Gavin Sheets might not have been expected to make the kind of rookie impact that Andrew Vaughn was for the Chicago White Sox in 2021.
But come playoff time, Sheets was the one going deep in the American League Division Series.
Sheets didn't get an abundance of playing time during his rookie season, but boy, did he make the most of his opportunities, which saw him blast 11 homers and drive in 34 runs across 54 games. His left-handed power proved more than valuable, and he particularly raked against right-handed pitching — to the tune of a jaw-dropping .900 OPS — that helped offset Vaughn's struggles against righties.
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Both figure to be more than specialists moving forward, though even if their splits stay somewhat similar moving into 2022, the two could form a whopper of a platoon, bringing power from both sides of the plate and versatility in the field.
Sheets, like Vaughn, was forced into an unnatural position in his first taste of the major leagues. Vaughn, a first baseman by trade, was pressed into duty in left field after Eloy Jiménez went on the shelf with a significant injury and was generally stellar. Sheets, a first baseman by trade but well aware of the realities of the White Sox' roster, started working as a corner outfielder in 2020 and played 17 games in the outfielder last year.
It's hard to say where Sheets will end up playing in 2022. There's offseason work still to be done on the other side of the lockout, and Rick Hahn could take the opportunity to upgrade his lineup with an outside addition in right field, where there are still several intriguing free agents left on the market — Nicholas Castellanos, Kris Bryant and Michael Conforto spring to mind — to say nothing of what might be able to be acquired via trade.
Sheets could end up part of the mix in right, a bench bat spelling José Abreu at first base or part of the DH equation. No further position-player additions by the front office, and Sheets could be a fairly regular starter at DH, should Vaughn be entrusted with right field a season after being thrust into the starting job in left.
Even the White Sox didn't seem to have an answer to the Sheets question when the offseason began.
"We feel very bullish on the futures of Andrew Vaughn and Gavin Sheets," Hahn said in November. "We envision them playing significant roles on multiple White Sox clubs going forward. (We'll) spend some time over the next few months figuring out what is the best fit for them in 2022. (It) could be DH possibilities, right field possibilities. They're both natural first basemen, and we've seen how quickly Andrew acclimated to left field.
"They provided us with good options and flexibility. Frankly, it's too early to say exactly how they're going to be deployed in 2022."
While Sheets' immediate defensive future is difficult to read, however, his continued development as a hitter should help him remain productive at the plate. Even if he's tasked with little more than bringing power to a matchup with a left-handed pitcher, that's an important piece of any championship puzzle. The focus is so often on the featured players on any big league roster, but titles are won with ample help from role players, something White Sox fans are plenty familiar with after watching a host of fill-ins contribute during an injury-filled march to the AL Central crown a year ago.
After all, before he hit a ball out for his first postseason homer in October, it was Sheets who delivered a memorable walk-off home run to add to the White Sox' win total in July.
Of course, the promise Sheets showed in his limited major league action last year could catch the eyes of any hypothetical trade partners Hahn might talk with once he's able to resume his offseason work. Young, controllable, versatile and powerful, Sheets would make sense as a candidate to go the other way in a win-now move, the same sort of fate that befell Dane Dunning, Nick Madrigal and Codi Heuer in deals that brought Lance Lynn and Craig Kimbrel to the South Side.
But should La Russa have Sheets at his disposal in 2022, expect the South Side skipper to use the second-year slugger with glee.
"The young man's got real talent," La Russa said of Sheets last spring. "I'd like to be his agent."
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