Even as the White Sox find themselves in first place in the AL Central, the Luis Robert injury is a major cause for concern. The Sox, coming off a three-game sweep of the Kansas City Royals over the weekend, now head home to face the Minnesota Twins for the first time in 2021. The Sox sit alone atop the AL Central, with a record of 19-13, one game ahead of the Cleveland Indians.
Lead by the best starting rotation in baseball, the Sox have played solid baseball as of late. Their defense, which was poor early in the season, has improved significantly. Perhaps most surprisingly, the Sox lead all of MLB in run differential, despite being dead last in home runs in the AL. Considering that they play their home games in a homer-friendly park, this is an amazing statistic. By any measure, the arrow seems to be pointing straight up for the South Siders.
Luis Robert Injury Changes Everything
The arrow may be pointing up, but the Luis Robert injury has certainly put a damper on the enthusiasm of Sox fans everywhere. Robert was injured beating out an infield hit on May 2nd against the Indians. Robert, a budding superstar, was one of the players whom manager Tony LaRussa was counting on to lead the Sox into the postseason in 2021. While estimates vary, there is no guarantee that Robert will return at all in 2021. Or, if he does, many question whether he will be at or close to 100%. That remains to be seen.
One thing is certain, though, when it comes to the Luis Robert injury. There are several questions that remain unanswered as to how the White Sox navigate through the season in his absence. While they survived the first week with a 4-1 road trip, they have to be at least considering the long-term possibilities, and just how they will fill his position between now and October.
Luis Robert Injury: White Sox Face A Major Challenge
Yes, the White Sox swept the Royals in Kansas City over the weekend. They did it with outstanding pitching, solid defense, and timely hitting. Those are critical components for any contending team. However, in the last two games of the series, the Sox starting outfield featured three infielders. The outfield, from left to right was rookie Andrew Vaughn, Leury Garcia, and Danny Mendick. Vaughn is a first baseman by trade, Garcia (who has played some outfield), came up as a utility infielder, as did Mendick. This alignment highlights the challenge the Sox face as they try to reconfigure their outfield.
To be fair, Mendick was in right-field because the Royals started left-handers in the two games. Adam Eaton is the regular right-fielder. So Mendick’ starts out there will be rare. Still, in spite of the Sox stellar record, it is unrealistic to think that they can maintain their performance without some sort of upgrade in center-field. Garcia is much better suited to play the infield and it would be the Sox detriment if he were to play every day in center-field.
Of course, the Luis Robert injury is not the only injury affecting the Sox outfield. Just before spring training ended, they lost slugger Eloy Jimenez to a serious injury. Jimenez was scheduled to be the everyday left-fielder in 2021. His injury made an injury to fourth outfielder Adam Engel an even bigger issue. Engel suffered a hamstring injury in spring training and is not scheduled to return until later this month at the earliest. So, the challenge facing the White Sox is the loss of three of their four outfielders for major periods of time. Thus, the converted infielders playing in the outfield.
What Options Do The White Sox Have?
This is the biggest question that Sox fans want GM Rick Hahn to address. There are some options available to Hahn, in terms of center-field. Some are internal, while others will require him to trade away a prospect or two. Whoever ends up playing the bulk of the time in center field will only be a stopgap player. Robert is unquestionably the center-fielder of the future for the White Sox.
Engel would appear to be the best internal option for center-field for 2021. He has been a Gold Glove finalist in the past, so the Sox would see relatively little falloff in terms of defense. Offensively, 2020 was the first season in which Engel showed an ability to hit against righties. Whether that would continue in 2021 is anyone’s guess. However, he is still on the IL, hoping to be back later this month.
Garcia is the center-fielder for the time being, if only by default. He brings decent speed and a solid arm to the position, although he is still average at best in the outfield. While he has hit in spurts this season, he is still only slashing at a .205/.230.265 clip. An OPS under .500 is not going to help a team looking to make a deep playoff run. Additionally, Garcia has value as a utility player. So, playing him in center-field everyday would be tough for Sox fans to swallow.
Billy Hamilton is another internal option. Defensively, he is outstanding, with speed that perhaps exceeds that of Robert, however, he has never been a great hitter and has hit poorly in limited playing time in 2021. His OPS this season is .330. Playing him would also take away the possibility of using him a as pinch-runner late in games. Hamilton is best used as a defensive replacement or base-runner. He is not a feasible option for full-time duty in center-field.
If the White Sox are to look outside the organization, there are various players who may be available in potential trades. However, it is rather early in the season to acquire significant players via trade, so the cost may be quite high. Yet, the Sox may be forced to seriously consider such a deal. Here are some potential rental players who could fill the center-field spot in 2021.
Starling Marte of the Miami Marlins is the most accomplished center-fielder in the last year of his contract. He is the most skilled of all of them, and has started off the 2021 season swinging a hot bat. However, he is dealing with a fractured rib that has him on the IL. It would appear that any trade for Marte will have to wait for a bit to see how he heals from the injury.
Kris Bryant may also be available, although this would get complicated. Bryant is not an accomplished center-fielder, so any trade for him would be based strictly on his bat. He would not be a plus defensively, but he has been hitting as well as ever this season. He would be a major offensive boost for the Sox. There are at least two issues here though. The first is that the Cubs may believe that they are in contention in the NL Central. The second is that the Cubs would be seeking a king’s ransom for Bryant, even though he would be a rental. A Bryant trade seems highly unlikely.
One other option may be Kevin Pillar of the New York Mets. His name is likely not high on the wish list for Sox fans, and for good reason. He has become a part-time player with the Mets and is not going to the All-Star Game anytime soon. Yet, he has carved out a career as a solid defender who has, at times, hit the ball with splashes of success. Pillar would not be a big upgrade offensively, although he may outhit Garcia over the rest of the season if given the chance. He would definitely not be a game-changer like either Marte or Bryant would.
Some other names have been tossed around on social media, names like Charlie Blackmon, Yasiel Puig, and Yoenis Cespedes, however, Blackmon is owed a lot of money in 2022, and would likely cost the Sox some top prospects. He is also 35 years old. Puig and Cespedes have been available to any team that cares to sign them, and yet, they remain unsigned. There is no need to rush to sign either of them at this point.
Timing Is Everything
While many fans anticipate a move of some kind, it is unclear what Rick Hahn will choose to do. Yet for Hahn and the Sox, timing is everything. The Luis Robert injury has created a great deal of uncertainty for this team, and the biggest question is: When will the Sox do something? There is never a good time for devastating injuries, but the timing of the Luis Robert injury is especially troubling. With the question of timing, here are some more critical questions Hahn must be asking himself.
Do we ride out the short-term with Garcia and hope that a healthy Engel will hit as he did last year?
Do we go after a veteran now, and give ourselves the most time we can with him? If so, who is that veteran, and are willing to take on a multi-year contract?
How long can we go with Garcia if Engel’s recovery takes longer than expected?
What are we willing to give up in terms of prospects?
Are we expecting Luis Robert to return before the end of the season?
All of these questions, and more, are important in light of the Luis Robert injury. One factor that may affect Hahn’s approach is to see how his team is doing. So far, the White Sox have performed well in the short term. Yet, Hahn must know that the outfield as currently configured, is highly unlikely to allow the Sox to make a deep playoff run. So, unless something changes, many expect that Hahn will indeed make a move of some kind to address the center-field position. The only foreseeable change at the moment would be a quick return for Engel, who displays a hot bat. This seems unlikely at this point.
No matter what the White Sox do in the short term, this team will be one to watch in 2021. Fans are hoping that Rick Hahn makes the right move in center-field. If he is able to do so, the sky may be the limit for the White Sox. Time will tell.
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