White Sox

What goes into the decision the White Sox say they've yet to make on Luis Robert

What goes into the decision the White Sox say they've yet to make on Luis Robert

In the short term, we don’t know whether or not Luis Robert will reach the major leagues this season.

In the long term, we know the White Sox are thrilled to see him on the South Side.

The excitement over what Robert’s been able to do in the minor leagues this season is just as prevalent within the White Sox organization as it is in a fan base that wanted to see the 22-year-old playing big league ball months ago.

General manager Rick Hahn, who just returned from watching the latest batch of games Robert played with Triple-A Charlotte, had nothing but praise for the No. 5 prospect in baseball. That, of course, doesn’t mean he brought Robert with him on the return flight to Chicago, and he made sure to add that the front office has yet to determine whether or not Robert will make his major league debut before time runs out on the 2019 season.

“He's doing fantastic,” Hahn said Thursday. “Obviously you've seen the numbers. There are certainly some elements of his game that they're still fine tuning, they're still working on. But he's obviously an extremely talented young man and one that we're very excited to have here for the next several years.

“We have made no decisions on the ultimate (September) call-up list or the ultimate timing of the call-up list.”

That will likely make for plenty of hair-pulling in that segment of the fan base that has been begging for Robert to get here yesterday, the same group that treated decisions involving Michael Kopech and Eloy Jimenez the same way.

Surely it’s true that there are things that don’t pop up in the box scores that do need work, a truth for every young player and something that fans shouldn’t roll their eyes at after Hahn’s insistence that Jimenez’s defense needed work last season proved to be correct. But there’s no other way of describing Robert’s production in the minors this season besides outstanding. Combining his work at Class A Winston-Salem, Double-A Birmingham and Charlotte, he had a .336/.388/.634 slash line, 29 home runs, 30 doubles, 36 stolen bases and 102 runs scored heading into Thursday night’s game.

The most convincing argument for bringing Robert up sometime before the end of the 2019 season is that he would gain valuable experience heading into his first full season as a big leaguer in 2020. That’s not a bad argument at all, and even Hahn and manager Rick Renteria have described those benefits as very real ones.

“You can’t replicate what it’s like to be here at the big league level,” Renteria said. “One of the things you’re doing, first of all, is the emotional effect it makes on you when you get up here. The other is talent and the way talent executes.

“You get to see exactly what it’s about, and when you go into an offseason, you have a better understanding of what you’re preparing to do and where you’re preparing to do it. Everybody will get their time when they get here and understand what it’s all about.”

Like the highly touted prospects who have come before him, Robert will absolutely not be promoted so the White Sox can win a few more games at the big league level in the final month of another losing season. But it’s becoming pretty difficult to find reasons that Robert needs to stay in the minor leagues.

Hahn did talk of benefits of Robert staying away from the majors this season, and while plenty of fans will view this as nothing more than an excuse, that point and those benefits are not without merit, either.

“I think he's still learning some valuable lessons at Triple-A, I do,” Hahn said. “There are a few things you can't replicate at the minor league level.

“The speed of the game, the preparation, the adjustments, a lot of that has to be learned at the big league level. But currently, as we sit here today on Aug. 22, there is still much that these guys are learning down there. Even being in the pennant race alone, even what they're doing on a nightly basis, the battle to try to get into the postseason is a benefit to them.

“Eventually, you balance that, about what they're going to benefit from Chicago versus going through that, and make a decision.”

But the biggest thing to remember — something Hahn has not mentioned — is the service-time discussion we had surrounding Jimenez last season. It applies to Robert just the same.

For the uninitiated, if the White Sox delay Robert’s eventual promotion until a couple weeks into the 2020 season, then he will not be able to accrue a full year of big league service time in 2020, giving the White Sox an “extra” year of team control of Robert. The benefits of doing that, not at all against the rules and something other teams have done with their top prospects (the way the Cubs treated Kris Bryant is perhaps the most notable example), include saving quite possibly an awful lot of money to spend on other players and potentially extending the contention window of the current core group.

Those are two pretty huge benefits for the White Sox, and while it might not be fair to the players, it’s a no-brainer of a decision considering where this rebuilding team is right now.

Hahn will never mention that as a factor in the Robert decision, and it will never be given as the reasoning for keeping Jimenez in the minor leagues at the end of last season. But when the White Sox inked Jimenez to a multi-year contract before the 2019 started, Jimenez was able to debut on Opening Day and not two weeks into the season, as good a sign as we were going to get that service time played a role. In Robert's case, considering the huge amount of money he received when the White Sox signed him as an international free agent in 2017, there might be less incentive to sign a long-term contract, perhaps making an Opening Day debut less likely. That's just speculation, though.

Not expecting there to be any mention of service time, I did ask Hahn on Thursday about the similarities and differences to the decision-making process with Jimenez last season and the one involving Robert this season.

“I think from our standpoint with Eloy last year, there was an expectation going into the season that he may well push it to Chicago, so we had a little more lead time to sort of think about what we wanted him to accomplish and sort of set a standard before making our ultimate decision,” Hahn said. “With Luis, I think he quite frankly has already exceeded what we would have qualified as an outstanding season when we left Glendale.

“The fact he started at A ball, dominated that level, blew through Double-A and is now doing very well at Triple-A is even beyond what we had originally anticipated in terms of defining what would be a great season for him.

“Whether we decide to add a fourth level to that, again, at the start of the season it probably wasn't very much on the table. But we said earlier in this conversation that sometimes the good ones force your hand a little bit.

“We'll have to take all of that into consideration, even though at the start of the season that probably was a slim chance that he was going to be able to force his way to Chicago.”

Feel free to draw your own conclusions about what that means for the chances of Robert getting a promotion here in the coming weeks. Whether it means that there's less of a chance of Robert getting the call in 2019 or it's just Hahn sticking to an oft-repeated line — that it’s unlikely that a young player would play at so many different levels of the organization in the same season, but that a possibility exists for a great player to force the White Sox hand — is unable to be determined with certainty.

Here's what's true: Jimenez was pretty great last season, and Robert has been even better this season.

We didn’t see Jimenez until this season. We might not see Robert until next season.

But if that's what ends up happening, that’s OK. Robert is expected to be an impact player for a very long time, one who, if all goes according to Hahn’s plans, will help push the White Sox into contention mode along with Nick Madrigal and Zack Collins and any pending offseason additions, not to mention the sizable chunk of the core that’s already reached the big leagues.

And that’s what has the White Sox so excited. The future is near. It doesn’t need to be here tomorrow. But as long as Robert and the rest keep succeeding, it feels like it will be here soon.

“I feel like we are at the end of the beginning of this,” Hahn said. “Certainly those guys at Triple-A knocking on the door makes that even more palatable than just seeing the young players up here performing well.

“It’s getting a lot closer. It’s going to be an exciting time around here in the not too distant future, hopefully.”

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Luis Robert checks in at No. 3 in MLB Pipeline's final Top 100 Prospects list of 2019

Luis Robert checks in at No. 3 in MLB Pipeline's final Top 100 Prospects list of 2019

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Luis Robert is generating year-end buzz after a phenomenal 2019 campaign.

Three days after the official conclusion of the 2019 Minor League Baseball season, MLB Pipeline released its final Top 100 Prospects list of the year and, as expected, Robert made an appearance near the top. He didn’t quite nab the first spot, though. Despite taking home MLB Pipeline’s minor league hitter of the year award just over two weeks ago, Robert checked in at No. 3 in the site’s rankings, trailing only Dodgers middle infielder Gavin Lux (No. 2) and Tampa Bay shortstop Wander Franco (No. 1). 

Lux and Robert have vied for a number of Minor League accolades. In addition to being named Pipeline’s minor league hitter of the year, Robert also recently took home USA Today’s minor league player of the year. Lux edged Robert out for Baseball America’s MiLB player of the year, though, and now finishes one spot ahead of him in Pipeline’s Top 100. Franco spent 2019, his age-18 season, split between Class-A and High-A ball, slashing .327/.398/.487 with 18 stolen bases in 114 games between the two.

Robert jumped from No. 5 to No. 3 in the latest update to the Top 100, and this time last year was ranked No. 44. A season slashing .328/.376/.624 (1.001 OPS) with 32 home runs, 96 RBIs and 36 stolen bases will do that.

Michael Kopech (No. 18), who missed the 2019 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last September, joins Robert in representing the White Sox in the top 20. Additionally, Robert and 22-year-old starting pitching prospect Jonathan Stiever were named the White Sox's 'Prospects of the Year' by MLB Pipeline.

News like this - and there has been an abundance of it recently - only adds to a burgeoning sense of optimism for the future around the White Sox and its fanbase. Now, to count the days until the 2020 season, and Robert’s eventual call-up.

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After White Sox bullpen shuts down Twins, who's in and who's out for 2020?


After White Sox bullpen shuts down Twins, who's in and who's out for 2020?

The White Sox bullpen did a splendid job Wednesday night.

A “bullpen day” against the Minnesota Twins’ high-powered offense had potential disaster written all over it. Instead, Ivan Nova and a parade of relievers held those Twins hitless through five innings and to just one run in a sweep-avoiding win.

It’s actually the second time a “bullpen day” went better than expected against one of the best teams in baseball, Wednesday’s effort joining the one back in May against the Houston Astros. The White Sox lost that night but gave up just three runs to the kings of the AL West.

While nearly every pitcher that trotted out from the visitors’ bullpen Wednesday night in Minnesota pitched well, it doesn’t mean that the White Sox will carry this exact unit into a 2020 season that could be one in which they make the long awaited transition from rebuilding to contending.

Certainly Alex Colome and Aaron Bummer have been among the many bright spots for the White Sox this season, and the retention of both at the trade deadline provides confidence in what the back end of the bullpen can be in a potentially contending season. But while the eighth- and ninth-inning jobs are easily projected, what does the rest of the White Sox bullpen look like heading into 2020?

While starting pitcher is definitely on the winter wish list for Rick Hahn’s front office, it would be no shock to see relief pitching get addressed, too. It’s hard to predict which of the tons of relievers could wind up in a White Sox uniform before the team heads to Arizona for spring training. But we can try to guess at the fortunes of the relief arms currently on the roster, many of whom appeared in Wednesday night’s game.

Late-inning arms for 2020

Even if the White Sox make no additions to their bullpen this winter, the back end is pretty easy to project.

Colome has one more year of team control after being acquired in a trade with the Seattle Mariners last winter. He’s been allowing more base runners as the season has wound down — including a walk-off homer to Omar Narvaez, the guy he was traded for, last weekend in Seattle — but he’ll finish the campaign with excellent numbers, still having blown only one save. That’s the best save percentage in baseball. He’s got 124 saves over the last four seasons.

Bummer, meanwhile, has emerged from a host of internal candidates to grab a pretty tight hold on the eighth-inning job. He has a 2.31 ERA on the season with a week and a half to play, and he’s a guy who could be a back-end reliever and a potential closer for years to come.

As for other late-inning guys, Jimmy Cordero seems to be a diamond in the rough uncovered in season. He’s got a 3.34 ERA since joining the White Sox and has been an oft-used arm by Rick Renteria. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the White Sox put even more high-leverage situations on his plate next season.

Evan Marshall, too, figures to be back next season. He was another quality addition to the ‘pen, and he’s actually been better in the second half, with a 2.59 ERA since the All-Star break compared to the still-very-good 2.86 ERA before it.

Is that a fearsome foursome at the back end of a contending bullpen? Certainly all four of those guys have been good to very good this season. The White Sox would probably express a great deal of confidence in that quartet, but adding another late-inning arm to that mix in free agency would make that confidence level even higher.

What do you do with these guys?

If those four are very likely to be in key spots in the 2020 bullpen, what about some of the guys’ whose futures aren’t so obvious?

Jace Fry threw 1.2 innings without giving up a run Wednesday, dropping his season ERA to 4.96. That’s not a very pretty number, and there have been stretches this season that haven’t been very pretty, either. In a five-outing span in late May and early June, he walked six of the 19 batters he faced and gave up four earned runs in just 3.1 innings. Over a 13-outing span in August and September, Fry gave up 12 runs in 10.2 innings, walking nine and giving up 13 hits to the 53 batters he faced. But the White Sox love Fry’s potential. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him a part of the Opening Day relief corps. But if the White Sox are in contention mode, how long could they afford his inconsistencies?

Kelvin Herrera is almost certain to be back in 2020, considering the White Sox inked him to a two-year deal last offseason. But he’s going to need to improve dramatically from what he did in his first campaign on the South Side. He’s got a 6.51 ERA right now in 53 appearances. That’s obviously not good enough, and the White Sox will be hoping for something close to the kind of guy who mowed them down when he was a key piece on those back-to-back World Series teams for the Kansas City Royals. Another season removed from the foot injury that ended his 2018 season early ought to help.

Have the White Sox seen enough of Jose Ruiz and Carson Fulmer? Again, these guys have upside the team is excited about. Ruiz can throw the ball pretty hard, and Fulmer is a former top-10 draft pick. But the results have not been good, to say the least. Ruiz has a 5.87 ERA in 39 games. Fulmer, who threw 2.1 scoreless innings Wednesday, has a 5.33 ERA in 18 big league appearances. If there are free-agent additions to be had, these two could be squeezed out of the picture. But for right now, the White Sox aren’t done with them just yet.

Where art thou, minor leaguers?

If you cast your mind back to last season, you’ll remember a bunch of young arms that looked like candidates for the bullpen of the future. For various reasons, those guys didn’t do much impressing in 2019.

Injuries are to blame in certain cases. Ryan Burr was one of the many White Sox pitchers to have Tommy John surgery this season, wiping out an audition of a 2019 season for him. Ian Hamilton was similarly knocked out for the year with a pair of freak injuries. He was hurt in a car accident during spring training and then suffered a number of grisly facial injuries when he was struck with a foul ball while sitting in the dugout at Triple-A Charlotte.

Under-performance struck, too. Caleb Frare only made 31 combined appearances between the majors and Charlotte, but he posted a 10.13 ERA at the big league level and a 7.66 ERA with the Knights. Thyago Vieira had a 10.29 ERA in six major league games and a 6.27 ERA in 39 games at Triple-A.

But all four remain on the 40-man roster, for now.

Then there are three other guys who were highly thought of a year ago who didn’t help their cases for a major league promotion. Zack Burdi, the former first-round pick, was routinely rocked pitching in only 20 games at Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham, with a 6.75 ERA in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. Tyler Johnson had good numbers but only pitched 31.1 innings in 22 games. Zach Thompson had a 5.23 ERA in his 45 appearances with Brimingham and Charlotte.

None of that screams must-include pieces of the 2020 major league bullpen. A lot can change between now and Opening Day, as well as now and any later point in the season when reinforcements to the relief corps could still make a big difference. But as we stand here right now, it’s hard to say any of these guys will be in the Opening Day ‘pen.

Unlikely bullpen arms?

The other internal options for relief arms in 2020 might come from an unlikely spot: the starting rotation.

There are only five spots on the 2020 starting staff, and Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease figure to have three of them spoken for. The White Sox will make at least one offseason addition, speaking for a fourth spot. And despite a bumpy 2019 season, it would not be surprising to see Reynaldo Lopez in that rotation, too, come Opening Day.

That doesn’t mean he’ll stay there all season, though. A contending White Sox team might not be able to put up with the kind of inconsistent results Lopez has delivered in 2019. Similarly, there’s a possibility Kopech could have to start the season in the minor leagues if the White Sox think he needs more time to work himself into game shape following a long layoff while recovering from his Tommy John surgery. Whether it’s multiple offseason acquisitions or simply Kopech returning and claiming a spot, Lopez might be squeezed out, in which case the bullpen would be a possible destination for him. The White Sox see him as a starter now, but there’s no reason that a squeezed-out Lopez, should it happen, couldn’t still help the team from the ‘pen.

Also, what becomes of other Tommy John recoverers when they return to full health? What happens if Carlos Rodon or Dane Dunning or Jimmy Lambert is available late in the year? Could they help in the bullpen even if they’re destined to be long-term starters? Maybe. It’s just speculation, but time will tell.

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