OF prospects go from strength to question

Courtney Hawkins, the White Sox's first-round pick in 2012, is batting .191 with a .259 on-base percentage for Single-A Winston Salem. Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images via AP Images

CHICAGO -- The outfield was supposed to be an area of strength in the Chicago White Sox farm system, yet it ended up being the area the club addressed with improvements this year.

This spring, the White Sox were the envy of every club void of rising young outfield stars, boasting prospects like Jared Mitchell, Keenyn Walker, Trayce Thompson and Baseball America's No. 1 overall prospect in the organization, Courtney Hawkins.

The issues started with Mitchell and that was an alarming sign since he was supposed to lead the train of young outfielders into U.S. Cellular Field over successive seasons.

Struggles at Triple-A Charlotte, combined with an oblique injury, earned Mitchell a ticket back to Double-A Birmingham, where he has failed to get on track. In 74 games on two levels, Mitchell has batted just .172 with a .302 on-base percentage and a .268 slugging percentage. He has also struck out 100 times compared to 43 hits.

Without a major league-ready outfield prospect on the cusp of a breakthrough, the White Sox acquired Avisail Garcia in the three-team trade that sent Jake Peavy to the Boston Red Sox. In June they sent Matt Thornton to the Red Sox in exchange for outfielder Brandon Jacobs.

Earlier in the year, the White Sox targeted the outfield when they signed free agent Micker Adolfo Zapata out of the Dominican Republic, one of the top international prospects on the market.

For a team with four highly regarded outfield prospects when the season began, adding three more during the year appeared to be a sign of concern for how things were developing.

Walker's numbers at Double-A (.203/.328/.283) have been only slightly better than Mitchell's. His 131 strikeouts lead the Southern League. Thompson (.232/.327/.377) has the third-most strikeouts in the Southern League with 119.

Down at Class A Winston Salem in the Carolina League, Hawkins had a .191 batting average with a .259 on-base percentage, but still managed to post a .439 slugging percentage. He also leads his league in strikeouts with 138, 25 more than the next closest player on the list.

Asked if the struggles are a major worry, executive vice president Kenny Williams couldn't deny it, but suggested that all is not exactly as it seems.

"Well, it is and it isn't [a concern]," Williams said. "I think many times we don't have guys excel to the degree I think their talent will allow them in the minor leagues because we're trying to do some things specific with their development. [We're trying to] get them to the big leagues and have them have success in the big leagues, so you don't have to keep sending guys back."

In an effort to develop them as all-around players, the White Sox don't want their prospects to lean on their strengths. Fine. But it's a strategy that seems to have benefits and disadvantages, especially when it comes to a player's confidence.

"In the case of a lot of guys, we could say, 'Go on up there and swing freely and hit your 22, 25 home runs and you'll be ranked higher in Baseball America and we'll be ranked higher as an organization,'" Williams said. "But does that help you against Rick Porcello's breaking ball to stay inside the baseball and have the ability to drive the ball to right-center field, or Zack Greinke, or any of the other top pitchers in the game?"

It's a development strategy routinely applied to pitchers, with the White Sox deciding to broaden its reach.

"We could've sent a Nate Jones out there, for instance, and he could've dominated in the minor leagues with a 100 mph fastball, but we forced him to throw his breaking ball, we forced him to throw his changeup and while that didn't help him in the minor leagues, I think one could make an argument that he certainly needs it here and that has helped him develop at a much faster pace at the big league level," Williams said. "So, that's kind of our concern."

It's clear, though, that with the struggles from its prospects, an organization that started the year known for its outfielders will be changing to one that will be touted for its rising young arms. Right-hander Erik Johnson and left-handers Charlie Leesman and Scott Snodgress figure to shoot up the prospect rankings, while even Zapata is expected to appear on the list, while other outfielders drop.

It doesn't mean that players such as Mitchell, Walker, Thompson and Hawkins have completely fallen off the organization's radar. All are still very young, with only Mitchell older than 23 (Walker turned 23 on Monday), but repeating their minor league level next year seems more than likely.

"There are still some guys that, even with all of that [development], there's still some performances that are subpar and guys have to make some adjustments in the offseason, because we're disappointed," Williams said.