When the Chicago White Sox shelled out $26 million to sign Cuban teenager Luis Robert, there may have been a bit of a disconnect between the casual fan and an understanding of when Robert might actually be ready to make an impact.
When the White Sox signed Alexei Ramirez and Jose Abreu after they had defected from Cuba, they showed up to the big leagues immediately and made their impact quickly. That was never going to be the path for Robert, a 19-year-old with a lot of raw talent but with clear need for refinement.
This 2018 season should have been Robert’s first full season in the White Sox system and some may have even held hope to see him rise rapidly through the minors and forge a path for the majors as soon as 2019. Instead, he started the season on the disabled list and just recently arrived at low-A Kannapolis.
However, Robert is still arguably the most important prospect in the system for the organization to get right. With that $26 million price tag, the White Sox need him to develop his hit tool and realize his considerable power all while ideally sticking in center field to help create the best possible version of this future outfield.
Since selling off Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, Jose Quintana, Todd Frazier and a handful of relievers in a series of trades over the course of eight months to completely rebuild their farm system, the White Sox have done an incredible job building depth all across the field. They’ve stockpiled power arms, have drafted and unearthed a couple catching prospects, and added plenty of possibilities at the corners of both the infield and outfield.
But outside of Yoan Moncada at second base, the minor league system doesn’t have a lot of depth up the middle and centerfield could wind up being Robert or bust given the current construction of the organizational depth chart. The White Sox remain hopeful that Blake Rutherford — the prize of the trade with the Yankees last July — can be an everyday option in center field but he’s got so much ground to cover as a hitter before they can comfortably make that determination.
Recent second-round pick Steele Walker is going to be given his first crack as a centerfielder, but most seem to think he profiles at a corner. Then there are guys like Luis Alexander Basabe — often an afterthought in the Sale deal — and Luis Gonzalez who have centerfielders’ skillsets but ultimately project more as fourth outfielders than everyday guys.
Absent of Rutherford rapidly accelerating his progress at the plate to open up the possibilities of Robert in left field, Rutherford in center and Eloy Jimenez in right, having Robert prove himself in center field gives the White Sox the most options. It brings Micker Adolfo, Walker, Rutherford, Basabe, Gonzalez and anybody else that might surface into play for that remaining corner outfield spot (and Jimenez could also play left, giving them even more fluidity).
And that’s all without much mention of the top or middle of the order potential Robert has offensively. He runs well and should maintain average to above-average speed even as he adds bulk to his lengthy 6-foot-3 frame, should hit for a decent average and should develop 25-30 home run power.
The offensive skills the White Sox will be keeping the closest eye on is how well he continues to make contact and how well he maintains his plate discipline. In short-season action last year, Robert had an incredibly impressive 19.3 percent walk rate that hasn’t held up so far in limited action in 2018 (3.2 percent in just 31 plate appearances) but its an admittedly small sample size..
The White Sox don’t appear concerned and have publicly announced their intentions of promoting him to high-A Winston-Salem by the end of next week. So they certainly seem to think everything is on schedule.
And that schedule is relatively clear. Robert won’t have his first opportunity to win a starting job until 2020 and the only thing that can change that is if he charges through the minor-league system and the White Sox simultaneously make an unexpected playoff push through the first four months of the 2019 season.
But that sort of timeline doesn’t accurately represent just how critical it is that the White Sox get him right. They’ve got that enormous sum of money wrapped up in him and if he turns out to be a fringe player at best, then the White Sox need two of Adolfo, Walker, Rutherford and Gonzalez to hit their maximum potentials to form the kind of outfield they think can help power them to title contention.
Even though there is a lot to like about each of those players, expecting half of them to be everyday Major Leaguers is asking a lot. Although, it’s refreshing to be able to have conversations about how the White Sox can best turn six legitimate prospects into three starting outfielders considering how barren their system was just a couple seasons ago.