teams in the International League can match the amount of talent on the Knights’ roster ahead of opening day.
Some of those players, such as Moncada, likely won’t be around for the whole season. However, elite prospects such as right-handed pitcher Michael Kopech and catcher Zack Collins, who will start the season in Class AA Birmingham and with Winston Salem respectively, could join Charlotte this season and help the team to its first Governors’ Cup since 1999.