When Rick Hahn or another member of the White Sox brass says that your favorite prospect still has some stuff to work on before they can be all that they can be, they’re not lying.
That’s seemingly been a difficult concept to grasp for at least some Twitter-using White Sox fans, those who have taken their fury over a lack of a September promotion for Luis Robert to social media in recent weeks. Frustration is a perfectly understandable emotion for those who are watching this team lose more often than not and see a way to change that in promoting one or more of the highest rated prospects in the game. And it’s not at all unreasonable to suggest that these players would benefit from making the discussed improvements at the major league level.
But this isn’t the “should the White Sox have called up Robert or not” discussion. We’ve had that one.
This is simply pointing out that guys like Robert and Nick Madrigal, two minor leaguers many White Sox fans believe should have made their big league debuts months ago, aren’t finished products, that there are still things to work on. That’s the case for the young players already at the major league level, too, as Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito illustrated last season and Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease are illustrating this year.
It’s easy — and I’m guilty of it, too — to just look at a box score or a season stat line and say a guy’s ready for the next step. But those box scores don’t contain everything the White Sox player development department needs to know about where a player is and whether he’s accomplished everything they’re looking for him to accomplish.
Let’s talk about Robert first. Or rather, let’s let White Sox farm director Chris Getz talk about Robert first.
Robert was unbelievable in the minor leagues, finishing the 2019 season with a .328/.376/.624 slash line to go along with 32 home runs, 92 RBIs, 108 runs scored, 31 doubles, 11 triples and 36 stolen bases in 122 games with Class A Winston-Salem, Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte. But as spectacular as those offensive numbers were, they alone do not translate to Robert mastering every aspect of the game. At least not yet.
“Luis had a tremendous year. Playing at three levels, and he didn't slow down. With every challenge we gave him, he seemed to perform even better,” Getz said Tuesday. “There's some wow in the numbers, but you dive in a little bit deeper, there's some things he does still need to refine.
“He's such an aggressive athlete, which works in his favor, but when it comes to making decisions at the plate, he's going to have to refine that a bit. Because we know when you get up here that pitchers are going to attack you a little bit different and see if you'll chase pitches out of the zone or swing at pitches that you prefer not to.
“He's a young player who can square up a lot of different types of pitches and drive it a long way, so I certainly get the excitement when he walks to the box. But it's about putting together a professional at-bat, which we feel like he's getting closer to.”
None of that is likely to sway anyone’s opinion over what the White Sox should have done with Robert. It’s not supposed to. But it doesn’t mean it’s not true.
Just remember back to last year, when Hahn said similar things about Jimenez, who had his own dominant season swinging a bat in the minor leagues. When he said there were still things Jimenez needed to work on, specifically mentioning improving on defense, plenty of fans rolled their eyes and screamed “excuses!” Then Jimenez started his major league career at the beginning of the 2019 season, and it was clear he needed to keep working on his defense. Hahn clearly wasn’t making that up.
And so when the White Sox talk about the things Robert still needs to work on, they’re not lying. They’re not making things up. There are things that Robert needs to work on, and there likely still will be once he’s a major leaguer.
“On the defensive side, he's getting more and more comfortable communicating with the outfielders out there,” Getz said. “He's an aggressive player out there that can cover a lot of ground, but it comes with making good reads, which is improving, and making good decisions and throws to certain bases, hitting cutoff men, which is all part of being a well-rounded baseball player.
“Conditioning-wise, he's gifted, in the sense that he rolls out of bed, he's a good-looking athlete prepared to go out there and compete. Now, playing a major league season is a different animal, in terms of nutrition and the type of training that works toward his game. We're going to educate him as much as we can to prepare him to compete, not only for a regular season but also for a playoff run.”
Madrigal? Same thing. He lit up the minor leagues in his own way, ending the campaign with a .311 batting average, a .377 on-base percentage and a jaw-dropping 16 strikeouts. But Hahn so often says that when the White Sox promote their players, they don’t want them to simply survive but to thrive. And there are things even a guy who only struck out 16 times in 120 games can improve.
“He's got elite batted-ball skills. We knew that going in. He's been able to continue to do that,” Getz said about the 2018 first-round pick. “It's really about continuing and being consistent with the approach. There are times where pitchers are going to challenge you a certain way. You don't want to take the bait.
“He goes up there, because he can hit so many different types of pitches, sometimes he can get overly aggressive. He knows what his bread and butter is, and he needs to stick to that and be disciplined. He's starting to understand that himself. He's positioned himself pretty well to come up here and be successful right out of the gate.”
Now, in light of how the White Sox handled Jimenez last season and how teams around the game are handling highly rated prospects, it’s impossible to ignore the service-time issues here. They once again apply to Robert and even Madrigal, just like they applied to Jimenez at the end of the 2018 season. The White Sox have not said and will not say that service time is a factor in these decisions unless they want to incur the wrath of the players’ union.
But the argument of gaining an extra year of team control is just better than the one involving a few weeks of big league experience, and so the team’s decisions should have come as no surprise. Is that fair to these players? No. But it’s also, for now, playing within the rules, and so it wouldn’t be surprising to hear a flood of descriptions of Robert and Madrigal’s readiness a few weeks into April next year.
That doesn’t mean, however, that what the White Sox said this month about these elite prospects still needing to work on their games is not true. Robert and Madrigal’s developments will continue once they’re promoted, and these items might remain on the to-do list. Or the White Sox might wait to see improvements in these areas before calling them up to the majors.
Either way, neither Robert nor Madrigal is a finished product. And Getz told you why.