Deep Dive: Charlotte and Birmingham first basemen
Birmingham burst: Gavin Sheets hit more homers in 2019 than in his previous two years combined. (Sean Williams/South Site Hit Pen)
“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization. Each position is broken into a five-part series:
- Depth in the rookie levels (Dominican through Great Falls)
- Depth in A-ball (Kannapolis and Winston-Salem)
- Depth in the higher levels (Birmingham and Charlotte)
- Under the Radar-type detail on one of the White Sox players at that position
- Free agent options at that position
This article delves into the first basemen who finished the year with Charlotte and Birmingham. Despite the fact that two of these first basemen actually played for the White Sox this year, the entire Charlotte crop consists of essentially AAAA players. The true prospect on this list is Gavin Sheets, who enjoyed his best power season to date this year at pitching-friendly Regions Field in Birmingham.
(age as of April 1, 2020)
Other positions played: Third base
Skole enjoyed a fantastic sophomore season with Georgia Tech in 2010, when he slashed .335/.446/.682 with 15 doubles, 20 homers, 63 RBIs, 45 walks and 34 strikeouts. While his other numbers were similar as a junior, his home run production fell by half. That, and concerns about his defense, caused him to slip to the fifth round of the 2011 draft when the Washington Nationals selected him with the 157th overall pick.
After a productive first two years in the Nationals system, where he advanced through their A+ affiliate in Potomac, Skole had difficulty hitting for a high average afterward. In fact, in his last five years in their organization, Skole's best season-ending average was .244 in Triple-A Syracuse. When his slash line dipped to .222/.303/.453 with 11 homers in an injury-marred 2017, the Nationals let him loose via free agency.
In January 2018, the White Sox signed him to a minor league contract. When he got off to a fast start with Charlotte, and the White Sox needed help in late May last year, Skole made his major league debut and did respectably in his four-game stint. After being demoted to Charlotte in early June, he finished the season with Charlotte with his typical .237/.336/.404 line with 14 homers.
Despite a low average for the Charlotte in 2019, Skole was able to get on base via on a regular basis and mashed in the hitting-friendly BB&T Ballpark. With the Knights, Skole ended up slashing .248/.384/.497 in 92 games as he produced 15 doubles, 21 homers, 56 RBIs, 70 walks (17.9%) and 99 strikeouts (25.3%). Unfortunately, he couldn't translate that work into major league success. In 27 games totaling 72 at-bats for the White Sox, he slashed just .208/.275/.236 with two doubles, six RBIs, seven walks (8.8%) and 31 strikeouts (38.8%).
The White Sox designated Skole for assignment this past Monday, making him a free agent after the World Series. While it's possible that Skole could re-sign with the White Sox, it's difficult to see any way he receives significant playing time in the White Sox organization going forward. The team will likely either use Zack Collins, or some acquisition via trade or free agency, to fill their DH spot. As for Charlotte, Gavin Sheets will likely be next year's starter while the younger A.J. Reed would handle the DH role. If Skile does re-sign with Chicago, the likeliest scenario for Skole to return to Charlotte would be as a third baseman.
Reed was one of the best two-way college players during his career at Kentucky, where he served as the Wildcats ace and first baseman. In fact, as a junior for the Wildcats, he went 12-2 on the mound with a 2.09 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. As a first baseman that year, he also excelled as he slashed .336/.476/.735 with 18 doubles, 23 homers, 73 RBIs, 49 walks (16.9%) and 48 strikeouts (16.6%). His prolific play in both facets of the game helped him win the 2014 Golden Spikes Award as the best amateur player in the country. With success like that, it was no wonder that the Houston Astros selected him with the first pick in the second round of that year's MLB draft.
Reed progressed rapidly through the Astros system, and did well at every stop. For example, in 2015 with Single-A+ Lancaster and Double-A Corpus Christi, he combined to slash .340/.432/.612 with 30 doubles, 34 homers, 127 RBIs, 86 walks (13.8%) and 122 strikeouts (19.6%). After performing well with Triple-A Fresno (.291/.368/.556 in 70 games with 22 doubles and 15 homers) in 2016, he was promoted to the Astros and failed miserably in 45 games (.164/.270/.262 with three homers, 18 walks and 48 strikeouts). While performing decently with Fresno the following two years, his numbers did slip a bit and he struggled with his very limited opportunities with the Astros.
After struggling with Houston's new Triple-A squad in Round Rock this year, with a .224/.329/.469 slash line and 12 homers in 56 games, he was designated on waivers and the White Sox picked him up less than a week later, on July 8. It seemed like an opportunity to swoop in on a bargain, because as recently as 2015 Reed had been one of the top prospects in the game with 55 hit and 60 power tools according to MLB Pipeline. Unfortunately for Reed and the White Sox, he scuffled in 14 games by slashing just .136/.204/.205 with a homer, four RBIs, four walks (8.2%) and 21 strikeouts (42.9%). He was subsequently outrighted to Charlotte in August, and struggled with his demotion by slashing just .179/.238/.282 in 10 games. It seems that Reed's bat just isn't fast enough to catch up with the advanced heat.
As of now, it seems Reed will be penciled in the DH spot for Charlotte as Sheets will likely be its everyday first baseman. There's always the possibility of the White Sox converting him into a reliever, much like they're trying to do with former Tampa Bay first-rounder catcher Justin O'Conner. In the meantime, Reed is a cautionary tale that "can't miss" prospects sometimes do.
Other positions played: Left field, Third base, Right field
Tomscha, a native of Sioux City, Iowa, played his first two years of college ball with Iowa Western CC before transferring to Auburn for his junior and senior seasons. As a senior for the Tigers, he did quite well as their third baseman as he slashed .313/.436/.443 over 54 games with five homers, 29 RBIs, 26 walks (11.7%) and just 23 strikeouts (10.4%). Despite his lack of power, Tomscha was selected in the 17th round of the 2014 draft by the Philadelphia Phillies. Baseball Draft Report said of him at the time, "He’s a really good athlete with a pretty swing, plus arm, and good raw defensive tools."
After producing solid numbers for the Lakewood (Single-A) and Clearwater (Single-A+) in 2015 and 2016 respectively, Tomscha enjoyed a terrific 2017 split between Clearwater and Double-A Reading as he combined to slash .307/.386/.439 by producing 16 doubles, 11 homers, 52 RBIs, 38 walks (9.0%) and 57 strikeouts (13.4%) in 109 games. Last year saw Tomscha's numbers slip a bit with Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley, as he combined to slash a still-respectable .272/.334/.443 in 119 games with 16 doubles, 17 homers, 62 RBIs, 33 walks (6.9%) and 74 strikeouts (15.5%).
After getting off to a terrible start with Lehigh Valley this year by slashing .219/.301/.399 in 53 games, the Phillies released him on June 20. The White Sox inked him eight days later and assigned him to Birmingham, where he fared much better with a .269/.333/.410 line in 42 games. Tomscha spent his final two games this year with Charlotte, and got one hit in seven at-bats. Though he played more games at first base this year, those appearances were mostly spent with Lehigh Valley as he spent more time at third and left with the Barons. With Sheets and Reed expected to handle first base/DH duties in Charlotte this year, Tomscha could be vying with Trey Michalczewski for playing time at the hot corner.
Gavin, the son of former Oriole slugger Larry Sheets, showed great plate discipline during his three years with Wake Forest. After hitting a combined 11 homers in his first two seasons, his junior year saw him turn it up a notch as he hit 21. That year with the Demon Deacons, Sheets slashed .317/.424/.629 in 63 games with those 21 homers, 10 doubles, 46 walks (15.6%) and just 37 strikeouts (12.5%). With numbers like that, it was no wonder that the White Sox selected him in the second round of the 2017 draft. After the draft, combined with the AZL squad and Kannapolis to slash .279/.365/.397 in 56 games with 12 doubles, four homers, 28 RBIs, 23 walks (9.8%) and 34 strikeouts (14.5%).
Against stronger competition in 2018 with Winston-Salem, Sheets produced similar numbers to the year before. In 119 games totaling 437 at-bats, Sheets slashed .293/.368/.407 with 28 doubles, two triples, six homers, 61 RBIs, 52 walks (10.5%) and 81 strikeouts (16.3%). Just like his junior season, however, Sheets turned his power up a notch in his third professional campaign. In 126 games totaling 464 at-bats, of which half were spent at pitching-friendly Regions Field, he slashed .267/.345/.414 with 18 doubles, 16 homers, 83 RBIs, 54 walks (10.2%) and 99 strikeouts (18.8%) for Birmingham. His numbers would've been even better, if not for a difficult April in which he slashed just .207/.286/.293.
Sheets is ranked second among White Sox first base prospects, and 13th overall, by MLB Pipeline. They give him 50 grades for his power, hit and fielding tools while giving him a 55 for his throwing arm. The site also says of him, "The White Sox believe more home runs will come as he starts incorporating his legs more in his left-handed swing and makes an adjustment to stop hooking balls foul down the right-field line. He has a smooth stroke and controls the strike zone well for a big man, so he should hit for average and draw a healthy amount of walks."
Sheets will be expected to get the lion's share of Charlotte's first base duties in 2020, and his success there may well determine his role going forward. With Andrew Vaughn now also in the picture, Sheets will also be vying with players like Zack Collins and (perhaps) Yermín Mercedes for the 1B/DH role beginning in 2021. This doesn't even include the possibility of the White Sox signing a full-time DH like J.D. Martinez during this offseason. At the very least, if Sheets should rake for the Knights, he could be an attractive trade piece during next year's trade deadline.