Jake Burger has traveled quite the winding road in the last four years. He was the 11th overall pick by the White Sox in the 2017 MLB Draft and was thought to be, at the time, a future cornerstone for the rebuilding franchise. His path to the Major Leagues has involved many speed bumps and now a positional detour. When the White Sox selected Burger out of Missouri State at the beginning of the rebuilding process, many viewed him as the third baseman of the future, or if nothing else, the heir apparent to Jose Abreu at first.
Then 2018 happened. In his first Major League Spring Training game, Burger ruptured his Achilles tendon running to first on a groundball. I remember watching the webcast of that game and as the play was completed he was nowhere to be found. Then the camera panned over to him writhing in pain a mere few steps out of the batter’s box. It was confirmed days later that he had ruptured his Achilles tendon and the youngster who was thought to be on a fast track to the Major Leagues would lose an entire year of development time.
Following a surgical procedure to repair the injury, Burger was simply walking outside in Arizona when it happened again. The freakish bad luck of an early 20s athlete having the same injury occur twice within a matter of months is something that you would only expect to befall the White Sox. Having to go back to square one from a rehab standpoint, Burger’s availability for the 2019 season now came into question. When he was unable to take the field that season, many began to doubt that we would ever see him again. Then you have a global pandemic that wiped out another season for the minor leagues. The reality of a former first-round pick missing three seasons of development time seemed like the death nail in the coffin of Burger’s professional career.
Jake Burger is a story of perseverance. Most mortals when faced with a catastrophic injury that takes them away from the one thing in life they truly love, lack the mental fortitude to overcome. To have it happen twice with a string of complications and a global pandemic sprinkled in, I don’t think anyone could fault Burger for walking away from his childhood dream. But in 2021, Jake Burger is back on the field and he is knocking on the door of joining a team with World Series aspirations in face of all this adversity.
When affiliated minor league ball resumed in May, Burger was assigned to Triple-A Charlotte, a somewhat aggressive assignment for a player that had 217 PA in professional ball, none above High-A. To this point, Burger has held his own after missing out on three seasons of PAs and development time. Through 34 games with the Knights, Burger is slashing .277/.320/.555, good for a 124 wRC+ with eight home runs.
On the surface, one could look at those numbers and say that he is warranting a trip to Chicago to help an injury-depleted roster that is beginning to show its warts offensively. However, the Knights play in perhaps the most offensively friendly park in the minor leagues, Truist Field. The run-scoring environment in Triple-A is vastly different from that of the 2021 Major Leagues. While producing at a clip 24% above league average, is that enough to believe that Burger can hold his own at the highest level of the sport?
I personally have my doubts. Burger’s plate discipline issues have been on display to this point for Charlotte as he is walking just 5.4% of the time while striking out at a 26.5% clip. To me, the untrained scout, this is problematic when facing pitchers that aren’t particularly high on the prospect totem pole and guys that have failed in their time at the game’s highest level.
The season-ending injury to second baseman Nick Madrigal has forced the White Sox to search for alternatives to fill the keystone on an everyday basis. In an interesting development this past weekend, Burger started at second base for the first time as a professional. To this point in his professional career, Burger had played exclusively on the infield corners. So does the organization view him as an option to fill the hole left by Madrigal?
It would appear as though they are intent on determining if the 25-year-old can, indeed, handle the position. Coming out of Missouri State, questions surrounded Burger’s ability to stay at the hot corner long term because of his size and average athleticism ratings from scouts. As White Sox color analyst Steve Stone likes to say, third base is more of a reactionary position while second base is more of a range position. So could a player like Burger handle this?
A comp that was thrown around for Burger at the time of his selection was former Twins (puke) and Cubs’ third baseman, Gary Gaetti. Since his injury, Burger has done a tremendous job of changing his body and becoming leaner than at any point since he arrived at Missouri State. However, he is still a bigger player and those with that build historically have not fared well at second base.
In recent years, that trend has been bucked to an extent. We have seen players such as Mike Moustakas and Max Muncy, who both have similar builds to Burger, see time at the keystone. However, both players have been members of organizations that are data savvy and utilize shifting in attempts to camouflage shortcomings in terms of range by those players. Since his return to the dugout, Tony La Russa has shown no willingness to do so. In fact, as of this morning, the White Sox rank 29th in baseball in terms of total shifts. So does that ultimately set Burger up for success, particularly given his limited experience at the position? I tend to think not.
Additionally, there is a lot more nuance to playing second than the hot corner. Players have to worry about footwork much more around the bag, transitioning the ball from the glove to their throwing hand quickly on the double play turn, covering the bag on stolen base attempts, and aligning properly on relay plays. This is a lot to take in for someone trying to learn on the fly in the midst of a pennant race.
Will It Happen?
There simply isn’t enough sample data to understand how Burger has taken to the position, and I personally have been unable to find reliable scouting reports on how his mobility has looked in his return. From my perspective, if the White Sox really believe they can win the American League pennant, asking a 25-year-old who missed three seasons and now has shifted positions to step in a fill a void simply isn’t realistic.
Jake Burger’s story is one of determination and perseverance in the face of daunting adversity. He’s knocking on the door of realizing his dream, but I don’t believe asking him to step in at a new position for a contending team does him or the team any favors. There are too many variables at play for this potential experiment to be successful in 2021, in my view.
I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in the all or parts of five decades I’ve been on this Earth watching baseball, and this could very well prove to be another one on the long list. However, if I’m the White Sox, I want the team and Jake Burger to succeed. Asking him to come to the Major Leagues and learn a new position on the fly doesn’t accomplish that for either.