CLEVELAND — All eyes were on highly-rated prospects Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Carson Fulmer during the Charlotte Knights’ first week of 2017, but the player at the White Sox’ AAA affiliate who may have turned the most heads was Willy Garcia.
Obtained on waivers in January after he was designated for assignment by the Pirates, the 24-year-old right fielder seems to be serious about fixing the plate discipline issue that have stalled his ascent to the major leagues.
“Things are definitely trending in the right direction for him,” said Sox director of player development Chris Getz, who was in Charlotte to watch the Knights kick off their season. “He’s an interesting guy. Very athletic — he has a lot of tools.”
At 6-2, 215 pounds, the right-handed hitting Dominican has always been that — athletic and “toolsy.” But his high strikeout rate and declining power at AAA Indianapolis in 2016 prompted the Pirates, who signed him to a $280,000 bonus in 2010 — the most they spent on any international hitter that year — to cut him loose.
It’s early, but something seems to have clicked for Garcia, who batted .500 (11-for-22) with two homers, a double, eight walks, six strikeouts and six RBI in the Knights’ first six games. He was named the International League’s first Hitter of the Week, and his progress will be something worth watching in the weeks ahead.
“I can’t speak to his time in Pittsburgh but since we got him, he’s been a guy who shows up every day, wants to work and understands what he needs to do to improve,” Getz said. “He knows what his plate discipline issues were. And he’s done a lot of things to correct some of the things that got him in trouble. He’s starting to take walks. He was a guy who tried to do too much.”
The Sox saw changes in spring training and have seen more of the same during a week at AAA, where Garcia is batting fourth in the Knights lineup. With Melky Cabrera going on paternity leave during the Sox weekend series in Minnesota, Garcia is the likely choice to replace him on the roster.
“He’s a strong kid,” Getz said. “He doesn’t need to try to generate power. He can use the whole field and when he does that, and stays on the ball and he lays off the off-speed early in the count, he can still drive the ball to the pull side.”
Garcia hit one homer to the opposite field and pulled another to left, on a slider down and in from a left-hander. Getz said Garcia profiles as “a solid defender in right field with a powerful arm.”
Garcia was named team Defensive Player of the Year at Indy last season, and it was only two offseasons ago when Baseball America rated him 12th among Pirates prospects. The publication cited Garcia’s “incredible arm” and speed as reasons why. But after hitting to .285/.324/.467 slash line with 23 homers and 11 steals in 698 AA plate appearances in the Pirates system in 2014 and 2015, he regressed to .245/.290/.388 with 16 homers at AAA.
The Sox saw enough to take a shot. They already have two Garcias on the 25-man roster, including right fielder Avisail Garcia and utility man Leury Garcia. For Avisail, this feels like something of a make-or-break season after playing through two full seasons below expectations, although his age (25) is still something to be considered. Should he falter, Willy might be the Garcia waiting in the wings to take some of his time in right. Avisail is protecting his turf early, hitting .435 with a homer, triple and team-high five RBI in his first six games (albeit with two errors on routine fly balls).
There’s always room for another.
“He loves to play, always a smile on his face,” Getz said. “I think he’s got a chance.”