The book now closed on the 2010s, the list of the White Sox first-round draft picks from that decade is a mixed bag.
That’s not to say it’s bad, of course. No list of first-round picks that includes one of the best pitchers in baseball and a batting champion could ever be considered bad. Rick Hahn has been fond of pointing out how much WAR (Wins Above Replacement) White Sox draftees produced during the 2010s to back up the idea that, in fact, it’s quite a good list.
That argument isn’t necessarily representative of the White Sox draftees on the whole, with much of that WAR coming from Chris Sale (45.3 of it, per the Baseball Reference metric) and Tim Anderson (10.2). But failing to hit on every top pick is a baseball-wide problem, not one unique to the South Side. Hence the mixed bag.
Critics will point to the misses that were Keenyn Walker, Keon Barnum and Courtney Hawkins. But even in more recent, more difficult-to-assess drafts, there’s inarguably been a lot of bad luck.
No one is more representative of that than Jake Burger, the 2017 first-rounder who twice tore his Achilles tendon prior to his first full season as a pro, then suffered some setbacks during his recovery. He still hasn’t returned to game action.
“We’re optimistic that an offseason of rest and recovery will finally get these issues behind him,” Hahn said last month. “Those of you who've been fortunate enough to spend some time around Jake, you probably feel a little bit extra for the kid because it's not only the unfortunate health path that he's been on for any professional athlete, but certainly one that you hate to see in a great kid who just wants to be back out there playing.”
Burger is not alone. Being a White Sox first-round draft pick of recent vintage has, at times, been like being a drummer for Spinal Tap.
Zack Burdi, a first-round pick in 2016, has been saddled with injuries in recent years. 2014 first-rounder Carlos Rodon, despite plenty of time in the majors, has had multiple surgeries in recent seasons, including the Tommy John surgery he’s currently recovering from. Carson Fulmer, the 2015 first-round pick, has been healthy but ineffective, routinely thumped by opposing hitters every time he returns to the big league mound.
The jury remains out on Zack Collins, Burdi’s fellow 2016 first-rounder, who had two brief stints in the majors last season after hitting tremendously well at Triple-A Charlotte. But he’s been bumped behind a pair of All Stars on the 2020 catching depth chart, and it’s a question as to whether he’ll make the team out of spring training.
All that said, 2020 could be shaping up as the year in which that string of bad luck for White Sox first-round draft picks comes to an end.
The most obvious reason would be the approaching arrival of Nick Madrigal, the No. 4 pick in the 2018 draft who tore up the minor leagues while playing at three levels in 2019. As advertised when he was drafted, Madrigal does not strike out, doing so just 16 times in 532 trips to the plate last year, and plays excellent defense at second base.
It sounds like Madrigal has an uphill battle to make the Opening Day roster, with Hahn saying last month that Madrigal “hasn't necessarily answered all the questions we have for him in the minor leagues.” But he is expected to be the White Sox second baseman for the majority of the 2020 campaign, and the team has high hopes that he’ll join Anderson as a productive first-round position player on the infield.
Not far behind Madrigal is Andrew Vaughn, who the White Sox chose with the No. 3 pick in last summer’s draft. He’s not expected to reach the major leagues this season, but he’s getting a ton of love from talent evaluators across the game. MLB Pipeline just ranked him the No. 16 prospect in baseball.
"He's a very talented kid, and he's talented for a lot of different reasons," White Sox director of player development Chris Getz said during SoxFest. "When you look at the physical ability, especially in the frame that he has, and what he's able to do to a baseball, it's pretty fun to watch.
"But when you sit down and talk to Andrew Vaughn about hitting, that is the most impressive thing. I sat down, and I just wanted to listen and learn from him. It's like talking to a 10-year vet. I say that because he knows exactly what he needs to do to have success. He has a very advanced approach, and I don't think he'll ever waver from it. He knows exactly what he needs to do on a daily basis to have success against a particular pitcher.
"So Andrew Vaughn's a good one. We're happy to have him."
But even if Vaughn doesn’t make it to the South Side in 2020, this season could see a wave of impact performances from recent first-rounders.
Collins might not be in line for much action behind the plate with Yasmani Grandal and James McCann ahead of him on the depth chart, but he still swings a powerful left-handed bat, which Rick Renteria could find valuable off the bench.
Rodon might miss a good deal of time while still in recovery mode, but he’ll return to the mound at some point and could provide a midseason jolt for a starting rotation that while improved would greatly benefit from some added depth.
Burdi struggled in 2019, with a 6.75 ERA pitching mostly at Double-A Birmingham. But should he return to the performance he was delivering prior to his own Tommy John surgery, he could factor into the big league bullpen mix.
Fulmer, too, has the opportunity to pitch out of the major league bullpen. If he can rediscover what made him a top pick in the first place, he would be a prime candidate to fill the role of long man in a White Sox relief corps that doesn’t have one right now.
Again, Madrigal has the best chance to end this string of bad luck — one that might not be as bad as it seems considering Anderson, the team’s first-round pick in 2013, is fresh off a major league batting title — but these guys could all make impacts of some kind during a 2020 campaign with high hopes and realistic playoff expectations. And if they do, that will change the story surrounding the success of the White Sox first rounds in recent years.