Rick Hahn

Luis Robert dreaming of 'multiple championships' with White Sox

Luis Robert dreaming of 'multiple championships' with White Sox

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.

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The White Sox have had a home-run offseason, all while sticking to their rebuilding plans

The White Sox have had a home-run offseason, all while sticking to their rebuilding plans

The expectations for this White Sox offseason were sky high.

And though Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon are playing elsewhere in the American League, the sheer volume of White Sox additions — as well as new contracts for a couple key guys who were already part of the organization — has made it easy to argue that this offseason has been nothing short of a home run.

The White Sox entered the winter with the memory of how the Manny Machado saga played out fresh in every fan’s mind, and a certain segment of those minds seemed sure the team was unwilling or unable to spend big enough to land impact talent. Rick Hahn said in the wake of Machado’s decision last February that “the money will be spent.” Plenty seemed unconvinced.

Well, Hahn’s never going to phrase it this way, nor would he even want to, but I guess the most apt segue would be: “How do you like me, now?”

Remember, spending that money was never about proving anybody wrong, but that’s exactly what’s happened, as the White Sox shelled out a franchise-record $73 million contract for free-agent catcher Yasmani Grandal in November. Then they gave free-agent pitcher Dallas Keuchel a deal that, if the team picks up a fourth-year option, could end up worth $1 million more than Grandal’s. Thursday’s contract extension for Luis Robert could reach $88 million, a new franchise record, should everything play out that way.

There’s the reported — though not yet announced — signing of free-agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion. There’s the trade that netted the White Sox right fielder Nomar Mazara from the Texas Rangers. There’s the signing of free-agent pitcher Gio Gonzalez — back with the team that traded him twice as a minor leaguer. There’s the new deal for face of the franchise Jose Abreu.

The amount of activity, particularly at this point in the calendar, is downright astounding.

But it hasn’t merely been activity for activity’s sake. Hahn’s front office has followed its rebuilding plans to a T, adding Grandal and Keuchel on long-term deals that mesh perfectly with what’s expected to be a lengthy contention window. Obviously, the Robert extension is a move for the long, long term, one that could keep him in a White Sox uniform through the 2027 season. Eloy Jimenez, who signed a similar contract last March, could be in the lineup with Robert through the 2026 season.

Only the moves for Gonzalez and Encarnacion haven’t been long-term adds. (Mazara is only under team control for two more seasons, but he’s just 24 years old, aligning him with the other youngsters in a different way.) And those two, though specifically Encarnacion, speak to where this franchise has traveled by following those rebuilding plans and staying committed to a long-term vision. Breakouts for Jimenez and Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito and Tim Anderson allowed the White Sox to enter this offseason with the ability to make a couple win-now moves. That’s something they couldn’t do last offseason, even while pursuing Machado. They weren’t there yet.

Hahn has also accomplished every goal he established, positionally, at the outset of the offseason, filling two holes in the starting rotation with Keuchel and Gonzalez, finding a new everyday right fielder in Mazara and finding a thumper for the DH spot in Encarnacion. And that’s in addition to bringing in a new everyday catcher who will also bat in the middle of the lineup, locking up the face of the franchise at first base and keeping his bat in the middle of the order and making sure Robert is in center field and in that lineup beginning on Opening Day.

And he’s not done.

Hahn said the White Sox focus will be on improving the bullpen now that the calendar has turned to 2020, and there’s still a possibility of another addition in right field that could form a platoon with Mazara. And let’s not forget Nick Madrigal, who will, at some point, join Robert, Grandal, Mazara and Encarnacion as another everyday player added to this roster.

Plenty wanted this kind of offseason. I’m not sure how many expected it. Well, the White Sox have done it.

Now, winning the offseason does not put a ring on anyone’s finger, nor does it put a trophy in the case. The White Sox have plenty of questions that will need to be answered, a lot of them in a mostly unproven and back-from-injury group of starting pitchers. Their two best hitters from a season ago benefitted from some extraordinarily good luck. The bullpen is on Hahn’s to-do list for a reason. The Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians figure to have something to say about the outcome of the AL Central. And the White Sox have to get to October first before we can compare them to the New York Yankees and Houston Astros.

But the White Sox future has indeed arrived, with realistic playoff expectations and a contention window that has the potential to stay open for a very long time.

Just like Hahn & Co. drew it up.

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Do more additions await White Sox as calendar turns to 2020?

Do more additions await White Sox as calendar turns to 2020?

The Avengers assembled. And still Dr. Strange had the gall to look over at Wong and ask, "Is that everyone?"

"What? You wanted more?"

Rick Hahn has assembled the South Side's mightiest heroes over the last few years, and that includes a ridiculous amount of offseason work before the calendar has even turned to 2020. The to-do list when the 2019 campaign came to a close was two new starting pitchers, a new right fielder and a new designated hitter. The general manager has gone out and acquired Dallas Keuchel, Gio Gonzalez and Nomar Mazara, with a reported signing of Edwin Encarnacion supposedly coming next. Oh, and there's Yasmani Grandal, the team's first move of the offseason and perhaps the most important, even though the White Sox didn't state a new everyday catcher as an offseason need.

That's a ton of work, especially compared to some teams around baseball who haven't made much change to their rosters at all at this point in the offseason. And considering that free agency has dragged all the way into February and March in recent years, to have so much completed by the end of December is noteworthy.

So, to quote a certain sorcerer supreme, "Is that everyone?"

Indeed, the White Sox still might be up to more. The Encarnacion move, which was reported Christmas night, was not a topic Hahn chose to discuss during his conversation with the media Monday, though he might have been hinting at something: "We still do have flexibility to add. We hope to continue to do that and have similar calls to this one in the coming weeks." Adding Encarnacion, even more than Grandal and Keuchel, who joined the team on multi-year contracts, would really signal some win-now intent from the White Sox, even if Hahn again refused to place playoff expectations on the 2020 season just yet.

And with that win-now intent come more needs that might not have been specified earlier in the offseason, specifically in the bullpen.

"One thing that we have not formally announced yet or have not even be rumored to be close on is potential additions to the bullpen," Hahn said. "I believe a couple times I alluded to that, like all 29 other clubs, improving our bullpen would certainly be of interest to us this offseason. That's probably the area that currently remains untouched so far. That would likely be a focus going into the new year."

Back in September, Hahn's talk of potential bullpen additions came with references to Evan Marshall and Jimmy Cordero, two effective relief arms from the 2019 'pen who were added on a minor league deal and a waiver claim, respectively. Hahn suggested the White Sox would try to explore those kinds of avenues, and they have already this winter, claiming Tayron Guerrero off waivers from the Miami Marlins.

So does this new-year focus on the bullpen mean more moves like that? Or does Hahn have plans to be a little more aggressive and pursue more expensive options via free agency? There are a lot of high-leverage relief pitchers still on the market: Will Harris, Daniel Hudson, Craig Stammen, Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop among them. A team trying to win in 2020 would figure to want some more certainty in the bullpen past Alex Colome and Aaron Bummer, and that might mean one of those free agents landing on the South Side. We'll see.

Hahn could also have designs on complementing his new right fielder with another player. The White Sox hope to unlock Mazara's one-time top-prospect potential, but they would also be wise to seek some insurance. Hahn was not shy about suggesting Mazara could end up one half of a platoon, considering the 24-year-old's splits: a .271/.337/.462 career line against right-handed pitchers and a .231/.272/.361 career line against left-handers.

"We think there's a lot of untapped upside there, and we think people may well be surprised if they have modest expectations for him," Hahn said Monday. "That said, if he continues to be the same player he's been for the last couple of years in his early 20s as he enters his mid 20s, that's still pretty darn valuable. He matches up extremely well against right-handed pitching.

"If there isn't that step forward that many of our scouts project for this player, then he profiles as a player who is going to help us win a lot of ballgames and may well need a platoon partner against left-handed pitching. We'll just have to wait to see how the coming weeks and months play out, and if we have to adjust, we certainly will."

In other words: The White Sox might not be done in right field. Perhaps there's a slight possibility that they go big once more and look at someone like Nicholas Castellanos, adding a ton more to the payroll but a ton more to the lineup, as well. But a platoon piece alongside Mazara seems a more realistic route.

The starting rotation is filled out, with the White Sox actually having six arms (kind of) for five spots. The Opening Day rotation should look like this: Lucas Giolito, Keuchel, Reynaldo Lopez, Dylan Cease and Gonzalez. Michael Kopech will be part of that mix at some point, but the White Sox haven't yet settled on how they'll limit him in his return from Tommy John surgery — a limit, by the way, that has more to do with workload than with Kopech's health. Carlos Rodon, Jimmy Lambert and Dane Dunning could play roles, as well, depending on how their recoveries from Tommy John surgery wrap up in the middle of the summer.

If Hahn does want to provide some more depth, though, he'll likely do it by making small minor league signings like the one that brought Ervin Santana aboard last February — with hopefully better results.

"What? You wanted more?"

Yes, the White Sox want more. No addition to come might be as earth-shattering as the ones that have come already. But the White Sox offseason work isn't finished quite yet. That's life in win-now mode.

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