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White Sox Prospect Profile: Can Adam Engel build on strong AFL?

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Nov 7, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Chicago White Sox outfielder Adam Engel during the Arizona Fall League Fall Stars game at Salt River Fields. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 7, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Chicago White Sox outfielder Adam Engel during the Arizona Fall League Fall Stars game at Salt River Fields. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /
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Chicago White Sox outfield prospect Adam Engel will be one of twenty non-roster invitees to attend camp with the club in Arizona when the team reports to camp on February 19.

Engel is a quintessential lottery ticket, whose profile oozes with tools but lacks the projectability to make him a lock on national lists. Drafted in the 19th round of the 2013 draft, the hype was not exactly there but his draft position may have been more indicative of signability concerns rather than overall value.

He checks in as the organization’s fourteenth best prospect, per MLBPipeline. They peg him with the following grades. Hit: 40, Power: 45, Run: 70, Arm: 45, Field: 60, Overall: 45.

Obviously, what stands out is the “run” tool, which is in plus-plus territory and it’s certainly translated in games. Engel swiped 31 bags in rookie ball back in 2013, and 39 across three levels (R, A, A+) in 2014.

He had an eye-popping 65 stolen bases for High-A Winston-Salem last season and it’s the facet of his game that brings the most allure.

Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Of course the speed helps his defense play up, and despite having an average arm, he has the makings of a quality center-fielder. In my opinion, the 45 grade on power might be on the low-end. The 24 year-old should grow into his 6-1, 215 lb frame and he has the bat speed to drive balls.

Where the real issue lies is in the hit tool. It is the main caveat to what is an otherwise promising profile. The 6.7 percent career walk rate, paired with a 25.5 percent career strikeout rate are the main red flags but he did show decent improvements across 2015.

His 10.2%/21.7% walk-strikeout ratio last year is  playable, and although it would be nice to see the whiffs edge under 20 percent considering the lack of offsetting power, it’s not a bad juncture for a 24 year-old.

Engel was just a prospect laying in the weeds during 2015. An intriguing, yet hard to project player who was somewhat overshadowed by Jacob May, he burst onto the scene during the Arizona Fall League.

I wouldn’t call the AFL Adam Engel’s coming out party. Well you sort of could, but then that implies that there was a reason to party in the first place. If he breaks out in 2016, then it’ll be looked at as a tip-of-the-iceberg performance, in a sense a preview of what was to come.

If not, it’ll merely be a mirage. The type of trickery that lotto ticket prospects are prone to show from time to time. Still, it’s hard to ignore the numbers.

In 19 games with the AFL Desert Dogs, Engel exploded with a .403/.523/.642 slash line that screams future superstar. His slash line was backed by an absurd 18.6 percent walk rate against a shiny 12.8 percent K-percentage.

These numbers were good enough to earn Engel a batting title, and MVP honors. A quick snapshot of the last five AFL winners shows just how volatile this designation can be.

Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports /

Greg Bird (2014)

Kris Bryant (2013)

Chris McGuiness (2012)

Nolan Arenado (2011)

Dustin Ackley (2010)

For every Arenado, there’s a McGuiness and if you peruse further down the list you’ll find more of the latter.

So before you screenshot .403/.523/.642 and text your best baseball pal that the White Sox have the next Mike Trout, it’s important to look at another number; 86. That’s the amount of plate appearances that fueled that robust line, and unfortunately it’s not even a spoonful worth of a sample, meaning that you might have to add salt.

Then again, while the .464 BABIP screams regression, the performance did come on the heels of a changed approach.

FanGraph’s Dan Farnsworth recently ranked Engel as the organization’s number four prospect, as he’s a firm believer in his AFL performance and buys that a new approach was the main catalyst.

Engel credited his turn around to a more patient approach that centered on enhanced selectively favoring pitches that he can drive. This is intuitive and would likely lead to better results, but it’s something that’s easier said than done. The fact that Engel did it is impressive, but a refined swing may have been the more defining factor.

While Farnsworth talks about a more fluid, synchronized motion in his overall movement towards the ball as difference maker, his discussion of the changed swing is what intrigues me. Per Farnsworth:

"And finally, his swing path has leveled out considerably, unlike the chop down to the ball he had during the regular season…The changes in posture and bat path put him in position to drive balls into the outfield rather than filleting balls that dump over the infielders’ heads."

A swing that caters to a little more loft is integral for Engel because it allows him to use his bat speed to unlock some of that raw power built into his frame. Bat speed and body strength are moot if one merely operates like a slap-hitter.

Now that Engel’s swing fits his tools better, I think we’ll start to see a special player emerge in the coming year. Spring Training will be his chance to see even more upper echelon talent, and for someone who is trying to break onto the scene; the bigger the test, the better.

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What I truly love about Engel is his floor. I view him as a rare prospect that has a window of upside but isn’t a total boom or bust player either.

His plus-plus speed and strong center-field defense already frames him as a fourth outfielder. If the hit tool comes around and some of raw power in his athletic frame begins to turn gap-doubles into home runs, well then there might just be a new angle on Engel.

There isn’t a position player in the system outside of Tim Anderson that I’m more excited to follow this year. Maybe it’s couched in a desire to see the White Sox finally convert on a toolsy outfielder or redeem themselves for missing on Mike Trout, but there’s just something about Adam Engel that grips me.

2016 performance will be a telling barometer on Engel, but there’s a chance the White Sox are finally going to cash in on a lotto ticket and if Engel’s AFL is any indication, they could be in for a mega payday.

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