SURPRISE, Ariz. — When Luis Robert comes to the plate, you can’t take your eyes off him.
This isn’t just me talking. It seems like everybody stops. Fans, coaches, teammates, security guards, birds.
Even Robert’s opponents pause with curiosity, wondering what might happen next.
“I hear them in the dugout. They’re all at the top of the dugout when he comes up to hit, so that just tells you how they feel about him as well,” said Charlie Poe, Robert’s hitting coach here in the Arizona Fall League as well as with the Class A Winston-Salem Dash. “I see them, I hear them in the dugout. ‘He’s up! He’s up! What’s he going to do? How far is he going to hit it?’”
It would be one thing if these were high school or college players talking about the Cuban phenom. But no, these players gawking at Robert are just like him, some of the best prospects in the game, in awe of the potential of this possible future White Sox star.
Robert has left such an impression, these players from other teams often come to the field before games just to watch Robert take batting practice.
As Poe explained, “He does things on the field that make you say 'wow' because you can tell he’s going to be good for a very long time.”
The first thing you notice when you see him on the field is his size.
At 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, he’s cut like an NFL wide receiver.
A scout told Mike Ferrin of MLB Network Radio: “When he dies, he wants to come back for a second life in Luis Robert’s body.”
After thumb injuries limited him to 50 games during the 2018 regular season, Robert has been making up for lost time in the AFL. In 17 games, he has slashed .329/.373/.443, showing the White Sox and everybody else what he can do. Monday, he was named the AFL Player of the Week, and he recently had a 14-game hitting streak snapped, a feat that considering the competition here should not be overlooked.
“This is some of the best of the best in the minor leagues,” Poe said. “It’s pretty tough to have a two-game hitting streak with some of these pitchers that they’re throwing out there. For him to have a 14-game hitting streak — and he wasn’t playing every day — to keep that consistent every day is really hard because we see some good arms out here. Everybody throws 95-plus and he was very consistent using the whole field and his main thing was just getting good pitches to hit. He wasn’t jumping out at the ball. He was being more consistent, tracking pitches and putting himself in good counts and that’s what he was doing very well. That’s why he was hitting for so long.”
One of Robert’s highlights this fall was a majestic home run he hit last week in Mesa. He demolished the baseball with such authority, those in attendance saw their jaws drop to the ground.
“Everybody in the stadium was just like, ‘Ahhhhhh.’ Big wows,” Poe said about the reaction to Robert’s mammoth blast.
One of Robert’s biggest challenges is the language barrier. The Cuban native is trying to learn English. Just about every day he tries to learn a new word with Poe. His new favorite word is “perfect.” Whenever Robert hits the ball on the screws, he’ll see Poe and tell him: “Purrfect, C-Po, purrrrrfect!”
Despite his impressive talent, Robert is not a finished product. He still needs plenty of seasoning in the minor leagues. He’ll likely spend most of 2019 at Double-A Birmingham.
The key for him is to learn, develop and yes, stay healthy.
“You can tell his ceiling is very high and he’s going to do a lot of good things in this game,” Poe said.
Besides working with Robert, Poe has also been the hitting coach for some of the top offensive prospects in the White Sox organization: Eloy Jimenez, Luis Basabe, Blake Rutherford, Nick Madrigal, Micker Adolfo, Luis Gonzalez and Gavin Sheets.
He knows firsthand what the White Sox have in the minors and what will eventually be headed to the majors with Robert.
“They’re coming,” Poe said. “There’s a lot of good young players in this organization that will be in Chicago in the next coming years. It’s going to be fun to watch, because they are coming.”
This week, we’re profiling some of the biggest names on the free-agent market and taking a look at what kind of fits they are for the White Sox.
White Sox fans have been eyeing Manny Machado as a potential free-agent addition for years, and now Machado’s time in the free-agent spotlight has finally come.
But at least on Twitter, Machado is no longer the universally agreed-upon, must-have addition to this rebuilding effort he once was. Machado generated countless headlines with his words and actions during the playoffs this October, causing many a fan to sour on the 26-year-old four-time All Star. He didn’t run out a ground ball, not exactly a cardinal sin — unless you play for Rick Renteria, more on that in a bit — but made matters so much worse when he said hustling wasn’t his cup of tea. Then he interfered with a couple double-play turns and appeared to intentionally drag his foot over the leg of Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar.
On-field antics are nothing new for Machado. He’s thrown a batting helmet and a bat at opposing players in the middle of games, and he had a notorious spikes-up slide into Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. But the playoff shenanigans brought his on-field style into the national limelight, and White Sox fans noticed.
But how much difference will it all make in the end? Machado is still expected to receive one of baseball’s all-time biggest contracts considering he’s still young and has a remarkable track record of success with the bat and the glove. He’s thrice finished in the top 10 in AL MVP voting and won a pair of Gold Gloves at third base. He’s coming off a career year, finishing the 2018 regular season with a .297/.367/.538 slash line, 37 home runs and 107 RBIs — all those numbers the best of his seven-year career.
When it comes to the White Sox specifically, he of course fits with their long-term plans at just 26. He’d be an obvious upgrade for a team that lost 100 games last season and would slot into the middle of their order for years to come. They’re reportedly interested in Machado — along with the other biggest name in this year’s free-agent class, Bryce Harper — with mentions of their interest dating back to last year’s Winter Meetings. But interest has to be mutual, and Machado’s been mentioned as desiring to play for the New York Yankees, who could use a shortstop while Didi Gregorius recovers from Tommy John surgery.
Plus, there are some White Sox related questions that would accompany Machado that wouldn’t apply to Harper.
First, the White Sox have a long-term shortstop in Tim Anderson, whose defensive improvement was one of the biggest highlights of the 100-loss 2018 campaign for the South Siders. Anderson earns consistent rave reviews from White Sox brass, and while Machado is a Gold Glove third baseman — a position where the White Sox do have an apparent long-term need — he was rather insistent on playing shortstop this year and figures to still have such a desire to stay at that position. Would Anderson thrive elsewhere on the field? Would Machado be willing to move back to third for the right contract?
And then there’s Renteria, who made a habit of benching players for not running out ground balls, pop ups and line outs throughout the season. No type of player was safe from Renteria’s punishments, with Avisail Garcia, the White Sox lone 2017 All Star, getting a benching during a spring training game. How would Machado, who insists he’ll never be “Johnny Hustle,” fit in with Renteria’s culture? For what it’s worth, general manager Rick Hahn once again committed to that culture during last week’s GM Meetings. He also revealed just how committed the White Sox are to Renteria in confirming a previously unannounced extension for the skipper.
Whether any of the addressed stuff outside the MVP-caliber production ends up mattering in a union between Machado and whatever team ends up signing him remains to be seen. But he will without a doubt make that team a better one.