Of course, as Sox fans, we know that 2016 was a year that teased us only to leave us crushed and heartbroken again. As the team across town blazed through the major leagues and ended up with a ring, the White Sox burned bright for the first month and then quickly fizzled like a shooting star. Now, as we watch that team being dismantled and hope for the best with the new, young, talent, we look back and 2016, searching for any and all bright spots.
Fortunately, there was one, although it might not be in a place you were paying any attention to. Beyond the pitching performances of Chris Sale, the White Sox Triple-A franchise, the Charlotte Knights, made the 2016 baseball season exciting and showed determination, heart and grit that nearly put them into the post season.
For many, there have been nothing but moans and groans about how the Sox have not done enough to plan for the future. In 2016, the Knights started off by stumbling out of the gate quite badly. They were the exact opposite of the major league team. They quickly plummeted in the standings, and the fears of a lack of a decent farm system looked like they were playing out for fans right then and there.
Fortunately, the Knights had manager Julio Vinas and he, along with the young talent, showed they were determined. Slowly, as the late spring turned into early summer, the team started winning. And winning. And winning. By the time June and July came around and the White Sox were looking desperately for anything that would get them back into the hunt, the Charlotte Knights were in first place and it looked like they might be headed into the post season.
Vinas managed to keep a cool head and found combinations of pitching and batting that kept them in the hunt. After the All-Star break, the team stumbled again, falling out of first, but they clawed back yet again. This was something they would repeat several times for the rest of the summer. This was not a perfect team, by any means, but a team that just kept finding ways to scratch out wins, using all of the weapons in their arsenal to come up with a way to get back into first place.
The end of the season approached and the Knights fell out of first again. At this late stage, they were hampered by the big league team plucking their best players out of the lineup on a routine basis to try to fill holes and hope for the best in Chicago. Despite this, as the final weeks of the season came around and the White Sox looked like they were going to stay out of the basement only because the Twins were so much worse, the Knights once again ended up in first.
Unfortunately, the season and possible post-season came down to a final game. It came down to a game between the Knights and the Gwinnett Braves to determine who would make it into the post-season. Although the Knights battled hard and tried to chip away at the lead the Braves mounted early, they fell short. They ended up not making a trip into the playoffs, but they were very literally in it until the very absolute last game of the season.
The organization has reorganized now. Vinas has been moved to managing the Birminghan Barons for 2017. Mark Grudzielanek has been named the new Knights manager.
The White Sox have shown that they are turning their eyes to the future. They are bringing young talent to the big league team, but they have also shown a few signs of recognizing the need to keep feeding hot prospects into the farm system. So, while the White Sox on the south side are likely to stumble as these new young players find their footing, it may pay for Sox fans to keep an eye on the farm system in 2017.
If I could express my opinion for a moment. I felt that Vinas showed a talent for managing a team that was constantly changing around him and motivating his team to keep fighting until the last. If it were me, I’d have given him a chance to manage the big league team. We’ll see what he can do with the struggling Barons and maybe he’ll get a shot at the Big Show sooner rather than later.
Logo from the Charlotte Knights and Major League Baseball.