A week ago, the Chicago White Sox got the attention of the baseball world with a pair of trades at the winter meetings in National Harbor, Md.
They got Charlotte Knights chief operating officer Dan Rajkowski’s attention, too.
Each trade – one sending Chicago ace Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox and the other shipping outfielder Adam Eaton to the Washington Nationals – brought the White Sox a haul of talented prospects. And Rajkowski couldn’t help but wonder how many would come to Charlotte.
The Knights, Chicago’s Triple-A affiliate, are one of the beneficiaries to perhaps the two biggest trades of baseball’s offseason. It won’t be clear until the spring how many of those prospects will come to Charlotte. But their potential arrival has already created a buzz.
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“It’s nothing I’ve seen in the three years we’ve been in the new ballpark in Charlotte,” Rajkowski said. “I haven’t even seen this type of excitement from our fanbase at the prospect of seeing these young players for our club.”
The player generating the most interest is Yoan Moncada, the prize of the five-player trade involving Sale. Moncada is baseball’s No. 1 overall prospect according to Baseball America and MLB.com.
After the Red Sox gave him a $31.5 million signing bonus out of Cuba in February of 2015, Moncada rapidly ascended through the organization. On Sept. 2, he made his major league debut.
Moncada’s big league promotion came after just 187 minor league games, and the 21-year-old still has room for development – as he showed by going 4-for-19 with a double, an RBI and 12 strikeouts across eight games for Boston.
Also a possibility for Charlotte is Lucas Giolito, who came from the Nationals in a four-player deal. MLB.com ranks Giolito as the No. 3 prospect nationally – and the top pitching prospect.
“I definitely think it’s amazing to be coming over to the White Sox with a bunch of young talent,” said Giolito during a conference call on Friday. “I think it’s a great opportunity for us all to develop, get better and hopefully put a really good team together in Chicago.”
The White Sox haven’t steadily cultivated talent in the minors. For the past decade or so, Chicago has often rushed its prospects to the big leagues or traded them away for major league talent in an attempt to compete in the A.L. Central.
At times, that strategy has affected the level of talent on the Knights’ roster.
But with these two trades, the organization acquired four players – Moncada, Giolito and right-handed pitchers Michael Kopech and Reynaldo Lopez – ranked among MLB.com’s top 38 prospects. All four could see time with Charlotte next season.
“The White Sox farm system has always been a little confounding because it’s never been very deep and it’s never had a ton of elite level guys, but it has produced big leaguers,” said Jonathan Mayo, who covers the MLB Draft and the Minors for MLB.com. “It’s been kind of one guy a year. …
“If the pipeline was a trickle before, now maybe it’s more of a flood if all of these guys click.”
Even with few top prospects on their roster, the Knights have led the minors in average attendance each year since BB&T Ballpark opened in 2014. Next season, though, the ballpark could start welcoming a new type of fan, Rajkowski said.
“When you have marquee players, that brings out the fanbase that’s true baseball fans and it brings them out more often,” Rajkowski said. “There’s no question that it’s going to help us from a perspective of selling tickets and having people come out and get a chance to see the stars of tomorrow playing today.”
Local baseball fans have watched such players through the years. Harmon Killebrew, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken Jr., and Frank Thomas made stops in Charlotte on their way to Hall of Fame careers.
These heralded prospects have a long way to go to reach such levels of success – and there’s a chance none of them reach their potential. But the Knights cherish the opportunity to be part of their careers.
“It means a lot, it certainly does,” Rajkowski said. “We’ll see how it all works out and where they’ll end up, and we’re hopeful that we’ll get a chance to see some of these guys.”
Pat James on Twitter: @patjames24
OF Luis Alexander Basabe: Ranked the No. 9 prospect in the White Sox organization by MLB.com. A switch-hitter who profiles as a top-of-the-order center fielder with his speed and athleticism.
RHP Victor Diaz: A hard-throwing reliever whose fastball can reach triple digits. As the closer for the Class A Greenville Drive, he struck out 63 batters and recorded 10 saves across 60 1/3 innings this past season.
RHP Dane Dunning: The Nationals selected him out of Florida with the 29th overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft. Primarily pitched out of the Gators’ bullpen because of the team’s depth, but he has the stuff to be a starter.
RHP Lucas Giolito: Including his Major League debut on June 28, the former first-round pick made six appearances (four starts) for the Nationals. Posted a 6.75 ERA with 11 strikeouts and 12 walks in 21 1/3 innings.
RHP Michael Kopech: Ranked the No. 30 overall prospect by MLB.com, he can reach triple digits with his fastball. Over the past two years, he fractured his hand in a fight with a teammate and served a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.
RHP Reynaldo Lopez: Ranked the No. 38 overall prospect by MLB.com. Made his Major League debut on July 19, and he recorded a 4.91 ERA with 42 strikeouts and 22 walks over 44 innings in 11 Major League games (six starts).
2B Yoan Moncada: Was named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year after hitting .294 with 15 homers, 62 RBIs, 45 stolen bases and a .918 OPS in 106 games across two levels.