White Sox Prospect Cristian Mena Is an Arm To Watch in 2024

Prospect Cristian Mena has quickly ascended through the White Sox farm system and will soon be knocking on the door of the big leagues.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - OCTOBER 01: A fan displays a sign during a game between the Chicago White Sox and the San Diego Padres at Guaranteed Rate Field on October 01, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. The Padres defeated the White Sox 2-1. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)

In a little under a month from now right-handed pitcher Cristian Mena will turn 21 years old. Yet, he just finished up his third year with the White Sox organization, and second out of rookie ball.

The right-hander is a young developing arm that is currently ranked No. 10 on the Sox prospect top-30 list by MLB.com. His age may show that he is still beginning his development, even so Mena’s talent is already starting to look pretty mature. 

After a rough showing in rookie ball over the 2021 season, in which he ended with an ERA of 7.82, Mena was ready to prove that he was worth the high praise. 

Coming into the 2023 season, Mena had only pitched in 11 games in Low-A, 10 games in High-A and three games in Double-A. Over the course of the 2022 season, His ERA grew by around two every leap that he made.

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In Low-A he pitched to a 2.68 ERA, allowing 45 hits and 16 earned runs to go with 66 strikeouts. Mena’s efforts were good enough for a K% of 30.7% and a K/9 of 11.07. The then 19-year-old was dealing at his first stop in the White Sox organization. Also during his time in Kannapolis, Cristian had at least eight strikeouts in five of his 11 appearances. 

It did not take long for the club to take notice of the youngster as he was promoted to High-A after 53.2 innings of a 1.12 WHIP. In his first start since making the first of two jumps during the season, he needed to find his stride as he gave up six hits and only struck out two.

Those numbers may not have been what he was producing in the lower level, yet he only allowed one earned run in 5.0 innings pitched. 

Like previously stated, Mena’s numbers kept rising as the season went on and the competition he faced got a little more experienced. Instead of dominating with eight plus strikeouts the consistency turned to six or seven, which led to more runs being scored on the right-hander. 

His numbers took the most damage in High-A with the Dash. His once stellar strikeout and walk percentage started heading in not the right directions. Mena’s K% fell two percent, while his BB% rose around five percent to 12.3%. The result was an ERA that jumped up to 4.65.

Mena may not have been the most prepared for his sudden jump up a level, but it would not get any easier for the righty as Project Birmingham continued the rapid movement.

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The White Sox now GM Chris Getz masterminded an idea to bring together all of the farm systems top talent in Double-A. No matter the season you were having, you were being brought up to Birmingham to see a glimpse of what the organization might have with their prospects. 

Mena wasn’t the only to see production slip as well as a little bit of confidence as the team as a whole did not perform up to expectation. The team went 10-14 in the games that they all played together. 

Cristian’s ERA continued to rise, yet his outings started to look more and more like his early season self. Mena’s K-BB% smashed to a 26.7%, the highest in his career thus far. He wasn’t spectacular at the Double-A level, pitching to a 6.30 ERA in three starts. Be that as it may, the youngster proved enough for the Sox to assign him to Double-A to kick off the 2023 season. 

Mena’s confidence didn’t seem to decline with his numbers. The Pimental, Dominican Republic product seemed to carry the same attitude the whole season, no matter the level that he was pitching. 

Confidence and production can sometimes go hand-and-hand, especially in baseball. Mena had shown little bursts of star talent a few times in his career so far, despite his numbers not being so great to close out the year in Double-A. His confidence and production could have continued the spiral downward. But, he shined this past season, when it looked like he was going to be the Barons third-best option in their starting rotation. 

When introductions were made for the Barons in their pre-season media lunch-in, Mena’s name was called on third behind names like Garrett Schoenle and current No. 22 prospect Matthew Thompson. To be fair, the young hurler was not supposed to take the steps that he did in his third year in the minors. 

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Mena kicked off the year with an outing that seemed rather similar to his later performances the prior season. The righty allowed four hits, three runs and got attributed the loss in his first four innings pitched of the season. His numbers were rather giving, but what would surprise most is that he collected nine strikeouts. 

He would continue his season with two stellar outings in which he gave up two earned runs and achieved six strikeouts in both, along with his first win of the season. Mena’s start to the season was solid, however the best was yet to come. 

In his next two starts for the Barons he earned two more wins hurling 6.0 IP in each. Cristian also flexed his strikeout numbers as he struck out 10 and 11, respectively. Mena now sat 3-1 in five outings, with a combined 42 strikeouts in 25 innings pitched.

If there was any sign that the youngster was playing with confidence, that was it.

Mena was the most consistent and impressive starting pitcher for the Barons to kick off the season. Even if that title was not the most glamorous. The Barons struggled throughout the season as they got last place in the Southern League and finished with a run differential of -218. Little was Mena’s fault as he only surpassed three earned runs allowed three times in 23 starts for the Barons. 

Despite the aid, or lack thereof, that the defense and other pitchers were giving, Mena kept on dealing at the mound. Even if they came in different ways than usual for the right-hander. 

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Mena experienced his growing pains as he is still on his way in forms of developing. There were short frustrating outings mixed in with long successful ones, and vice versa. The constant was that he was going to cause your lineup some sort of trouble as his LOB% rose to his third-highest in 70.3% just one year after having a 57.7% LOB% in Double-A. 

His time on the mound in Birmingham seemed more mature and well thought out. Mena was really getting the command from the mound so many had known he would obtain. He finished his Double-A campaign with a 4.66 ERA and a record of 7-6 with 136 strikeouts.

Mena finished the year tied for the most strikeouts with Thompson, despite playing in four less games with the Barons. Once a player starts to show consistency at a level, it starts to become time for them to try out the next one. Which is why Mena was promoted to Triple-A for his final four starts of the season. 

In Mena’s first start with the Knights he allowed four hits and two earned runs to go with three strikeouts in 5.0 IP. The outing was marked as a loss, yet his first time playing against the top tier minor league players at 20 years old is rather promising. 

Mena did not show out too much in his limited starts for Charlotte as he finished with a 5.95 ERA and a WHIP of 1.78. Mena did, however, display his strikeout numbers as he had two consecutive starts with seven and six, respectively. 

The strides that the promising prospect took in the 2023 season were not just noticed by the players and teammates around him, they were noticed by the scouting staff for the White Sox. On November 14, 2023, Mena’s contract was selected by the Sox to add him to the 40-man roster. 

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In the type of rebuilding that the Sox are doing, a young arm like Mena’s is something that they would love to become a major league option sooner rather than later. Especially with speculation that the starting rotation may lose its best arm in Dylan Cease via trade. 

Mena’s ETA to the south side of Chicago is 2024. As far as finding a role in the rotation it looks to be the back half of the 2024 season, after getting his legs under him in the Triple-A level to start the year. 

Cristian’s future is brighter than his No. 10 ranked position makes him. The only reason he slipped down the list was because of the moves that the White Sox made during the 2023 deadline that shot them inside the top-10 without playing in the organization. 

Mena has four pitchers ahead of him in the ranks in Noah Schultz, Jake Eder, Nick Nastrini and Ky Bush. Three of which were acquired by trade in Eder, Nastrini and Bush. Schultz is 20 years old and just finished his first season in Low-A. Eder and Bush both had lackluster seasons as they are trying to bounce back from injuries. And, Nastrini looks like a major league ready arm. 

Mena is in good company at the top of the ranks, but do not be surprised if in 2024 he starts to become the most talked about name in a revamped prospect list.