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The 2019 season is over, and the White Sox — who have been focusing on the future for quite some time now — are faced with an important offseason, one that could set up a 2020 campaign with hopes of playoff contention.
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With the postseason in swing and a little bit still before the hot stove starts cooking, let’s take a position-by-position look at where the White Sox stand, what they’re looking to accomplish this winter and what we expect to see in 2020 and beyond.
We’re moving on to center field.
What happened in 2019
Fans weren’t too pleased that a second straight season of service-time issues kept the White Sox top-rated prospect away from the outfield at Guaranteed Rate Field. In 2018, it was Eloy Jimenez who stayed in the minor leagues. In 2019, it was Luis Robert who didn’t make his big league debut despite a monstrous season in the minors.
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Robert is undoubtedly the team’s center fielder of the future, and he showed why this season, earning minor league player of the year honors thanks to an absolutely ridiculous campaign that put his five-tool potential on display. All in all, he slashed .328/.376/.624 with 32 homers, 31 doubles, 11 triples, 92 RBIs, 108 runs scored and 36 stolen bases in 122 games between three different levels.
Robert hit for power, he hit for average, he showed speed on the base paths, he made some jaw-dropping catches in the outfield, and he showed off a strong arm. He can do it all.
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“It's pretty incredible to see. Whether it's on the base paths, in the outfield, at the plate, you just see how special a player he is,” fellow top prospect Nick Madrigal said in July. “It seems like one at-bat will go by and he'll look fooled at the plate and the next one he'll be on every single pitch. He makes adjustments on the fly.
“And it's fun hitting behind him, it seems like he's always on base with a chance for him to score every time I'm up. It's been great to play with him.
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“At the beginning of the year, playing at (Class A) Winston-Salem, I feel like he definitely boosted the lineup. Even the way he runs the bases, the way he runs (on a ball) in the gap getting triples, he definitely sparks your team. Baseball's kind of contagious, and once he gets on it's easier to hit. The pitcher feels some pressure. It's just great playing beside him.”
And that’s what made the team’s decision to keep Robert in the minors such a bummer to a lot of fans who were demanding to see all that at the big league level all year long. Much like the way they handled Jimenez in 2018, the White Sox did not say and will not say that service time played a role in their decision, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that by delaying Robert’s debut until the middle of April in 2020 the White Sox gain another year of control of a guy expected to be an impact player.
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While Robert was blowing minds at the minor league level, the White Sox trotted several fill-ins out to center in the majors. Adam Engel played the most games there and had the best offensive season of his major league career to go along with his typically strong defense. Leury Garcia played nearly as many games there, too, and had a solid start at the plate, carrying a nearly .300 average into the All-Star break. But his numbers took a dip in the second half, exemplified by his .327 first-half on-base percentage dropping to .288 in the second half.
It’s easy for White Sox fans to want J.D. Martinez on the South Side.
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The guy was so good for the 2018 world-champion Boston Red Sox that he won not one but two Silver Sluggers, that in addition to his fourth-place finish in the AL MVP vote. He’s launched 184 homers since the start of the 2015 season. He’s a three-time All Star and one of the best sluggers in the game.
He’s expected to be one of the headliners on the free-agent market this winter — if he, as is anticipated, opts out of the remaining three years on his deal in Beantown — and would be the ideal solution to the White Sox problem at designated hitter. Martinez slashed .304/.383/.557 in 2019, compared to the abysmal .205/.285/.356 line put up by White Sox DHs.
But let’s make White Sox fans even more gaga for this guy.
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Martinez’s unrivaled production makes him the dream add to the middle of the White Sox batting order, but there are other attributes that come with any player, and it sounds as if Martinez has ones the White Sox should crave.
Talking with NBC Sports Boston’s John Tomase on Tuesday’s edition of the White Sox Talk Podcast, we here in Chicago learned some more about Martinez as a clubhouse presence and an influence on young up-and-coming stars.
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“This is what could make Chicago an intriguing destination for him and for them: You obviously have that great young core on the left side with (Yoan) Moncada and (Tim) Anderson and (Eloy) Jimenez, and those are guys that could benefit from J.D. Martinez,” Tomase said. “When he arrived with the Red Sox, one of the first things he did was he took Mookie Betts under his wing, he took Xander Bogaerts under his wing. And he’s a guy that’s one of those old-school, ‘I will talk to you about hitting, I have a million ideas about hitting, and that is all we will talk about,’ and that’s exactly what those guys needed.
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“I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Mookie became an MVP — I know he had been second in that race a couple years earlier — but he was the MVP last year. And Bogaerts, in particular, was somebody who hit the ball as hard as anybody in baseball, but it was always on the ground, and J.D. was the one who convinced him, even more than Red Sox hitting coaches, who tried to get the same message across, ‘You need to start hitting the ball in the air. If you hit it 110 miles an hour with a launch angle of one degree, it’s going to be a ground out to short. If it’s a 14-degree launch angle, it’s a double off the wall.’
“And so when I look at Chicago’s young nucleus of hitters, I say, ‘J.D. Martinez could be a perfect fit for that group.’
“And not only that, he’s bilingual, he’s Cuban-American, he relates to American players, he relates to Hispanic players. So he can sort of be one of those guys who’s a bridge within the clubhouse culture, that’s important. So I just think you can really make a case, if you’re the White Sox, that it would be money well spent to add him to your team.”
That’s music to White Sox fans’ ears.
Many of those same fans, of course, will remain skeptical that the White Sox can land a big-name free agent, especially after the way last offseason’s Manny Machado sweepstakes played out. General manager Rick Hahn has said that skepticism will remain and any “false narratives” about the team will persist until his front office proves them wrong.
The White Sox have the financial flexibility to pay a big-name, big-money free agent like Martinez. Whether they will outbid other suitors remains to be seen, obviously, and they didn’t outbid the San Diego Padres, in terms of guaranteed money, for Machado last winter.
But just as crucial a factor will be getting these free agents to buy into the White Sox bright future. Hahn argues he’s in a much better position to do that this time around than he was last year thanks to the 2019 performances of Moncada, Anderson, Jimenez, Lucas Giolito and others.
“I really think we’ve gotten to the point where we don’t need to sell the team or talk about the future because it’s evident to everyone around the league what’s coming,” he said during his end-of-season press conference last month. “I’ve heard from my peers in other organizations, I know I’ve heard from players in the clubhouse what their peers have said. The coaches talk. There’s a lot of positive buzz about where this team is headed.
“When you are talking to some free agents, last year, we were probably a year too soon. You had to map out what it was going to look like and educate them a little bit about who was coming and how we saw this thing coming together. Over the course of this year, we saw a lot of it come together before our eyes, and it’s fairly easy to project out who is going to be joining us from our system and what’s that going to potentially look like. The excitement is there, not just in our clubhouse but around the game right now.”
Tomase described Martinez as more of a “hired gun” who isn’t exactly super emotional when it comes to selecting a team. That matches up with what Martinez, who’s played for three teams in the last three seasons, told the Boston Globe’s Pete Abraham at the end of the season: “I don’t mind moving around. I kind of like it.”
But it’s possible there might not end up being too many teams looking to hire his services this winter. After all, Tomase went as far to say that Martinez “can’t play the outfield anymore,” that “his back flares up if he plays two games in a row out there.” That would figure to take 15 teams out of the running. If Martinez is limited to DH’ing, it’d have to be for a team that, you know, has an opening at DH. That knocks out much of the American League, too. Rebuilding teams that are a long way from contending like the Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals aren’t likely to fork over big bucks for a 32-year-old DH. So that leaves who? Maybe just the White Sox and a handful of other teams.
Maybe that’s a good thing for the White Sox, that there won’t be as much competition. It likely kept them in the running for Machado and Bryce Harper last winter. But they also lost both those derbies, so other factors could be of greater importance.
But regardless of whether or not they’ll end up landing him, at this early stage we can focus on what kind of fit he’d be for these White Sox. And while the “hired gun” stuff is easy to envision, inserting Martinez’s production into a lineup that needs it, having him in the clubhouse working with all the team’s young hitters for the next three or four years sure seems appealing in its own way.
The White Sox have a lot of holes they’ll be trying to plug this winter. Martinez sure sounds like a perfect fit to fill one of them.
What will happen this offseason
The biggest thing to watch for this offseason — and into spring training, potentially — will be whether the White Sox can work out a similar multi-year deal with Robert to the one they worked out with Jimenez before the 2019 campaign got going. That contract allowed Jimenez to start the season on the big league roster as opposed to waiting around at Triple-A for a few weeks until the White Sox could call him up with that extra year of club control intact.
It’s purely speculative, but there might not be as much incentive for Robert to ink a deal and delay his eventual free agency considering the many millions he received when the White Sox signed him out of Cuba in the first place in 2017. We’ll see how that plays out.
Otherwise, the White Sox have a decision to make with Garcia, who is much more valuable to them than just a backup center fielder. He’s arbitration eligible and will probably get a raise that won’t make him that much cheaper than Yolmer Sanchez, who’s in the same situation. But Garcia can play six different positions and is beloved on the South Side for his versatility.
What to expect for 2020 and beyond
Robert, and a lot of him.
It might be Garcia or Engel or someone else patrolling center field for the first handful of games in 2020, but once the White Sox can bring Robert up and earn that extra season of club control, he’ll be on the South Side, wowing as a major leaguer. And doing so, eventually, alongside another highly ranked prospect in Madrigal.
"I don't know when exactly Luis Robert will arrive come 2020 or when Nick Madrigal will arrive in 2020," general manager Rick Hahn said during his end-of-season press conference last month. "I would say based upon their seasons, probably have Luis a tick ahead of Nick in terms of projected arrival time. But we'll see how they show up in camp and how that unfolds. I think we can sit here and say that, similar to Eloy a year ago, that we expect Luis Robert to be playing center field for most if not all of the 2020 season. Nick Madrigal playing second base? Probably most of the 2020 season."
As we saw with Jimenez this season — and Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito before that — it might not be fair to expect Robert to start putting up All-Star numbers the second he gets here. That being said, he’s also been lauded as the player to perhaps end up as the best among the many highly touted youngsters the White Sox have acquired during their rebuilding process. For him to reach the major leagues and instantly be the team’s best player should not shock, even if it also shouldn’t be necessarily expected.
The biggest mystery with Robert might be where he’ll end up in the batting order. Rick Renteria has, in the past, stuck new arrivals down in the order to get them better acclimated to the big league game. But if Robert lives up to the hype and quick, will he be in one of the top two spots to best utilize his speed? Or will he be a run-producer in the middle of the order?
Like so many other players around the diamond — Jimenez, Moncada, Madrigal, Tim Anderson — Robert is expected to be a long-term lock at his position in center field. If everything goes according to plan, the White Sox won’t need another center fielder for a long time.