In the short term, we don’t know whether or not Luis Robert will reach the major leagues this season.
In the long term, we know the White Sox are thrilled to see him on the South Side.
The excitement over what Robert’s been able to do in the minor leagues this season is just as prevalent within the White Sox organization as it is in a fan base that wanted to see the 22-year-old playing big league ball months ago.
General manager Rick Hahn, who just returned from watching the latest batch of games Robert played with Triple-A Charlotte, had nothing but praise for the No. 5 prospect in baseball. That, of course, doesn’t mean he brought Robert with him on the return flight to Chicago, and he made sure to add that the front office has yet to determine whether or not Robert will make his major league debut before time runs out on the 2019 season.
“He's doing fantastic,” Hahn said Thursday. “Obviously you've seen the numbers. There are certainly some elements of his game that they're still fine tuning, they're still working on. But he's obviously an extremely talented young man and one that we're very excited to have here for the next several years.
“We have made no decisions on the ultimate (September) call-up list or the ultimate timing of the call-up list.”
That will likely make for plenty of hair-pulling in that segment of the fan base that has been begging for Robert to get here yesterday, the same group that treated decisions involving Michael Kopech and Eloy Jimenez the same way.
Surely it’s true that there are things that don’t pop up in the box scores that do need work, a truth for every young player and something that fans shouldn’t roll their eyes at after Hahn’s insistence that Jimenez’s defense needed work last season proved to be correct. But there’s no other way of describing Robert’s production in the minors this season besides outstanding. Combining his work at Class A Winston-Salem, Double-A Birmingham and Charlotte, he had a .336/.388/.634 slash line, 29 home runs, 30 doubles, 36 stolen bases and 102 runs scored heading into Thursday night’s game.
The most convincing argument for bringing Robert up sometime before the end of the 2019 season is that he would gain valuable experience heading into his first full season as a big leaguer in 2020. That’s not a bad argument at all, and even Hahn and manager Rick Renteria have described those benefits as very real ones.
“You can’t replicate what it’s like to be here at the big league level,” Renteria said. “One of the things you’re doing, first of all, is the emotional effect it makes on you when you get up here. The other is talent and the way talent executes.
“You get to see exactly what it’s about, and when you go into an offseason, you have a better understanding of what you’re preparing to do and where you’re preparing to do it. Everybody will get their time when they get here and understand what it’s all about.”
Like the highly touted prospects who have come before him, Robert will absolutely not be promoted so the White Sox can win a few more games at the big league level in the final month of another losing season. But it’s becoming pretty difficult to find reasons that Robert needs to stay in the minor leagues.
Hahn did talk of benefits of Robert staying away from the majors this season, and while plenty of fans will view this as nothing more than an excuse, that point and those benefits are not without merit, either.
“I think he's still learning some valuable lessons at Triple-A, I do,” Hahn said. “There are a few things you can't replicate at the minor league level.
“The speed of the game, the preparation, the adjustments, a lot of that has to be learned at the big league level. But currently, as we sit here today on Aug. 22, there is still much that these guys are learning down there. Even being in the pennant race alone, even what they're doing on a nightly basis, the battle to try to get into the postseason is a benefit to them.
“Eventually, you balance that, about what they're going to benefit from Chicago versus going through that, and make a decision.”
But the biggest thing to remember — something Hahn has not mentioned — is the service-time discussion we had surrounding Jimenez last season. It applies to Robert just the same.
For the uninitiated, if the White Sox delay Robert’s eventual promotion until a couple weeks into the 2020 season, then he will not be able to accrue a full year of big league service time in 2020, giving the White Sox an “extra” year of team control of Robert. The benefits of doing that, not at all against the rules and something other teams have done with their top prospects (the way the Cubs treated Kris Bryant is perhaps the most notable example), include saving quite possibly an awful lot of money to spend on other players and potentially extending the contention window of the current core group.
Those are two pretty huge benefits for the White Sox, and while it might not be fair to the players, it’s a no-brainer of a decision considering where this rebuilding team is right now.
Hahn will never mention that as a factor in the Robert decision, and it will never be given as the reasoning for keeping Jimenez in the minor leagues at the end of last season. But when the White Sox inked Jimenez to a multi-year contract before the 2019 started, Jimenez was able to debut on Opening Day and not two weeks into the season, as good a sign as we were going to get that service time played a role. In Robert's case, considering the huge amount of money he received when the White Sox signed him as an international free agent in 2017, there might be less incentive to sign a long-term contract, perhaps making an Opening Day debut less likely. That's just speculation, though.
Not expecting there to be any mention of service time, I did ask Hahn on Thursday about the similarities and differences to the decision-making process with Jimenez last season and the one involving Robert this season.
“I think from our standpoint with Eloy last year, there was an expectation going into the season that he may well push it to Chicago, so we had a little more lead time to sort of think about what we wanted him to accomplish and sort of set a standard before making our ultimate decision,” Hahn said. “With Luis, I think he quite frankly has already exceeded what we would have qualified as an outstanding season when we left Glendale.
“The fact he started at A ball, dominated that level, blew through Double-A and is now doing very well at Triple-A is even beyond what we had originally anticipated in terms of defining what would be a great season for him.
“Whether we decide to add a fourth level to that, again, at the start of the season it probably wasn't very much on the table. But we said earlier in this conversation that sometimes the good ones force your hand a little bit.
“We'll have to take all of that into consideration, even though at the start of the season that probably was a slim chance that he was going to be able to force his way to Chicago.”
Feel free to draw your own conclusions about what that means for the chances of Robert getting a promotion here in the coming weeks. Whether it means that there's less of a chance of Robert getting the call in 2019 or it's just Hahn sticking to an oft-repeated line — that it’s unlikely that a young player would play at so many different levels of the organization in the same season, but that a possibility exists for a great player to force the White Sox hand — is unable to be determined with certainty.
Here's what's true: Jimenez was pretty great last season, and Robert has been even better this season.
We didn’t see Jimenez until this season. We might not see Robert until next season.
But if that's what ends up happening, that’s OK. Robert is expected to be an impact player for a very long time, one who, if all goes according to Hahn’s plans, will help push the White Sox into contention mode along with Nick Madrigal and Zack Collins and any pending offseason additions, not to mention the sizable chunk of the core that’s already reached the big leagues.
And that’s what has the White Sox so excited. The future is near. It doesn’t need to be here tomorrow. But as long as Robert and the rest keep succeeding, it feels like it will be here soon.
“I feel like we are at the end of the beginning of this,” Hahn said. “Certainly those guys at Triple-A knocking on the door makes that even more palatable than just seeing the young players up here performing well.
“It’s getting a lot closer. It’s going to be an exciting time around here in the not too distant future, hopefully.”
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