The White Sox went so far outside of the box with draft pick Sam Abbott that they wound up in the pool.
Whereas 34 of the team’s 40 picks were spent on college players with proven track records, the White Sox bought a lottery ticket with a potentially huge payoff when they selected the three-time Washington high school water polo MVP in the eighth round of last week’s draft. The White Sox know they possess a work in progress in Abbott, who officially signed with the club on Monday and reported to the team’s facility in Glendale, Ariz. But scouts and club officials feel if Abbott can ever tap into the potential he put on display in a workout earlier this month that gambling on the 6-foot-5, 230-pounder would be worth the risk.
“This is one of the most unique stories we’ve ever drafted,” amateur scouting director Nick Hostetler said. “This is going to take some time, there’s going to be some patience. But this is one of those high-risk, high-rewards where if this hits, it’s a story good enough for a movie.”
Though the White Sox think it could take Abbott time to develop into a bonafide power hitter, it’s no surprise to Abbott’s high school baseball coach that he quickly chose baseball over water polo. Curtis High School (Tacoma, Wash.) coach Bryan Robinson said other area coaches wondered about what Abbott might do after the White Sox selected him with the 237th pick in the draft, a pick with a $161,600 slot value. Abbott had committed to play water polo at Long Beach State on a partial scholarship. He’d helped Curtis High win consecutive state titles. And he’d had success immediately after setting foot in the pool as a freshman.
But Robinson suspected that Abbott would sign immediately with the White Sox, who had flown him to Chicago for a June 4 workout at Guaranteed Rate Field. Even though he was a stud in the pool, Robinson knew Abbott loved baseball as much as the other sports.
“His freshman year he was the Washington state player of the year in water polo,” Robinson said. “He had a ton of success in the pool. But at the same time was playing baseball in the spring and summer ball. Swimming and water polo were just kind of taking the driver’s seat in terms of him getting noticed a little bit.”
“I didn’t even question (if he’d sign). The White Sox made a really big commitment. That’s something you don’t turn your back on.”
The White Sox initially noticed Abbott when area scout Robbie Cummings went to see an opposing school’s pitcher. Cummings immediately liked Abbott’s frame and his power potential and began to push Abbott on Hostetler. Ultimately, Cummings convinced the White Sox to bring Abbott to Chicago for the workout and that’s where Jim Thome, the club’s special assistant to the general manager took notice.
“He was hitting balls so far Jim was standing there and (asked) ‘Who is this kid?’ ” Hostetler said. “I even had to pull out the roster to look.”
Once Thome heard Abbott’s backstory he was further intrigued. Abbott had never spent more than a few months a year playing baseball as swimming is a year-round sport in Washington. Abbott also had never participated in a baseball-specific conditioning program because swimming always got in the way --- not that Robinson minded.
“We knew that he was actually probably getting a better workout by being in the pool,” Robinson said.
And then there’s the sheer raw power Abbott brings. Thome liked how Abbott put on a show, hitting a number of balls out to left-center field at Guaranteed Rate Field. Abbott is one of several power bats the White Sox added through the draft along with first-rounder Jake Burger and second-rounder Gavin Sheets.
“The bat does speak,” Thome said. “It’s exciting to think where a kid like this has come from. He doesn’t have a lot of wear and tear.
“It’s exciting to see what he could potentially be.
“It’ll be fun to see how this translates.”
The White Sox plan to be patient with their project. Hostetler said Abbott could spend as much as two seasons at rookie ball in order to create a steady foundation.
“It’s going to be a long process for Sam,” Hostetler said. “He wasn’t on the circuit. He wasn’t an Area Codes guy.”
Patience and concentration on baseball alone is all Robinson thinks his player needs. Abbott has also worked out in front of Nomar Garciaparra this year and the ex-All-Star shortstop had “good things to say.” Robinson loves Abbott’s approach at the plate because he knows his strike zone well and what pitches he does damage on. Abbott knows how to let the ball travel and the ball jumps off his bat. And Robinson thinks Abbott’s mindset is perfect for baseball because he knows how to hit the reset button and start over the next day.
All it took was someone else seeing it, a process that began with Cummings and picked up with Thome’s observations.
“We knew he could play at the next level just with his swing,” Robinson said. “Honestly it was a matter of if he wanted to.
“I overheard the conversation he had with Jim Thome and I thought, ‘Wow, this is really going to take off.’”
“Eighth round, that was something special.”