State of the White Sox: Center field


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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.

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.

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.

“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.

“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.

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.

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.

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