Deep Dive: Charlotte and Birmingham right-handed relievers

Still on top: Despite an incredibly unlucky year in 2019, Ian Hamilton currently ranks highest among all White Sox right-handed bullpen prospects per MLB Pipeline. (Laura Wolff/Charlotte Knights)


“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization. Each position is broken into a five-part series:

  1. Depth in the rookie levels (Dominican through Great Falls)
  2. Depth in A-ball (Kannapolis and Winston-Salem)
  3. Depth in the higher levels (Birmingham and Charlotte)
  4. Under the Radar-type detail on one of the White Sox players at that position
  5. Free agent options at that position

Many of the top organizational bullpen arms finished the season with Birmingham and Charlotte this year. Unfortunately, most were either hurt and/or ineffective. Hopefully with a little luck, some of these arms could be fixtures in the White Sox bullpen for years to come.

Ages below are as of April 1, 2020


Charlotte Knights

Ian Hamilton
6´0´´
200 pounds
Age: 24

After two stellar seasons for Washington State University out of the bullpen in which he saved 28 games, Hamilton struggled with a 4.86 ERA and 1.47 WHIP when the Cougars converted him to a starter in 2016. As a result, he was available in the 11th round when the White Sox gladly snatched him up in that year’s MLB draft. He combined later that year with the AZL White Sox and Kannapolis for a 3.58 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and eight saves in 22 relief outings.

The 2017 season saw Hamilton excel with Winston-Salem in 30 relief outings (1.71 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, .179 OBA, 4.1 BB% and 26.5 K%) although he did struggle with Birmingham (5.21 ERA, 1.79 WHIP, .317 OBA, 8.7 BB% and 23.9 K%). However, he bounced back in a big way in 2018 and performed consistently well for both Birmingham and Charlotte in 43 games totaling 51 1/3 innings. With both squads, Hamilton combined to post a 1.74 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 22 saves while allowing just 38 hits (.204 OBA) and 16 walks (7.8%) while fanning 62 hitters (30.1%). He even entered 10 games for the White Sox in 2018 and did a respectable job with a 4.50 ERA and 1.00 WHIP, as he surrendered just six hits and two walks while fanning five in his eight innings.

The 2019 season wasn’t kind for the Revolutionary Quartet of Hamilton, Ryan Burr, Spencer Adams and Jon Jay as they all missed significant time due to injury. Hamilton may well have been the unluckiest of the bunch, as he injured his shoulder in a car accident during spring training. As a result of that injury, he struggled badly and was demoted to Charlotte to begin the season. After an ugly 1 1/2 months when he posted a 9.92 ERA and 1.90 WHIP over 16 1/3 innings, Hamilton was struck in the face by a liner that made its way into the dugout. Ultimately, Hamilton needed multiple season-ending surgeries to reconstruct his fractured jaw.

Even though Hamilton got roughed up in the International League (largely because of his shoulder injury), he still threw strikes (3.8 BB%, 25.6%). He currently has the highest ranking of all White Sox right-handed bullpen prospects (16th) according to MLB Pipeline. His fastball is graded at 70 by MLB Pipeline as it typically runs mid-90s, and it has reached triple digits with heavy sinking action. His 60-grade slider runs 87-90 mph, and he also offers a 45-grade changeup which helps neutralize lefties when it’s on. Hamilton will likely remain on the 40-man roster and could find his way back onto the White Sox active roster if he has an excellent spring training.

Matt Foster
6´0´´
205 pounds
Age: 25

After starting for two seasons and performing well with Gulf Coast C.C. (Panama City, Fla.), Foster transferred to the University of Alabama and was immediately converted to reliever. In 25 innings for the Crimson Tide spanning 40 innings, he compiled a 2.93 ERA and 1.23 WHIP by allowing just 33 hits (.231 OBA) and 16 walks (9.6%) as opposed to 49 strikeouts (29.5%). Despite his gaudy stats and good stuff, Foster fell to the White Sox in the 20th round of the 2016 draft. He made an immediate impact with the AZL White Sox and Great Falls later that year, as he combined with both teams to produce a 0.61 ERA, 0.64 WHIP and 11 saves by relinquishing just 12 hits and seven walks while fanning 41 in 29 2/3 innings.

The 2017 season saw Foster dominate for Kannapolis and Winston-Salem, as he saved seven games while posting a combined 1.30 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, .168 OBA, 4.9% and 32.0% in 27 2/3 innings — all after a brief, self-imposed retirement for undisclosed reasons. Foster returned to the Dash to begin the 2018 season but struggled a bit with his promotion to Birmingham. Overall for 2018, Foster’s combined numbers were still quite good as he compiled a 3.30 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and eight saves over 60 innings by surrendering 58 hits (.258 OBA) and 20 walks (8.1%) while striking out 70 (28.2%).

After sailing through 9 2/3 innings and allowing just three hits and two walks while fanning 12 hitters with Birmingham, Foster received an early promotion to Charlotte. While his numbers weren’t up to his usual extraordinary standards, they were still quite good especially when considering the “active” Triple-A/MLB baseball he pitched with. In 37 games for the Knights encompassing 55 innings, he posted a 3.76 ERA and 1.18 WHIP by relinquishing 46 hits (.229 OBA) and 19 walks (8.5%) while striking out 62 (27.7%).

According to FutureSox, Foster’s three-pitch repertoire includes a 90-95 mph fastball, a sharp 82-85 mph slider and a changeup to help stifle lefties. He will be eligible for the upcoming Rule 5 draft, unless the White Sox add him to the 40-man roster beforehand. Because of his success, good stuff and control, Foster may have an outside chance of winning a roster spot in spring training if unselected in the draft..

Juan Minaya
6´4´´
210 pounds
Age: 29

Minaya, a native of the Dominican Republic, signed an international deal with the Houston Astros all the way back in 2009. After struggling for a couple seasons in the low minors, he was converted to reliever in 2011. After a long, slow climb up the Astros system, he finally reached Triple-A Fresno in both 2015 and 2016. When the Astros placed Minaya on waivers in June 2016, the White Sox quickly snatched him up. After pitching 17 games for Charlotte, he earned was promoted on Sept. 1, 2016 and held his own with the White Sox for 11 relief outings.

The 2017 season was a rollercoaster for Minaya, as he split time with Charlotte and the White Sox. After struggling on the South Side for the first half of the season, he closed the season strong — especially after David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle were traded to the Yankees at the July trade deadline. For the year, Minaya posted a 4.53 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and nine saves in 40 games (43 2/3 innings) as he ceded 38 hits (.239 OBA) and 20 walks (10.9%) while fanning 51 (27.7%). Minaya again split time between Charlotte and Chicago during the 2018 campaign; in 52 outings for the White Sox totaling 46 2/3 innings, he compiled a 3.28 ERA but unseemly 1.46 WHIP by allowing 39 hits (.220 OBA) and 29 walks (13.9%) while striking out 58. (27.8%).

The revolving door continued for Minaya in 2019, as after a month in Charlotte, he pitched for the White Sox for more than two months. After getting off to a good start, his control let him down, which prompted a demotion (and removal from the 40-man roster) on July 13. For the White Sox in 22 games totaling 27 2/3 innings, Minaya compiled a 3.90 ERA but 1.55 WHIP by allowing 31 hits (.277 OBA) and 12 walks (9.5%) as opposed to 27 strikeouts (21.4%). For the Knights in 24 games spanning 34 innings, he posted a 3.71 ERA and 1.38 WHIP by allowing 32 hits (.250 OBA) and 15 walks (10.1%) while striking out 41 (27.5%).

With Minaya now off the 40-man roster, he’ll have a difficult climb back to the majors — at least as a member of the White Sox. The team will likely add one or two relievers via trade or free agency, and at least some of the team’s young flamethrower prospects are due to be both good and healthy in 2020.

Zach Thompson
6´7´´
230 pounds
Age: 26

As a three-year starter for Texas-Arlington, Thompson posted adequate results, but not the ones you’d expect from someone of his size and stuff. As a junior for the Mavericks, he posted a 4.64 ERA and 1.48 WHIP over 16 starts (87 innings) as he surrendered 97 hits (.282 OBA) and 32 walks (8.2%) while striking out 62 (15.9%). However, in part because of his stuff and imposing build, Thompson was selected in the fifth round of the 2014 draft.

Over 353 innings in the White Sox system from 2014-17, in which he was primarily a starting pitcher, Thompson combined for a 4.31 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, .258 OBA, 10.1 BB% and 18.9 K%. Finally converted to full-time reliever in 2018, Thompson posted sensational results for both Winston-Salem and Birmingham. In a combined 43 games and 75 1/3 innings, he posted a shiny 1.55 ERA and 1.14 WHIP as he surrendered just 57 hits (.206 OBA) and 29 walks (9.4%) as opposed to 76 strikeouts (24.5%). Many fans were surprised he wasn’t protected prior to last year’s Rule 5 draft, but he went unselected.

After dominating in four outings for Birmingham to start the 2019 season, Thompson received an early promotion to Charlotte but wasn’t able to take advantage of the opportunity. In 41 games spanning 70 1/3 innings for the Knights, he posted a 5.50 ERA and 1.45 WHIP by relinquishing 79 hits (.277 OBA) and 23 walks (7.3%) as opposed to 78 strikeouts (24.9%). He was especially victimized by the gopher ball (15), even though his home numbers (4.75 ERA, 1.46 WHIP) actually bettered his road ones (6.59 ERA, 1.43 WHIP).

Thompson sits 92-95 mph with fastball, and he also features an above-average curveball. Like last year, he will be eligible for the upcoming Rule 5 draft. However, unlike last year, there are no expectations he’ll be selected.

Thyago Vieira
6´2´´
210 pounds
Age: 26

Vieira, a native of Brazil, always has amazed scouts with a fastball that averages 97-100 mph, with a peak of 103 mph. So it’s come as a bit of a surprise that he hasn’t enjoyed terrific success since he signed an international contract with the Seattle Mariners in 2010. After years of falling behind many hitters and walking a lot of them, it finally appeared that Vieira had a breakthrough season with Single-A+ Bakersfield in 2016. That year in 34 games spanning 44 1/3 innings, Vieira posted a solid 2.84 ERA and 1.24 WHIP by allowing 37 hits (.222 OBA) and 18 walks (9.5%) while striking out 53 (28.0%).

The 2017 season saw Vieira spend time with Double-A Arkansas and Triple-A Tacoma, as he combined to pitch 41 games (54 innings) with a 4.00 ERA and 1.30 WHIP. In those combined stints, he ceded 48 hits (.236 OBA) and 22 walks (9.6%) while fanning 46 (20.1%). He even pitched an inning of one-hit ball for the Mariners that year.

Then in November, he was traded to the White Sox for $500,000 in international bonus pool money. Vieira struggled for Charlotte in 2018 with a 5.05 ERA and 1.56 WHIP, but still earned a promotion to Chicago where he posted an unsightly 7.13 ERA and 1.70 WHIP in 16 games. During his 17 2/3 innings for the White Sox last year, he allowed 21 hits (.292 OBA) and nine walks (10.6%) while striking out 15 (17.6%).

Vieira continued to struggle for both Charlotte and the White Sox in 2019. In 37 games and 47 1/3 innings for Charlotte, he compiled a 5.70 ERA and 1.58 WHIP by ceding 53 hits (.288 OBA) and 22 walks (10.3%) while striking out 51 (23.9%). In six outings spanning seven innings for the White Sox, he posted a 9.00 ERA and 2.29 WHIP by allowing 11 hits (.344 OBA) and five walks (9.4%) while fanning eight (15.1%).

Vieira does feature a 50-55 grade curveball, but when he has trouble getting it over the plate, hitters simply gear up for the heater. As a result, he’s giving up more hits and striking out fewer batters than someone with his stuff should allow. Although he’s currently on the 40-man roster, that could change once more players are added to it for Rule 5 protection. If Vieira clears waivers (not a given, because another team surely would try to maximize his stuff), he likely would return to Charlotte for the 2020 season.

Other pitchers who finished the season with Charlotte
The only other right-handed reliever who actually finished the season with Charlotte was Connor Walsh. Walsh, who turns 27 in October, combined with Birmingham and Charlotte this year to post a 5.11 ERA and 1.59 WHIP in 44 games totaling 61 2/3 innings. In that work, he surrendered 61 hits (.256 OBA) and 37 walks (13.0%) while striking out 64 (22.5%). He is eligible for the Rule 5 draft, but likely won’t be selected.


Birmingham Barons

Tyler Johnson
6´2´´
205 pounds
Age: 24

Johnson pitched dominating baseball in his three years with the University of South Carolina. Even though his junior season wasn’t quite as good as his sophomore, it was still worthy of notice. In 19 games spanning 26 innings, Johnson saved 10 games for the SEC powerhouse with a 2.39 ERA and 1.33 WHIP. For the Gamecocks that year, he allowed just 20 hits (.204 OBA) and 15 walks (12.9%) while striking out 40 (34.5%). With stats like these, the White Sox selected him in the fifth round of the 2017 draft.

Johnson split time with Great Falls and Kannapolis in 2017, and despite struggles with control, put up reasonably solid numbers considering he was just completing a long season. In a combined 22 games totaling 25 2/3 innings, he compiled a 3.86 ERA and 1.75 WHIP by relinquishing 26 hits (.263 OBA) and 19 walks (15.7%) while fanning 37 (30.6%). He started hitting many prospect lists after a terrific 2018 with Kannapolis and Winston-Salem, as he combined to post a spectacular 14 saves, 1.40 ERA and 0.88 WHIP over 41 outings. In his 58 innings for both teams, he surrendered just 35 hits (.172 OBA) and 16 walks (7.1%) while striking out a whopping 89 (39.4%).

After missing the first 2 1/2 months of the 2019 season with a lat strain, he pitched in 10 rehab outings with the AZL White Sox and Winston-Salem before finally donning the Birmingham Barons uniform on July 22. In 12 games for the Barons spanning 18 1/3 innings, Johnson posted a respectable 3.44 ERA and 0.87 WHIP by ceding just 10 hits (.154 OBA) and six walks (8.5%) while striking out 23 (32.4%).

MLB Pipeline ranks him 16th among all White Sox prospects, thanks to a 65-grade fastball which runs 92-96 mph but topping at 98. Other pitches in Johnson’s arsenal include a 50-grade slider and 45-grade changeup. Lefties hit only .156 against him while with Birmingham, so the changeup may actually be better than the grade. His control is graded at 50, as he has walked hitters at a 9.5% clip in his three-year professional career. However, his control can be tolerated as long as he maintains his career 35.8% strikeout rate. Because he wasn’t at Birmingham all that long this year, he may return there to begin the year. However, as long as he’s healthy, he’ll have a great chance to earn a promotion to Charlotte relatively early in 2020 and perhaps even a promotion to Chicago by season’s end.

Zack Burdi
6´3´´
205 pounds
Age: 25

Burdi, a native of suburban Downers Grove, excelled in his three years with the Louisville Cardinals. In his junior season, he saved 11 games with a 3.30 ERA and 0.87 WHIP by allowing just 17 hits (.167 OBA) and nine walks (7.7%) while fanning 47 (40.2%). Upon being drafted with the 26th pick in the 2016 MLB draft, Burdi quickly rose from the AZL White Sox to Charlotte. In this whirlwind year for Burdi, he pitched 26 games totaling 38 innings and posted solid 3.32 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. It certainly looked like he’d make it to the White Sox sooner rather than later.

Burdi scuffled a bit with Charlotte in 2017, which wasn’t totally surprising with it being his first full year in professional ball. In 29 games spanning 33 1/3 innings, he compiled a 4.05 ERA and 1.41 WHIP by relinquishing 30 hits (.231 OBA) and 17 walks (11.3%) while striking out 51 (33.8%). Unfortunately for Burdi and the White Sox, he underwent Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss nearly a full season of development. He did get in some rehab action late in the 2018 campaign with the AZL White Sox, but his velocity unsurprisingly wasn’t close to what had been pre-surgery.

This year saw Burdi at Kannapolis and Birmingham, but he struggled with a 6.75 ERA and 1.85 WHIP in 20 outings totaling 22 2/3 innings. He allowed 28 hits (.292 OBA) and 14 walks (12.6%) while fanning 30 (27.0%) in those innings. If you take away a three-game stretch in late May, Burdi’s combined ERA and WHIP would’ve been just 4.50 and 1.61 WHIP. His velocity was actually in the upper-90s when he went on the shelf in late June. This time, surgery was needed to repair a torn tendon in his patella.

MLB Pipeline still ranks Burdi 23rd among White Sox prospects, thanks in part to an 80-grade fastball that typically runs 95-100 mph when he’s on. His slider is considered an out-pitch and is graded 60 by MLB Pipeline, while he also features a plus changeup. Aside from health, control and command are his biggest weaknesses, although those factors should only improve with better health and experience. Burdi is eligible for the upcoming Rule 5 draft, and provided he’s added to the 40-man roster or goes unselected, he should begin the 2020 season with Charlotte.

Codi Heuer
6´5´´
195 pounds
Age: 25

After spending his first two seasons as a reliever with Wichita State, Heuer did reasonably well for the loaded Shockers as a starter during his junior season. In 16 appearances totaling 79 innings, he compiled a 4.31 ERA and 1.36 WHIP by ceding 71 hits (.238 OBA) and 37 walks (10.7%) while striking out 82 (23.6%). The White Sox liked his potential and selected the Montana native in the sixth round of the 2018 draft. Then, in 14 starts for Great Falls to close last season, Heuer scuffled a bit with the Voyagers in posting a 4.74 ERA and 1.66 WHIP in 38 innings. In those innings, he relinquished 49 hits (.310 OBA) and 14 walks (8.0%) while fanning 35 (19.9%).

Heuer was given an aggressive assignment for 2019, as he skipped Kannapolis and began the year with Winston-Salem in a bullpen role. Not only did he do well for the Dash, he was promoted to Birmingham on June 20 and produced equally solid numbers for the Barons as well. As one of the few power righties who was healthy and effective during the entire season, Heuer combined for a 2.39 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 11 saves with both teams. In his 42 appearances totaling 67 2/3 innings, he allowed 59 hits (.234 OBA) and just 15 walks (5.5%) while striking out 65 (23.6%).

As a result of his efforts, Heuer now ranks 24th among all White Sox prospects by MLB Pipeline. His fastball was graded 60 by MLB, as it peaked at 98 mph this year with sinking action; in fact, that sinking action forced hitters to beat the ball on the ground at an incredible 65.1% rate. Other offerings include a 55-grade slider which runs 82-85 mph with some bite, and a 50-grade changeup which helps neutralize lefties. His 50-grade control and command actually could increase to 55 if he can maintain that low walk ratio for another year. Heuer should see significant time at Charlotte in 2020, with a possible chance for promotion to Chicago if he obviously does well.

Alec Hansen
6´7´´
235 pounds
Age: 25

As a member of the Oklahoma Sooners which also included future White Sox pitching farmhands J.B. Olson and Jake Elliott, Hansen was actually considered a candidate for the first overall pick in the 2016 draft. That is, until control issues got the best of him. In 14 appearances (10 starts) in his junior season, he compiled a 5.40 ERA and 1.61 WHIP by relinquishing 44 hits (.228 OBA) and 39 walks (16.2%) while striking out 75 (31.0%) in 51 2/3 innings.

The White Sox, recognizing his vast upside, selected Hansen in the second round of that year’s draft. He immediately paid dividends, as he combined with three teams (AZL, Great Falls and Kannapolis) to post an incredible 1.32 ERA and 0.80 WHIP over 54 2/3 innings by allowing just 24 hits (.133 OBA) and 20 walks (9.7%) while fanning 81 (39.3%) to finish the 2016 campaign.

Hansen enjoyed an incredible 2017 with Kannapolis, Winston-Salem and Birmingham in which he combined for a 2.80 ERA, 1.17 WHIP in 141 1/3 innings as he relinquished 114 hits (.216 OBA) and 51 walks (8.6%) while striking out an amazing 191 hitters (32.4%). Unfortunately, a 2018 spring training forearm injury led to mechanical issues which ultimately impacted his already-tenuous control and command. He lost all semblance of the plate, and walked more than a hitter per inning. He was eventually demoted to Winston-Salem but with similar disappointing results. Overall for this lost season, he posted a 6.31 ERA and 2.01 WHIP over 14 starts; in his 51 1/3 innings, Hansen allowed 44 hits (.242 OBA) and 59 walks (24.0%) while striking out 55 (22.4%).

In nine relief appearances with Winston-Salem to begin 2019, Hansen looked like his old self with a 2.13 ERA, 0.63 WHIP and 44.7 K%. However, Hansen again struggled throwing strikes once he was promoted to Birmingham on May 4. In 30 appearances for the Barons totaling 39 2/3 innings, he compiled a 5.45 ERA and 2.02 WHIP by relinquishing 43 hits (.281 OBA) and 37 walks (19.1%) while striking out 45 (23.2%). Extremely notable is that Hansen did have one start this year for Birmingham and it turned out disastrously: he allowed four earned runs with five walks and a hit while only getting one out.

Has he been battling injuries all this time? Has it been mechanical issues (not uncommon for someone his size) that’s been the culprit, and is he simply rushing his delivery? Is it a lack of confidence, or is he simply trying too hard? Perhaps some combination of all the above.

Despite his struggles, Hansen has enough upside to be ranked 27th among all White Sox prospects according to MLB Pipeline. His fastball is graded 65, thanks to a 94-99 mph fastball with running action A 55-grade curveball, as well as a slider and changeup, complete his repertoire. Hansen is eligible for selection in this year’s Rule 5 draft, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the White Sox avoid adding him to the 40-man roster. Perhaps another team may claim him, but he’d be quite the risk due to his lack of control. If not selected in the Rule 5, Hansen likely will return to Birmingham for the 2020 season.

Danny Dopico
6´2´´
210 pounds
Age: 26

Dopico was a well-traveled collegian, as he pitched his first season for Siena College, his sophomore year with Broward Junior College and his junior season with Florida International University. While he posted fairly pedestrian numbers in his first two college years, Dopico really excelled with Florida International in 27 relief appearances totaling 45 innings. That year, he posted a 1.99 ERA and 0.99 WHIP by allowing 25 hits (.160 OBA) and 20 walks (10.6%) while fanning 57 (30.2%). Upon being drafted in the 11th round by the White Sox in the 2015 draft, he held his own for Great Falls that year with a 4.37 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 37.3 K%.

The 2016-18 seasons saw Dopico pitch primarily for the A-level squads in Kannapolis and Winston-Salem. The 2018 season was the best of them, as he compiled a 2.98 ERA and 1.22 WHIP for the Dash in 32 outings (57 1/3 innings), allowing 44 hits (.211 OBA) and 26 walks (10.8%) while striking out 76 (31.7%). Dopico pitched exclusively for Birmingham this year, and provided better results despite walking more hitters by allowing fewer hits. In 43 appearances for the Barons in 2019 spanning 62 2/3 innings, he posted a 2.59 ERA and 1.13 WHIP by surrendering 36 hits (.168 OBA) and 35 walks (13.5%) as opposed to 73 strikeouts (28.2%).

2080 Baseball grades Dopico’s fastball at 55, as it typically runs 93-95 mph with terrific running action when elevated. He primarily uses a 50-grade slider against righties, while he uses his 55-grade splitter (arguably his best pitch) against lefties. The splitter worked especially well, as lefties only hit .145 against his offerings this year. Despite his splendid numbers, it’s unlikely Dopico will be added to the 40-man roster prior to this year’s Rule 5 draft. If unselected in that draft, Dopico has a good chance of beginning the 2020 season with Charlotte.

Other right-handed relievers who finished the season with Birmingham
Vince Arobio (3.80 ERA, 1.06 WHIP), Luis Martinez (4.26 ERA, 1.29 WHIP) and Mauricio Cabrera (4.50 ERA, 2.06 WHIP).


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