Eloy Jimenez? Check. Dylan Cease? Check. Next up? Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal.
Cease’s major league debut Wednesday brought the same kind of excitement that Michael Kopech’s did a year ago. But Cease’s came with an added bonus: a light at the end of the White Sox rebuilding tunnel. With Lucas Giolito and Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada and James McCann and Jose Abreu and Eloy Jimenez all producing at the big league level, the idea of the contention window opening in 2020 isn’t at all outrageous.
Cease being here makes it all the more possible. And a couple more core pieces getting to the majors would go even further. And so fans looking to put all the pieces together and see a contending White Sox team on the field look to the next two big arrivals: Robert and Madrigal. Both will play in Sunday’s Futures Game in Cleveland, giving fans a chance to see the two highest rated prospects in the organization yet to reach the majors in action without an MiLB.TV subscription.
“Both Luis and Nick are progressing very well. In terms of where we had hoped they would be over the course of the ’19 season, I’m not sure we could ask for much more,” general manager Rick Hahn said last week. “Talking with (Double-A Birmingham manager) Omar Vizquel and the staff there over the last couple of days, they can’t sing their praises loudly enough in terms of work ethic and what they’re bringing in between the white lines.”
It’s certainly possible that neither reaches the South Side before time runs out on the 2019 season, though Robert’s continued demolition of minor league pitching seems to make his ascent a little more realistic. Speculation kicked into overdrive Saturday, thanks to a Robert social media post, that he might be heading to Triple-A Charlotte after his trip to Cleveland rather than returning to Birmingham, and before Saturday's game, Hahn confirmed that's what will happen.
Robert was superhuman in 19 games to begin the season at Class A Winston-Salem, slashing an ungodly .453/.512/.920, sparking a quick promotion to Birmingham, where he’s done just as well, with a .314/.362/.518 slash line in 56 games. Combined between the two levels, he’s got 16 homers, 21 doubles, six triples, 53 RBIs, 29 stolen bases and 64 runs scored.
The promotion was well earned.
But more than all that production, Robert’s potential is that of a five-tool player at the major league level. He hits for average, he hits for power, he runs fast, he’s got range for days in the outfield. He can do it all, as Madrigal can attest.
“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,” Madrigal said on a Thursday conference call. “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 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.”
Madrigal, of course, has his own superhuman skill to him, an inability to strike out, and he’s done it just eight times in 74 games this season. That goes along with what was hyped up when he was drafted as Gold Glove caliber defense at second base, as well as a base-stealing ability — he's one off Robert's season total with 28 on the year.
He got off to a good-but-not-amazing start at Winston-Salem, with a .272/.346/.377 slash line in 49 games there. He got promoted and has torn it up at Birmingham, slashing .392/.454/.485 in his 25 games since jumping up a level.
“It's always been a part of my game, trying not to strike out, especially hitting toward the top of the order,” Madrigal said. “Even in college, I feel like on Friday nights we'd see great pitching, so the transition to pro baseball, there's definitely a lot more quality arms on a daily basis. But I feel like there hasn't been anything I haven't seen yet, as far as velocity or different off-speed pitches. I feel like I've seen that, whether in pro baseball or in college baseball. So it hasn't been anything I haven't seen as of yet.
“I worked extremely hard during the offseason and during the season on my swing. ... I finally tried to embrace what kind of hitter I am, a gap-to-gap hitter, rather than trying to do too much at the plate and hit fly balls. I've really tried to perfect what style of play will most benefit me at the plate. When I think about more line drives and hitting the ball hard on the ground, I tend to do better. So that's something I've picked up over the last couple years.”
Robert and Madrigal have batted at the top of the Birmingham lineup over the last few weeks, and it’s not difficult to look ahead a year or so and see them doing the same thing at the top of the White Sox batting order.
Robert seems more likely to reach the majors this season than Madrigal, who was drafted just a year ago. But even if neither makes it to the South Side this year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them on the Opening Day roster in 2020, especially if the White Sox make a splash this winter and come even closer to opening their contention window.
Fans waited for Moncada, for Kopech, for Jimenez, for Cease. Now they’re waiting for Robert and Madrigal. But with each new arrival, the waiting for the White Sox puzzle to come together gets shorter and shorter.
Perhaps by the time these two young stars reach the South Side, the waiting will be over.