Cast your mind back to the distant past for a moment, all the way back to … March.
It was that late in the offseason calendar that we were all sure Eloy Jimenez would not be on the White Sox roster for Opening Day, that he’d spend a few weeks in the minor leagues before making his major league debut — enough time that he wouldn’t rack up a full season of big league service time and the White Sox could gain an extra year of control on the back end of his rookie contract.
The team never said that’s what was happening, of course. It probably never will, at least not until after a new collective-bargaining agreement wipes out the service-time-manipulation loophole.
With Jimenez, the White Sox did away with the talk that had swirled since before the 2018 season even started, signing him to a new contract in the run up to Opening Day. That deal, which keeps him in a White Sox uniform through the 2026 season, allowed him to be in the Opening Day lineup with no service-time headaches whatsoever. It allowed him to get a full season of big league experience in 2019. All he did was hit 31 home runs.
So, as we approach Opening Day 2020, is Luis Robert next?
Robert, like Jimenez, did not get a late-season promotion despite a dominant year in the minor leagues. Jimenez crushed minor league pitching in 2018. Robert did even better in 2019, finishing the campaign with a 1.001 OPS, 32 home runs, 92 RBIs and 36 stolen bases between three different levels. But with the potential to get one more year of Robert down the line, the White Sox keeping him away from the South Side made all the sense in the world.
Again, the White Sox never said and never will say their decision was for that reason. The Cubs didn’t back in 2015 when they treated Kris Bryant in a similar fashion, and now all these years later, there’s a pending grievance filed by the players’ union on Bryant’s behalf.
What the White Sox will say is that Robert is likely to be the team's center fielder for the bulk of the 2020 season. They’d obviously like to lock up all their young stars in the making with long-term deals. And if they’re team-friendly, that surely won’t hurt.
“(For the White Sox, extensions for current players are) not new,” Hahn said during the GM meetings earlier this month in Arizona. “Eloy was new because he had no big league time, but that goes back to (Mark) Buehrle, (Paul) Konerko, Carlos Lee, right up through (Adam) Eaton, (Chris) Sale and (Jose) Quintana, Tim Anderson. It's always been something we've been interested in doing and providing ourselves with some cost certainty and some added control as part of that.
“It's certainly something we remain interested in doing.
“These are individual player calculations in the end. A good portion of it is about makeup and diligence and what's the effect the money is going to have on this guy, what motivates this player? Are they still going to be as hungry to win, to work and pay the price with financial security? Eloy obviously fit all that.
“Other players in the organization who fit that currently or in the future, we'd be interested in pursuing that.”
But there’s a pretty big difference between the situation Jimenez was in and the one facing Robert: money. Robert has a $26 million signing bonus in the bank from when he joined the White Sox organization back in 2017. Jimenez didn’t have anywhere near that kind of money before his new deal in March. The Cubs gave him a (still quite lucrative) $2.3 million signing bonus when they signed him as an international free agent in 2013.
The jump from $2.3 million to $43 million is a huge one, one that’s hard to pass up, while the jump from $26 million to something similar to what Jimenez got might be easier to pass on considering the even greater free-agent riches that could be waiting down the line. It's possible that's not Robert's thinking, but it is a factor in this discussion and certainly one that differentiates it from the one involving Jimenez.
And it’s why Hahn, who was hardly out of character in doing so, is not setting Robert’s name in stone as a part of the Opening Day roster for 2020. It’s much the same way he talked about Jimenez a year ago.
“Let's see what he looks like when he gets to camp,” Hahn said. “Let's see how he's doing. It'll be hopefully his first full, healthy extended camp with something on the line, in terms of making a club, and we'll go from there.”
But money and service-time aside, it seems the White Sox have another elite young talent on their hands in Robert, someone with a sky-high ceiling like Jimenez — not to mention Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease. To keep that core together for as long as possible would figure to be one of the White Sox main goals as they ramp up for the transition from rebuilding to contending.
Having Robert in a White Sox uniform for as long as possible would be a good way to ensure that contention window stays open.
“He certainly fits that category of guy that we project to be a really good player for a really long time, and we want that to be in a White Sox uniform,” Hahn said.
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