Robert can challenge Ohtani, be Sox' next MVP in 2022


José Abreu's reign as the American League MVP is over.

The Chicago White Sox' leader — despite another strong campaign that earned him one eighth-place vote — was dethroned by Shohei Ohtani, the Los Angeles Angels' two-way star who won the honor in unanimous fashion after an unprecedented season of success both at the plate and on the mound.

Abreu was the White Sox' first winner of the award in more than a quarter century. But even though Ohtani and runner-up Vladimir Guerrero Jr. aren't going anywhere, watching Luis Robert over the final two months of the 2021 season, you get the feeling the White Sox might not have to wait as long for their next MVP.

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"Luis Robert is playing better than any MVP right now," former White Sox reliever Evan Marshall said in the middle of September. "No disrespect to Shohei or Vlad. They’ve done amazing (things). But what LuBob has done since he came back has been nothing short of astonishing."

Who's to say whether Robert would have topped Ohtani and Guerrero had he not torn his hip flexor in early May and been limited to just 68 games during the regular season. But Marshall was correct in describing Robert's efforts as astonishing, a performance that signaled Robert could challenge Ohtani as soon as 2022.

Coming back from an injury that wiped away three months of his sophomore season, Robert spent the final two months of the campaign raking to the tune of a .350/.389/.622 slash line, teaming that with 12 homers, 13 doubles, 35 RBIs and 31 runs scored.

Spread out over the course of 162 games, that type of production looks like 45 homers and 132 RBIs, which is most definitely MVP-caliber.

It was the Robert all that hype promised. And in the immediate wake of a significant injury, no less.

"He looked like he didn't miss a beat when he came back, which was pretty remarkable because that's obviously a fairly catastrophic injury to endure in-season and return that same season from, much less return at an elite level from," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said earlier this month at the GM meetings. "That was really impressive. ... He showed a level of maturity that matched his talent."

Robert certainly had company, which speaks to the continued promise of this White Sox team as their contending years march on. Abreu and Yasmani Grandal provided some stiff competition for the title of the club's top hitter over the final two months.

But Robert, even with the 2020 MVP in the same lineup, is the guy who jumps out as the future MVP.

His combination of tools is consistently impressive, already with a Gold Glove in his trophy case and a starring role on this championship-caliber roster just 124 games into his big league career. Hall of Famers have marveled at his skills, calling him a "six-tool player." Teammates repeatedly describe him as someone who does stuff on a baseball field they've never seen before.

He sure did look like a rookie during the second month of the shortened 2020 season, slashing a nasty .136/.237/.173 in September. But as anticipated, he continued developing, and the Robert we saw in 2021, particularly after his return from the lengthy rehab, showed the kind of rapid rise to superstardom he was long billed to make.

"I certainly think his combination of his sheer gifts and abilities to go with that confidence is pretty unique," Hahn said. "A lot of guys are more confident than they should be or their tools may suggest they should be. But he's got that total package, so to speak, which makes it even more special.

"You're talking about a young kid in a new country who's had to endure ... a couple of injuries that have cost him significant time. Yet he still looks like he's on a tremendous, potential MVP-caliber trajectory, where he's going to potentially contend for multiple Gold Gloves and potential Silver Sluggers and MVP consideration based on the path he's been (on), despite the adversity he's faced. And that speaks to his makeup.

"That's pretty special."

Though Abreu's reign ended with Ohtani's coronation Thursday, he'll forever boast those MVP credentials, making him a sort of expert on the subject. He's also rather biased when it comes to Robert and Eloy Jiménez, two young White Sox stars who he constantly refers to as his children.

"I'm happy because I know that I have two MVPs with me," Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo in September. "They are going to be MVPs, Luis and Eloy."

But those two have given him reason to hype up their futures at every turn. Jiménez's struggles after returning from his own months-long layoff during the 2021 season were not unexpected, if anything showing how remarkable what Robert was able to do was.

Though even if you take another Abreu compliment for his "sons" with a grain of salt, know that he has always had an eye on their developments, as well. He knows what these guys are capable of, and he knows that they haven't reached their ceilings yet.

So if Robert is already doing this and still has a long way to go? Well, his future has the chance to be summed up in three letters:

M. V. P.

"I have been impressed with all the stuff that he did," Abreu said after the White Sox were eliminated from the playoffs last month. "I know the talent that he has and all the things that he can do on the field.

"I honestly think that right now we are just seeing the surface of all the things that he can do."

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