Rick Renteria

Behind every rave review of Luis Robert is an example of his continuing education

Behind every rave review of Luis Robert is an example of his continuing education

You've heard it from Rick Hahn plenty of times: The White Sox young players are not finished products.

When impatience pops up on social media, when calls for the White Sox to make moves that will produce an instant winner, this is an important thing to remember. The rebuild is ongoing, not steps from the finish line just waiting for a superstar free agent to push things into the next phase.

And there might be no better reminder of that fact than Luis Robert. He's the No. 4 prospect in the organization and is constantly earning rave reviews from every corner of the baseball world for his five-tool potential. He's a reason, all by himself, to be excited about the team's future, and it's because of that that some fans wonder why he can't get to the South Side sooner.

But with every tantalizing scouting report about Robert — about his speed, about his defense, about his bat — comes another example that his education is far from complete.

Look no further than the recent news involving Robert out in Arizona, where for the third time in the past year or so, the center fielder is sidelined with a thumb injury. It's not supposed to be serious — like the one that delayed his 2018 debut until June — and it's not supposed to be long before he's back in the White Sox lineup, but it's also not the first time he's injured his thumb while sliding into a base. And it's as good an example as any that there's more development and more teaching to be done when it comes to the 21-year-old, who's only played in 50 minor league games in the United States.

It figures that sliding will be part of that teaching plan after this latest thumb issue. But that's not all.

Robert is fast. Really fast. You might remember this highlight from Arizona Fall League, when he used that speed and his general aggressiveness on the base paths to score from second base on a sacrifice fly.

But speed and using that speed wisely are two different things, so says Omar Vizquel. He was Robert's manager for a time last season at Class A Winston-Salem and is the new manager at Double-A Birmingham, where Robert will almost certainly spend some time in 2019, even if he doesn't start the campaign there.

"One thing is speed, and one thing is to know when to use it in situations. And one of the things with Luis is trying to teach him situations where he can take advantage of his speed," Vizquel said last month in Glendale, Arizona. "We don’t want him to go when a guy is pretty fast to the plate and is probably going to have a fastball. So he’s got to realize and learn those kinds of situations. We talk a lot about that. I know he can do it, I know he’s got some unbelievable speed, but if we can make him learn that aspect of the game, it’s going to be even better for him.

"He’s in the learning process right now with that. It’s amazing the raw tools that he has, even though that he hasn’t played this game for too long. And probably the language is also a barrier. It helped him out a lot that he is around guys that speak Spanish, also. He can continue, through the learning process, to improve."

It's happening in the field, too, where Robert's skill and aggressiveness means he's got range for days. But it's also led to something the White Sox see as a teaching opportunity. Take this seemingly awesome description of what Robert can do in the outfield.

"He’s an animal out there," Zack Collins said. "Ricky (Renteria) said that yesterday, he plays center field, left and right at the same time."

Sounds like Robert's got some ultimate range out there, which is true. But it was a different kind of comment from the skipper, who explained his thinking.

"The point to that conversation had to do with making sure you do what you’re capable of doing but still use the other facet of communicating with the corner positions," Renteria said. "There’s a way to approach fly balls in those general areas because you do have other defenders out there. And it’s something that will come with experience and time. We’re happy that we’ve got a guy that can cover the distance that he does.

"He’s ready to go. As experience and time starts to come into play, he’ll understand how to harness that aggressiveness in a very efficient way. And that’s part of the process. We’re really happy that, at least, that already is built in him, it’s just for us now to hone it in a little bit and I think he’ll do fine."

See? Robert might be generating "oohs" and "ahs" with the stuff he can do on the diamond. But that doesn't mean he's major league ready.

And the White Sox aren't expecting him to be at this point. They're expecting their player-development staff to help turn Robert into a major leaguer. That's what Vizquel, Renteria and others will be tasked with as Robert's career continues.

"He’s a shy guy," Vizquel said. "You have to know how to get to him because sometimes he feels bad that maybe he struck out or something like that. So you have to be slow with him, you have to know the time to talk to him about things. He’s been very receptive of information, and he realizes that he has still a lot to learn. We’re trying to help him with the language barrier and all that stuff. ... But he was great, he was pretty good on that last year."

Once Robert's raw talent can be turned into a more finished product, then the White Sox can reap the benefits as part of their planned perennial contender.

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Yoan Moncada is off to a nice start in the Cactus League

Yoan Moncada is off to a nice start in the Cactus League

I know. It's only spring training.

Not only is it only spring training, it's only been two spring training games.

But while the sample size is admittedly microscopically small, Yoan Moncada is off to a nice start in Cactus League play after struggling mightily at the plate during his first full season in the bigs in 2018.

Moncada started his spring game action with two hits, including a double, Saturday against the Oakland Athletics. Monday, he banged out another couple of hits, including a triple, against the San Francisco Giants. He drove in a run and scored a run in each game.

We can conclude he feasts against teams from the Bay Area. (Hey, there's actually some truth to that: He slashed .290/.353/.645 with three homers and 13 RBIs in seven games against the A's last season.)

But seriously, this is what the White Sox are hoping to see. Obviously they would like just plain improvement after Moncada struck out 217 times last season (one of the highest single-season strikeout totals in baseball history) and slashed just .235/.315/.400.

But they also see potential offensive improvement as a result of the position switch they're undertaking this spring, moving Moncada from second base to third base. It might seem those two things wouldn't be connected, but Rick Renteria has said multiple times during the first few weeks of spring training that the increased focus Moncada needs to master the hot corner could lead to increased focus in the other facet of his game, leading to better results at the dish.

"We’re hoping, honestly, that some of the focus that he’s got to take into re-acclimating himself to playing third base will be also part of expanding his offensive capabilities," Renteria said. "And by the way, if you look at — and I know this is going to sound crazy — if you look at the metrics of his hitting, there was a lot of good things in his offensive game last year. I know we focus on the strikeouts and things of that nature, but there were a lot of good things that went on with his ability to have a good eye, balls in play, his batting average was off the charts.

"So there are a lot of things that will continue to improve with him. And I think he will continue to understand, without getting himself outside of that zone that he understands so very well, there’s situations that he will continue to embrace and understand when to manage certain at-bats in different ways. Those are the things that he’s going to gain from experience and knowledge, and I think that last year’s season definitely has served him very, very well in terms of making his adjustments this coming season."

Whether four hits in two spring training games are a positive result from the move to third, a result of Moncada's much-discussed offseason work or just four hits in two meaningless spring training games, it's a good thing to see.

Time will tell if it carries over into the season and into the summer.

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Rick Renteria says 'don't be surprised' if Yoan Moncada is White Sox third baseman come Opening Day: So what's that mean for Manny Machado?

Rick Renteria says 'don't be surprised' if Yoan Moncada is White Sox third baseman come Opening Day: So what's that mean for Manny Machado?

GLENDALE, Ariz. — That potential position switch for Yoan Moncada isn't so potential at the moment. It's happening.

The guy who started 148 games at second base during his first full season in the big leagues is practicing at third base as the full squad has come together here at Camelback Ranch. That was been mentioned as a possibility throughout the offseason by Rick Hahn and Rick Renteria.

But the skipper took things to another level Monday, saying that it shouldn't be a surprise if Moncada is the White Sox starting third baseman come Opening Day.

"I think we are going to work him over there as much as we can during the spring. And don’t be surprised if you see him there Opening Day," Renteria said. "The reality is the more flexibility we have with him, the more he knows what he can do. He sees himself and has been an excellent third baseman, before we (acquired) him, in the amateur ranks.

"It’s one of those things where we want to be able to see and keep ourselves open to all the possibilities and see if he can handle it. There’s no better time than spring training. He’s been working over the winter on it a little bit. As we see him continue to work, we will be able to make a determination as to where he’s at and how good he might be able to be. We’ll keep working at it."

Now, of course the immediate reaction is what this has to do with the guy who's not here, Manny Machado.

The White Sox are still in pursuit of the 26-year-old free-agent superstar, who still hasn't made up his mind on where he's going to sign despite major league camps being in full swing in both Arizona and Florida. Machado plays on the left side of the infield — a two-time Gold Glover at third who moves to shortstop, his original position, last season — and plenty of fans are jumping to the conclusion on social media that because the White Sox are sliding Moncada to third and prepping for him to be the starter at the hot corner that one of two things is happening: 1. The pursuit of Machado is dead, or 2. Machado insists on playing shortstop after all and it's Tim Anderson who'll be moved.

Here's why neither of those things is the case.

Moncada's move to third base has little, if anything, to do with Machado and a lot more to do with Nick Madrigal, last year's first-round pick who is what the White Sox call a Gold Glove caliber defender up the middle, specifically at second base, where he's played since he joined the organization. Madrigal, who the White Sox described as the best all-around player in college baseball when they drafted him, could move through the system quickly, and when he arrives at the major league level, they want to have a spot for him.

But they want to have a spot for Moncada, too, as they still think highly of his ceiling and what he'll be able to do as a hitter one day, despite the 217 strikeouts and other less-than-ideal numbers posted during his first full season in the bigs in 2018. And so with no obvious long-term answer at third base within the organization, getting Moncada there sooner rather than later could make him more comfortable once Madrigal arrives and once the transition from rebuilding mode to contention mode comes. And that could all happen within the next season or two.

Renteria went as far as saying that a move to third could help Moncada improve both on defense and offense. He made 21 errors at second base last season, one of the highest totals in baseball. For what it's worth, in 31 games at third base as a member of the Boston Red Sox organization (including the Arizona Fall League), Moncada made eight errors.

But the manager thinks a move to third could help him focus in the field and at the plate.

"I think that playing third might allow him to free himself up, simply because he’s going to have to be more focused," he said. "At second base, you can get a little bit more lackadaisical. I think that it’s possible, and there’s no guarantee, that playing third base rounds out his focus a little bit more on both sides of the ball. At least that’s an expectation or a hope we might have.

"I think that his range factor is huge, his arm is good. Understanding the nuances of the game at third, getting reacquainted with it again will be a factor in how well he’ll do. But I think that just allowing him, and then allowing us to use (Yolmer Sanchez) at second base a little bit more gives us a little bit more well-rounded infield."

Most importantly, though, Machado simply isn't here. He might be eventually, but he isn't now. And yet Renteria and the White Sox still have to get ready for the upcoming season. If Machado doesn't come, Moncada would likely be the team's starting third baseman, and this is in preparation of that. If Machado does come, it's not a hard fix: Moncada slides back to second base and Sanchez likely takes a bench role.

Renteria said before SoxFest that Machado told the White Sox he'll play anywhere they ask if this is where he ends up signing. That was important info considering Machado's supposed preference for shortstop. And so Tim Anderson likely stays the everyday shortstop whether Machado signs or not. Moncada is the movable piece, and his return to second base would be easy in the event Machado comes to the South Side.

But Renteria is constructing his everyday lineup with the players he has right now. It's a contingency plan in case Machado goes elsewhere, not a sudden change of strategy because the White Sox have given up hope.

"I think I’ve been saying I can’t worry about who’s not here. I’ve been focused on the guys that are here," Renteria said. "I have to move forward that way. And like any team, anything can happen. You make adjustments as those changes occur, if they occur. Right now, the guys that are in that locker room are the ones that I’m most focused on. And we’re trying to make sense of how our roster will look and how our lineups will look with the guys that we do have."

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