Jake Burger

White Sox Team of the Future: Designated hitter

White Sox Team of the Future: Designated hitter

What will the next championship-contending White Sox team look like?

That's what we're setting out to determine (or at least make a guess at) over the next few weeks. Ten members of our White Sox content team here at NBC Sports Chicago put our heads together to try to project what each position on the diamond would look like in one, two, three years. Basically, we posed the question: What will the White Sox starting lineup be the next time they're capable of playing in the World Series?

That question can have a bunch of different answers, too. We didn't limit ourselves to players currently a part of the organization. Think the White Sox are gonna make a big free-agent addition? Vote for that player. Think the White Sox are gonna pull off a huge trade? Vote for that player. We wanted to see some creativity.

We're moving on to designated hitter, and while much of the roster of the future is made up of players who haven't even put on a White Sox uniform yet, the winner here is someone who's already become one of the best hitters in team history. Jose Abreu is our designated hitter of the future.

Penciling in Abreu at DH and not first base isn't a knock on his fielding skills, though the White Sox will likely use Abreu more at the DH spot in 2019, platooning him there and at first base with newly acquired Yonder Alonso, in an effort to keep him off his feet a little more and possibly extend his career a bit. That becomes important if the team determines that the soon-to-be-32 Abreu is a part of the long-term future.

That's a determination that still needs to be made, with Abreu now in the final year of his current contract. An extension has long seemed a very real possibility, even if Abreu's age is significantly higher than the majority of the players who figure to make up the long-term core, the Eloy Jimenezes, the Luis Roberts, the Michael Kopechs. If Abreu's production drops off, maybe the White Sox decide to move on. Or maybe developments in the minor leagues will kick the contention window a tad further down the road, making the remainder of Abreu's career a poor alignment with those long-term plans of perennial contention on the South Side.

But the most realistic outcome still seems to be Abreu sticking around. The White Sox love this guy, constantly touting him as a model for their young players. They rave about his work ethic and describe him as someone who goes about his business in exactly the right way. They placed Yoan Moncada, a big part of those future plans, right next to Abreu in the clubhouse, hoping one Cuban could learn a lot from another. Team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf bestowed a special ring on Abreu after he became just the sixth White Sox player ever to hit for the cycle. And Abreu himself always talks about his love of the organization and how he hopes to be a part of it for his entire career.

And while those off-the-field qualities might have the biggest impact on the fleet of highly rated youngsters making their way to the major leagues, the on-the-field production has been just as excellent. Abreu is one of three players in baseball history — the others Joe DiMaggio and Albert Pujols, two of the best to ever play the game — to start his career with four straight seasons of at least 25 homers and 100 RBIs. He was the 2014 AL Rookie of the Year, he's a two-time All Star, including the AL's starting first baseman in 2018, and a two-time Silver Slugger. He's received MVP votes in three of his five seasons, finishing as high as fourth in 2014.

Last season saw Abreu go on an uncharacteristic, prolonged slump in the middle of the season that dragged his numbers down. And yet thanks to a red-hot stretch, it was possible he could have reached that 25-homer, 100-RBI mark yet again. Two freak injuries snuffed that hope out, twice sending him to the DL in the season's final months.

With full health and more consistency, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see 2018, statistically, end up an aberration. Plus, more rest thanks to increased time at DH could help Abreu in both the short and long terms.

Will he be here when the White Sox are next contending for a championship? It's a possibility, and one that doesn't seem all that unlikely. Abreu likes playing in the field, but he's our designated hitter of the future.

Other vote-getters

Yonder Alonso. The newly acquired Alonso isn't under contract long, with only one guaranteed season on the South Side coming in 2019. There's an option for the 2020 season. Alonso has certainly been productive in the past, the very recent past, for that matter, as he's just two years removed from an All-Star season in 2017, when he had a .365 on-base percentage and slugged .501 with 28 homers. He's a solid pickup for the White Sox who figures to help out Abreu, provide the lineup with some on-base skills it desperately needs and potentially even assist in luring Manny Machado to the South Side. Is he part of the long-term answer? Probably not, soon to be 32 himself without the five seasons of White Sox service that Abreu has. But one voter perhaps envisioned the team's contention window popping open at some point in the near future, meaning Alonso could still be around, in 2020, to be part of a contending group.

Daniel Palka. Palka showed he could be a powerful presence as a designated hitter, hitting 27 home runs as a rookie last season. He's constantly working on improving his outfield defense, though he seems better suited as a DH. That being said, the opportunity to play there seems to have dried up in a hurry with the import of Alonso, who as mentioned will split time at DH and first with Abreu. So where does that leave Palka? Not as a full-time starter, that's for sure, especially now that Jon Jay has been signed to upgrade the outfield. Palka will probably still get his opportunities, and he'll have to take advantage of them to work his way into the long-term conversation at any position. But he's got lefty pop, always a valuable commodity, so there's obviously a chance.

Jake Burger. There were outside questions about whether the White Sox first-round draft pick from 2017 could stick at third base, questions seemingly answered by director of player development Chris Getz at last year's SoxFest: "From what I’ve seen, there’s nothing that says that he can’t play third base." But then came the pair of Achilles tears that Burger experienced during 2018, not only robbing him of valuable developmental time in the minor leagues, but perhaps even more emphatically throwing his ability to stick at third into question. That's not to say, though, that he's done by any stretch, and a guy who swung a big bat at Missouri State could keep swinging it in the minor leagues and find his way to the majors as a valuable part of the lineup of the future. And one voter thinks he'll be doing it as a DH.

Zack Collins. Another first-round pick with questions about where he'll end up defensively is Collins. The White Sox are still plenty confident he can be their long-term catcher, and that's the track he's on in the minor leagues. But he also got a lot of experience as a DH last season when he and fellow catching prospect Seby Zavala were on the same roster at Double-A Birmingham, playing catcher in only 74 of his 122 games. Even though he won the Double-A Home Run Derby, Collins' most impressive achievement in 2018 was a fantastic .382 on-base percentage, something that will definitely be of value, no matter what position he ends up playing. There have been questions about his defense since he was drafted, rightly or wrongly, and so it's no surprise to see one of our voters putting him at DH.

Khris Davis. Here's a creative pick. Already one of the better designated hitters in the game, Davis is set to become a free agent following the 2019 season. He was sensational in 2018, finishing eighth in AL MVP voting after hitting a major league leading 48 home runs and driving in 123 runs for the playoff-making Oakland A's. Should the White Sox keep looking to make big free-agent splashes next winter — perhaps meaning they missed out on Machado and Bryce Harper this offseason — Davis could be an intriguing name in a loaded free-agent class.

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How does the recent spate of injuries to top prospects affect the White Sox rebuild?

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USA TODAY

How does the recent spate of injuries to top prospects affect the White Sox rebuild?

At this point, it seems like we’re receiving news of another significant injury to one of the White Sox highly touted prospects every couple of days.

Half of the organization’s top 12 prospects are currently injured: No. 1 prospect Eloy Jimenez on the disabled list with a strained adductor muscle, No. 3 prospect Luis Robert expected to miss several more weeks with sprained thumb, No. 6 prospect Dane Dunning expected to miss several more weeks with an elbow sprain, No. 9 prospect Jake Burger out for the remainder of the season and perhaps beyond after suffering a pair of Achilles tears, No. 10 prospect Micker Adolfo out for the next eight to 10 months after having Tommy John surgery and No. 12 prospect Zack Burdi still recovering from his own Tommy John surgery and yet to throw a pitch in 2018.

That’s a lot of injuries.

It’s bad news, obviously, for a team that has invested so much in its minor league system, a team that’s been able to get its fans to buy in to the idea of waiting for all these guys to develop and turn a rebuilding organization into a contending one on the South Side.

But is this the rebuild-altering kind of bad news? Do all these injuries throw Rick Hahn’s rebuilding effort off course? Do they, at the very least, change when this team is expecting to be competitive?

The short answer to all those questions, per Hahn, is no.

“No, it doesn’t,” Hahn said Tuesday, asked if all these injuries will alter the team’s planned contention window. “It’s been precisely that, a window. So it’s not like a start date that we need it to be: on this specific time on this specific date we need to be ready to win. It’s more, during this time frame we expect to be in a position to contend annually.

“Obviously on certain players who haven’t been able to give us full seasons, the jury might still be out going into next offseason on exactly how and when they matriculate to being contributing big leaguers on a championship club. But in general, the breadth and the depth of the prospects and the ceilings of the prospects still keeps us on relatively the same time frame that we put out there.

“Until these guys get to Chicago, though, and are performing in Chicago and we’ve augmented them properly through free agency or trades, it’s impossible to say they’re going to start winning on this date. There’s still work that needs to be done.”

It’s become more apparent as this season has gone on that the White Sox might still have a couple years to go in this process before they are contending for championships of any kind. The big league team is 31 games under .500 as of this writing. Young players like Lucas Giolito and Yoan Moncada have gone through dramatic struggles in their first full tastes of the majors. And even some of the minor leaguers who were generating the most excitement when the season began have failed to find the kind of consistency that would shoot them through the system and to the South Side.

And, too, injuries have stolen away valuable developmental time for a lot of these players.

Even though the team is fully expecting Burger to develop into the player they thought he’d be when they used their first-round pick on him last summer, Burger being robbed of his first full professional season started a conversation outside the walls of Guaranteed Rate Field about the future at third base.

Much fanfare accompanied Robert’s signing last summer. But prior to this season, he’d still yet to play a game of minor league baseball in the United States. Then he missed months at the start of this season, and he’s in the middle of another shelving that could also, perhaps, last multiple months. Missing that time could take away an important year of the development the White Sox thought he’d have by the time next season begins.

Hahn is correct, though, in saying that there is no set date for when this team expects to be finished rebuilding. That always has depended on the development of the players in the minor leagues, regardless of their injuries, and it will still depend on that moving forward. With it looking like the team is still a couple of years away, the players have the blessing of time to get over these injuries and continue their development.

In other words, injuries to guys in the lower levels of the minor leagues are not what have knocked the White Sox out of contention for the 2019 American League Central title.

And the White Sox have also installed a sort of safety net for injuries like these with all the talent they’ve added to the system over the last couple years. It’s certainly not good that the injuries are happening to the highest-ranked players in the organization. But think of how many players who play the same positions as the guys who are hurt are having big years. Jimenez and Robert and Adolfo are on the shelf, but Blake Rutherford and Luis Gonzalez and Joel Booker are tearing things up. Dunning is injured, but Dylan Cease is having a tremendous season.

Depth has come into play. And though it might not be quite as necessary once these players are big league ready, it shows that the White Sox are prepared — or trying to be prepared, anyway — for when the inevitable happens and baseball players have to miss time.

“It’s been a tough year from a health standpoint,” Hahn said. “At the same time we know a couple things. If you have a great number of prospects, a great number of young players that people are interested in, the odds of some of them or multiple of them getting hurt are higher. Just the nature of the business.

“At the same time, I think it reinforces some of the tenants or mantra you’ve heard us repeat from the start of this entire rebuild going back the last 18 months. We need to build depth, we need to build enough redundancy within our own system, so when things like this happen, we have alternatives. We don’t want any player to get hurt, but we want to put ourselves in a position to have enough premium talent on hand that we can fill whatever voids are created by these setbacks.”

It’s perfectly reasonable to be concerned about these injuries, considering the amount of focus that’s on these young players and the impact they’re expected to have on the future of this franchise. Missing developmental time now could have its effects a year or two or three from now.

But there’s no rush to get these players, even the healthy ones, to the major leagues. Time is on the White Sox side. Even if luck hasn’t been this year.

How close are injured prospects Luis Robert and Alec Hansen to making their 2018 debuts?

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USA TODAY

How close are injured prospects Luis Robert and Alec Hansen to making their 2018 debuts?

White Sox fans have been thrilled by the big numbers put up by top prospects like Michael Kopech and Eloy Jimenez this season. But two other stars of the rebuild have yet to even play a minor league game in 2018.

Luis Robert (the No. 3 prospect in the White Sox system and the No. 26 prospect in baseball) and Alec Hansen (No. 4 in the White Sox system, No. 50 in baseball) are still working their way back from spring injuries, and as of Thursday neither had played in extended spring training games — though they soon might.

General manager Rick Hahn gave a lengthy list of medical updates on injured players throughout the farm system, and Robert and Hansen were at the top of the list.

Robert, who has yet to play a game of minor league baseball in the United States, tore a ligament in his thumb sliding into second base during a Cactus League game — a Cactus League game, by the way, in which he later hit a home run — and has been sidelined ever since. He’s expected to join Class A Winston-Salem eventually, with Hahn pointing to the beginning of June.

“Luis is ramping up baseball activity in extended (spring training),” Hahn said. “We expect him to participate in extended spring training games by the end of the month and soon thereafter join an affiliate. It likely will be early June before he actually joins the affiliate, once extended is over. Though we expected he will spend the bulk of the season at Winston-Salem — once he’s officially ready to go, he’ll be at Winston-Salem — it depends how many extended games he gets in before the end of extended in determining where he goes first once he leaves Phoenix.

“But he’s progressing. He’s hitting in cages, he’s doing defensive drills, and hopefully he’ll be playing in games down there by the end of the month.”

Hansen, however, might not be quite as close as Robert. Last year’s minor league strikeout leader, Hansen, who's expected to join Double-A Birmingham when healthy, has been dealing with a forearm injury since spring training, and while he’s been talked about as progressing toward game action, there was no real update from Hahn on Thursday.

“He continues to progress, he’s throwing bullpens. I believe he had one today, might be tomorrow. On a throwing program,” Hahn said. “On a guy like that, similar to (recovering starting pitcher Carlos) Rodon, we’ll let you know when he starts making starts in extended and when he goes on a rehab assignment. Right now, it’s just building.”

The injuries to Robert and Hansen — as well as the season-ending Achilles tear suffered by last year’s first-round pick, Jake Burger — show that this rebuilding process, which has seen a fleet of highly ranked prospects join the White Sox system in recent years, won’t be without its speed bumps. While penciling all these guys into the 2020 lineup was and remains a fun pastime for South Side baseball fans, there’s a reason those names are written in pencil and not pen. Whether it be because of performance, injuries or other developmental reasons, not all of these prospects will hit the bigs in a rapid amount of time, nor is it likely will they all pan out.

It’s not to suggest in the slightest that these specific prospects won’t pan out, but it’s worth questioning how their developments will be affected by missing significant time.

“It depends on the player,” Hahn said when asked that very question. “Not beating around the bush, but Jake Burger missing more than a year is a shame, it’s a real shame. You look at Jake, he’s got a short enough swing and an easy enough swing that he’s able to just pick up with it and not really lose much offensively in terms of his development.

“But there is an element of playing everyday and being used to playing ball and working your way up the chain and getting more challenges that he’s going to miss a year on. That’s a negative.

“Luis Robert missing a couple months, none of it’s ideal ever but he’s going to be back out there this season, there’s still going to be plenty of chances for him to get ABs over the course of the summer and even opportunities for him to play in the fall, as well. The injury that he had certainly didn’t seem to have any long-term implications for him, and it’s a matter of making up for development time over the course of 2018, which he’ll be able to do.”

Time will tell whether or not months on the shelf will negatively impact the developments of Robert or Hansen. The good news for the White Sox is that they’re advancing toward their respective returns, good news because those are two guys who figure to have very large roles to play in the rebuild.