It’s been a while since true, prolonged excitement filled the South Side of Chicago about the White Sox. But two days away from the strangest baseball season one could imagine, the White Sox have ample reason for buzzing about what this season can bring.
The Sox aren’t contenders yet, at least not in theory. But the 2020 team has drawn comparisons to the 2015 version of their North Side rival Cubs, a franchise that tore everything to to its studs, spent years in the basement while accruing young talent and finally broke through. 2015, the prelude to a World Series victory, saw the fruits of the Cubs’ rebuild pay off, fueled mostly by an unbelievable pitching stretch by Jake Arrieta and a Rookie of the Year season by Kris Bryant, considered the face of the rebuild.
While Arrietta’s run in 2015 was completely unpredictable and it is thus futile to try and predict a White Sox pitcher putting together a similar season, the general themes of each team remain the same: Young, potentially super-star talent finally paying off. And as Bryant was for the Cubs’ rebuild, it seems the White Sox have a face of their rise in Luis Robert, who added a sacrifice RBI in the Sox’ 5-3 loss against the Milwaukee Brewers. Robert is set to make his Major League debut when the season begins for the White Sox this Friday against the Twins.
“The Chicago White Sox are in a good position,” manager Rick Renteria said Monday. “I think that the years of dealing with allowing players to grow, a lot of the changes that have gone on over the last few years, they’ve been very productive.
“You’re starting to see the maturity in them.”
Sox fans will have plenty of options to pick from in who they identify most from this rebuild. Maybe it’s Yóan Moncada, who they just couldn’t let themselves give up on. Or Tim Anderson, who doesn’t care what you think of his bat flips, regularly professes his love of the South Side and carries on his shoulder the chip of being forgotten by the national baseball landscape, going as far as to call out ESPN’s broadcast crew for not giving the White Sox any attention. Or maybe it’s robbing the Cubs of Eloy Jiménez and Dylan Cease for José Quintana.
But for many, possibly most, it will be Luis Robert, the no. 2 prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America.
Robert has already crushed his fair share of balls in the runup to this season, including two home runs in their intrasquad match on Saturday and a double off Cubs’ right-hander Kyle Hendricks on Sunday.
The 22-year-old center fielder has garnered the most excitement for the Sox. Dylan Cease validated a Tweet that compared him to an Under Armour mannequin. After he hit a home run of Carlos Rodón, bench coach Joe McEwing said, “He’s an individual who you will pay to go watch play.” Heck, even months ago, in a pre-pandemic world, Jiménez described him as the next Mike Trout.
Robert, also known as “La Pantera,” has the makings of a star, and a six-year contract extension signed with the White Sox back in January assures that he’ll at least have the time to become one. But he has the potential to be one right away, and that may be enough to power the White Sox through a 60-game season into playoff contention.
Robert went through three levels of the Minor Leagues in 2019, hitting 32 home runs in 122 games. He had a strikeout percentage of about 23% and drew only 28 walks in 551 plate appearances in 2019, but his slash line of .328/.376/.624 shows that a hard-hitting centerfielder is still growing in his plate discipline, a common tagline about young hitters. He also swiped 36 bags, which is probably, in part, where Jiménez draws the Mike Trout comparison from.
“What a special player he is,” Adam Engel said on Monday. “I can’t say enough good things about him as a player and as a young guy.”
Put simply, adding Robert to the lineup adds power, something the White Sox lacked last year in finishing 25th in total home runs. Described by Baseball Prospectus as “impossibly physically gifted toolshed,” we still won’t have a fully clear picture of his future after 60 games. But in a division full of opportunity, as Cleveland enters a season full of questions, Robert’s may bat be a difference-maker. If he plays like a Rookie of the Year, it may be the impact the Sox have been missing.
“My expectations and goals are always the same,” Robert said through team interpreter Billy Russo earlier this month. “I’m planning to give 100% every time I’m on the field. I’m planning to help the team as much as I can and hopefully go to a postseason. And if I’m lucky enough, maybe win the Rookie of the Year.” Having an expectation for the playoffs, even in a shortened season, may be asking a bit much from the White Sox at the moment. In some ways, a shortened season may work to a young player’s detriment, as they don’t have the time to adjust to the wall that every young player eventually hits. If Robert hits that wall, there’s a good chance we won’t have a full picture of how he adjusts to it, but if he can stay productive through 60 games, or put together a condensed season that looks similar to what Jiménez did last year (31 home runs in 504 plate appearances), he could be the added boost the White Sox need to sneak into the playoff picture.