There was Jake Burger, scoring from second in a simulated game Monday night in Schaumburg.
That might not sound like anything all that impressive. But just seeing Burger, a first-round draft pick in 2017, rounding third and heading for home in any kind of White Sox game is something that hasn’t happened in a long, long time.
Teams have lofty plans for anyone they spend a first-round pick on. The White Sox used the No. 11 pick on Burger, a slugger out of Missouri State University who at the time figured to play a prominent role in the still nascent rebuilding project taking place on the South Side. Yoán Moncada, Michael Kopech, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo López were acquired in trades the previous December. Luis Robert was signed in May. The White Sox didn't trade for Eloy Jiménez and Dylan Cease until July. When the White Sox took Burger in June, with their first draft pick since launching the rebuild, he was supposed to be an equally exciting star of the future.
Instead, Burger suffered not one but two tears of his Achilles tendon in 2018. During his recovery, a bruised heel knocked him out for 2019. He hasn’t played in a minor league game in nearly three years.
There might not be any minor league games to play in this summer, but finally healthy, Burger is finally back in action with the White Sox.
“It’s incredible,” Burger said Monday. “This is exactly what I need, just get some reps and feeling good and playing baseball every single day.
“It’s been a long journey. … Me and (White Sox player-development head Chris Getz) sat down, and I’m like, ‘I’m done feeling sorry for myself. I’m going to crush it from here on out. We are going to get just after it and get out there.’
The White Sox rebuild has moved forward while Burger was forced to stand still in constant recovery mode. Third base, where he was once penciled in in so many lineups of the future, is now manned by Moncada, who got a long-term contract extension in the spring. The White Sox are in the middle of their ascent out of rebuilding mode and into contending mode, a rise made all the more intriguing with a series win over the Crosstown-rival Cubs this weekend.
Burger, though, remains in the middle of his own personal rebuilding process. His injuries now in the rear-view mirror, he’s working out at the White Sox alternate training site in Schaumburg. He’s been there for a bit now after playing in a collegiate summer league in Missouri. That allowed him to be in some sort of game action for the first time in nearly three years. With no minor league season this year due to the pandemic, the best he can do at Schaumburg is the kind of thing he was doing Monday night: taking swings against his fellow White Sox prospects in simulated games.
The games are simulated for a reason, not even all the way to the kinds of intrasquad contests we saw during "Summer Camp," as the site doesn’t carry enough position players to field two teams. Coaches grab gloves and man certain positions in the field while hitters get their swings in. Even Getz, monitoring his charges’ development from the middle infield, where he played as a big leaguer, was tossed a glove at one point while he stood near second base.
It's far from resembling the realities of minor league baseball. For Burger, though, it’s a mighty positive experience. He’s playing baseball again.
“I think there’s two major benefits (to being in Schaumburg),” Burger said. “One is just the amount of reps we get. We are going non-stop for basically six hours. It’s just constant repetition and getting the reps I need. You miss so many after two years of missing playing.
“The second benefit is getting around the guys. … Getting around the guys like (Andrew) Vaughn and Seby Zavala. Just kind of pick their brain of like what they’ve seen the last two years and what the approach should be at the plate.
“Having those two coincide with the amount of repetition and having the knowledge around me, I couldn’t be happier.”
Considering all the injuries and all the missed time, an appearance at the major league level is far from guaranteed. The lack of a minor league season figures to rob a lot of development from prospects across the game, perhaps changing timelines as their experience level is incapable of growing for an entire year. And Burger, who missed the last two full seasons while battling back from his injuries, gets a third year of no games added to his unlucky resume.
But the organization remains supportive, and Burger’s talent hasn’t gone anywhere. While he might not be alongside the guys who joined the organization at the same time as he did — the Moncadas, the Roberts, the Jiménezes — there is still that opportunity for him to finally do what the White Sox hoped he’d do when they drafted him three years ago. That opportunity obviously isn’t coming quickly and would likely have to wait for the next minor league season in 2021. But Burger hopes to seize it when he finally gets the chance to return to minor league game action.
While the White Sox are most definitely set at third base, Burger is willing to try anything to reach the majors. First base and designated hitter — where a power-hitting fellow like himself could logically end up — also seem well spoken for between José Abreu and Vaughn, currently ranked as the No. 17 prospect in baseball. But Burger will happily try the outfield or anywhere else that could get him on the team, trying to find his way back into those lineups of the future, even if they’re now mostly stocked.
“I honestly feel better defensively now than I did prior to the draft almost. … I feel like I could play almost anywhere they put me,” he said. “Maybe not center field or shortstop, but I feel great.
“(White Sox scout) Kirk Champion was at a couple of my games in the CarShield League (in Missouri), and we talked on the phone and he was like, ‘Man, you're a lot quicker than a lot of people realize. I feel like you could play anywhere.’
“Going into this offseason, that's going to be a priority, however I can on the field, I'm going to do that. Maybe train some outfield plays, train everywhere. In the CarShield League, I played a couple games at first base. I felt comfortable there. That's an easier transition than, obviously, the outfield. But I really do feel like I can take on any challenge thrown at me, especially after these two years.”
At the very least, Burger’s return to playing some kind of baseball for the White Sox organization is a feel-good story, a guy overcoming some horrible injury luck to get back to working on achieving his dream. And bravo for that.
But considering the high ceiling that was discussed when he was just starting his time in the organization three years ago, there’s still the idea of some potential and the potential role he could play on contending White Sox teams. That would be an exceptional accomplishment at this point. But Burger’s not going to stop trying to get there.
“Knowing that I got over this hurdle the last two years, I know that I'm mentally stronger than I've ever been,” Burger said. “And so it's like, whatever they need from me, I'm willing to give them. It's really exciting.”