For Luis Robert, it’s not complicated.
“I'm 100 percent convinced I'm going to be on the Opening Day roster,” he said through team translator Billy Russo not long after the White Sox announced a six-year contract extension for the No. 3 prospect in baseball.
Any outside observer would almost certainly join him in such a declaration.
Viewed through the same lens we used last year when Eloy Jimenez got a similar contract, the new deal would seem to pave the way — heck, roll out the red carpet — for Robert to make his major league debut March 26 at Guaranteed Rate Field. The service-time questions that have hovered for the last year or so are gone. This new contract, one that could keep Robert in a White Sox uniform for the next eight seasons, makes it so there’s no reason for the team to delay his debut a few weeks into the 2020 campaign in order to gain an extra year of club control.
The White Sox have never said and will never say they make decisions with service time in mind, but the unmissable trend in baseball has spoken otherwise as teams have held players back from the bigs in order to prevent them from accruing that all-important year of major league service time. Most notably, the Cubs did it with Kris Bryant in 2015 — the year he won the NL Rookie of the Year Award.
The White Sox, thanks to long-term deals for Jimenez and now Robert, won’t have to face the prospect of getting a year chopped off the control of their best players, such as the Cubs could wind up dealing with depending on the outcome of Bryant’s current grievance.
Certainly Robert’s production at the minor league level in 2019 indicates he’s ready for the major league stage. All he did was slash .328/.376/.624 with 32 home runs, 92 RBIs, 108 runs scored and 36 stolen bases. Meanwhile, he earned rave reviews for every measurable and immeasurable aspect of his game, teaming those incredible statistics with highlight-reel catches in center field, tape-measure home runs and blazing speed on the base paths.
He’s ready for the next step. He’s ready for Opening Day. He’s ready to star for a team with playoff expectations, and the White Sox, thanks to a remarkably active offseason by Rick Hahn’s front office, are definitely a team with playoff expectations these days.
But like every step Hahn has taken this winter, the extension for Robert is not strictly about tomorrow but all the tomorrows that come after. As he mentioned with Jimenez last spring, this contract is about the long-term plans on the South Side. And while some might have chafed at Hahn’s constant references to the long term during recent loss-heavy seasons, they can thank a strict adherence to those plans and that vision for the position the rebuilt White Sox are currently in.
Hahn just wanted to make sure everyone knows that while Robert could wind up as big an addition as any of the new faces on the South Side in 2020, his presence is equally important for 2027, too.
“People are understandably focused on what this potentially means for our Opening Day roster, but at the same time the motivation for a deal like this is to put us in position for the long term,” Hahn said Thursday. “We think the world of Luis and his upside and are willing to invest in that prior to seeing him at the big league level, just like we did with Eloy. Both of those deals are about trying to keep this core in place for the long term, put us in position to extend what we anticipate to be a window opening here for as long as possible.
“I understand the focus on the 2020 season, but this is really much more about the long term and having Luis Robert patrolling center field for, hopefully, the next eight years in a White Sox uniform.”
That’s true, of course, and like the acquisitions of free agents Yasmani Grandal and Dallas Keuchel — as well as the contract extension for face of the franchise Jose Abreu — before it, the Robert extension is indeed a move for the long term. Hahn might be cautioned about getting ahead of himself when he uses plurals like “parades” and “championships,” but that is the goal of a rebuilding effort such as this one: sustained success and championship contention on an annual basis. Obviously, it’s difficult enough to win one. But when you tear things down and slowly build them back up the way Hahn and the White Sox have, the idea is to have a consistent winner.
Robert being on the roster for the next eight years makes that all the more realistic, and obviously, that was the plan from the start. This is what the pieces falling into places looks like.
And so, perhaps unsurprisingly, Hahn took a long-term view in explaining what to expect from Robert in the upcoming season. The White Sox wouldn’t have committed $88 million to this 22-year-old if they didn’t think he was going to be something special.
But like we’ve seen with all the youngsters to reach the South Side in recent years, there is a definite learning curve. Yoan Moncada struck out 217 times in his first full season in the majors. Lucas Giolito had the worst statistics of any starting pitcher in baseball in his first full season in the majors. Dylan Cease had an ERA north of 5.00 in his first taste of the majors in 2019. Eloy Jimenez, despite blasting 31 home runs, had a rookie season no one would describe as smooth.
Hahn’s asking people to remember that, even when it comes to the guy who just got what could end up the richest contract in team history.
“We are obviously extremely excited to put our money where our mouth is in terms of our level of excitement about this player,” he said. “I don’t want to talk out of both sides of my mouth here and damper expectations because we truly do think he has a chance to be very special.
“Part of it is not just his ability to beat you with his bat and the power and the hit tool that he has, but also defensively and his ability to cover significant ground and his speed and his arm and the multitude of talents he brings to every game.
“How the pace of which each of these comes to fruition at the big league level, we all are going to have the pleasure of finding out together. It could well come together very quickly, or it could be some fits and starts, like we’ve seen with other young players in terms of their acclimation to the big leagues. Or the defense could come before the offense or vise versa.
“We do know that the White Sox, like several others, think extremely high of the potential in all facets of his game. It will be fun to watch it come to fruition in a White Sox uniform.”
Earlier this week, talking after the Keuchel move was made official, Hahn was not yet ready to announce expectations for this season. Perhaps he won’t ever be and will opt instead to let things play out however they play out. Regardless, there will be no shortage of playoff predictions from folks in the White Sox employ. Rick Renteria, Lucas Giolito and others were doing it before the 89-loss 2019 campaign even ended, and that was before Grandal, Keuchel, Robert, Edwin Encarnacion, Nomar Mazara, Gio Gonzalez and whoever joins the bullpen.
Hearing confident talk from these young White Sox is nothing new. It was Jimenez and Robert who were discussing future championships as future teammates back in spring training ahead of the 2018 season, when the big league team ended up losing 100 games. Michael Kopech’s compared Jimenez to Babe Ruth, for crying out loud. Confidence is in ample supply.
And you can add Robert to that group, who joined his general manager in using a plural Thursday.
“I’ve already talked to Eloy, he texted me to congratulate me about this deal,” Robert said. “We were talking about that, about how good that's going to be when we are able to play together in the outfield.
“We're going to have a lot of fun, and I'm going to enjoy that. I think all those good wishes that people are sending me, it's motivating me more for what is coming in the future. I'm going to work harder, and I'm going to do all my best to help this team win multiple championships. I know we're going to be able to do it because we have very good players.”
Robert, if you believe the word that emanated from minicamps and the Arizona Fall League and the minors over the last few years, might end up being the best of those very good players. But he’s one of an ever-growing group of them. And that’s what makes that big talk not sound so crazy.
The not-so-crazy comes to a South Side baseball stadium near you Opening Day.