White Sox

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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What's the deal with second base at White Sox spring training?

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CHARLOTTE KNIGHTS/LAURA WOLFF

What's the deal with second base at White Sox spring training?

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Not to go all Seinfeld on you, but what's the deal with second base?

Between the breakout seasons from young core players in 2019 and an influx of veteran additions, the White Sox starting lineup is rather easy to project. Obviously Jose Abreu, Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada, Yasmani Grandal, Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert and Edwin Encarnacion are locked in as everyday starters, and even Nomar Mazara seems to be in that category at the moment, with talk of a potential platoon in right field all but disappearing over the last couple months.

That leaves just one position in the realm of the unknown: second base.

Over the course of the entire 2020 season, the majority of the starts there figure to go to Nick Madrigal, one of the top-ranked prospects in baseball. But whether he'll break camp with the White Sox or start the season at Triple-A Charlotte is still uncertain. The latter seems more likely, based on how he's been talked about this offseason, though how he fares this spring could produce the opposite result after he played at three different levels of the minor leagues in 2019.

"We made the assessment at the end of last season that Nick Madrigal wasn’t quite ready for the big leagues," general manager Rick Hahn said Tuesday during Cactus League Media Day. "He was sent home with some specific things to work on. He can very well come to spring training this year, show he’s made certain adjustments and find himself on the Opening Day roster.

"That said, we also have guys like (Danny) Mendick and Leury (Garcia) who we fully believe can hold down the fort until such time that Nick is ready.

"We’ll have somebody come Opening Day sitting over there."

Indeed, the White Sox manning every position on the field seems a safe bet.

Nothing against Garcia nor Mendick, but Madrigal is such a talented up-and-comer that it's quite possible he's the team's best second baseman right now. But Madrigal saw just 29 games' worth of Triple-A pitching last season, and it's possible the White Sox will leave Glendale believing he needs to see some more before they bring him up to the major leagues.

Madrigal's job is to convince them otherwise, and he's been prepping to do exactly that all winter.

"I actually stayed here (in Arizona) this whole offseason, so I've been around a while now," Madrigal said last week. "I started coming to the complex about two or three weeks ago."

The kid's a real go-getter, as you can tell. There might not end up being much that separates Madrigal starting the season as the second baseman in Chicago or as the second baseman in Charlotte, but obviously the difference between those two jobs is huge. A big performance in Cactus League play could show the White Sox, a team that's gone from making a priority of development to making a priority of winning games and competing for a playoff spot, they're better served with Madrigal playing 162 games as a big leaguer rather than a smaller number.

"It's kind of out of my control. The only thing I can control is showing up every day and playing as hard as I can," Madrigal said. "They may think I need to add some stuff to my game, or whatever it may be. I feel confident right now the way I'm playing out there. Just can't worry too much about that at this point.

"I know there's a lot of time from here to the season, there's a lot of games you've got to play, so anything can happen. But I'm going to try to show up every day and play my game."

But if the White Sox still think Madrigal needs further minor league seasoning, then what?

Well, as Hahn mentioned, someone will be starting at second base on Opening Day.

The likeliest candidate is Garcia, the utility man whose versatility makes him a lock to make the 26-man roster out of camp. But while utility reserve will likely be his primary role once Madrigal arrives, until then, he could be the team's starting second baseman.

Mendick, who had some good moments as a September call-up last season, would likely be the reserve infielder, and he could see plenty of time at second if Renteria opts to send Garcia to spell starters in both the infield and outfield.

So there's not an update so much as there is a setting of the table as the Cactus League schedule begins Saturday. There might be nothing bigger to watch during the exhibition schedule than whether Madrigal can play his way onto the Opening Day roster. If that happens, the White Sox will have their transformed lineup ready from Day 1 as they look to chase down the AL Central crown.

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Rick Renteria won't lock in Lucas Giolito as Opening Day starter just yet

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USA TODAY

Rick Renteria won't lock in Lucas Giolito as Opening Day starter just yet

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Your 2020 White Sox Opening Day starter is ... (drumroll, please) ... we don't know yet.

That's not entirely true, of course, as Lucas Giolito is the overwhelming favorite to take the mound March 26, when the White Sox open the season against the Kansas City Royals at Guaranteed Rate Field.

But if you're talking about an official announcement from the manager, well, you're going to have to wait a little longer.

"You want the scoop?" Renteria teased Wednesday at Camelback Ranch. "We won’t lay out a scoop yet."

Giolito has expressed on multiple occasions during the early days of camp that he hopes to be the guy that gets the Opening Day nod. In his first meeting with the media this spring, he said he'd "hopefully" be the Opening Day starter and expanded on that in a couple interviews Wednesday.

Giolito's enthusiasm for the job isn't enough to convince Renteria to move his announcement up to the first week of full-squad workouts. But even the skipper, known to take his time before announcing such things for public consumption, can't deny that Giolito, after his transformational 2019 campaign that saw him go from the pitcher with the worst stats in baseball to an All Star and the ace of the South Side staff, has earned a shot at the title of Opening Day starter.

"I’m glad he wants to be the Opening Day starter. He’s really grown, and I certainly wouldn’t say to you that you would be surprised if you saw him doing it.

"He’s definitely earned an opportunity to possibly have the Opening Day start."

Giolito was sensational last season, posting a 3.41 ERA with 228 strikeouts in 29 starts. Even with this offseason's signing of Dallas Keuchel, who has a Cy Young Award and a World Series championship on his resume, Giolito still looks to be the ace of the staff heading into 2020.

Finishing sixth in last year's AL Cy Young voting would seem to indicate that Giolito has reached the status of one of baseball's elite arms. But here's a question: Can he get better? After all, he's just 25 years old, and many of these young White Sox are said to only have scratched the surface of what they can do. Can Giolito surpass what he did in 2019?

"I don’t know I want him to go past it as much as remain consistent and just continue to have incremental growth," Renteria said. "That was a huge jump for him. And it was a great jump for him. He learned a lot from that season. He learned a lot over the previous year and made the adjustments he needed to over the winter. He came in and did what he needed to do and was able to go ahead and be so effective for us.

"All in all, good health, knock on wood, he gets back out there and he has a chance to continue to do what he does. His pitch sequencing, his pitch mix gives him an opportunity to do that. Hard to pick up a ball out of his hand, now with the new delivery. He just needs to get back out there and pitch."

Certainly that's what Giolito is hoping to do, particularly after he gets past the strained chest muscle he suffered trying to work a little too quickly while still feeling the effects of the flu last month. As Giolito said last week, though, he has a "zero-percent" concern that injury will have any significant impact on his readiness for the season.

So bring on the Opening Day start, right?

"Hopefully," he said last week. "We’ll see. I’m excited.

"That’s not my decision."

Well, it shouldn't be too difficult of one for the person whose decision it is.

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