One of the most exciting and intriguing storylines for the 2020 White Sox (now that we know there will be baseball) is the debut of "LuBob" or if you prefer "La Pantera" (which will be more pertinent to this column), Luis Robert. After a 2019 season in which we saw a vulgar display of power, Robert saw his prospect status rise across the industry. His domination across three levels of minor league ball in 2019 led to him being a consensus top 3-5 prospect in the game.
We all know, Robert is a dynamic, toolsy center fielder with strength beyond strength. He flashed these tools frequently this spring, with blinding speed and explosive quickness. Few Sox fans have doubts about him becoming a superstar at 35th/Shields, yours truly included. But, what if he struggles out of the gate in the shortened 2020 season?
In a shortened season, where fluky things can and most likely will happen, Robert struggling would almost doom any chances of the Sox taking advantage of a season that is a sprint rather than the typical marathon. This isn't to say any postseason hopes for the Sox hinge on his performance, but La Pantera quickly adapting to Major Leauge pitching is the type of thing that could help this team surprise in an atypical season.
Most prospect analysts have noted his aggressive approach at the plate. He has slaughtered fastballs at all levels of the minor leagues, but one thing absent from his game (and many others on the 2020 White Sox roster) is a lack of patience, meaning he doesn't walk. In fact, Robert hasn't had a walk rate above 6% since his brief cameo in Kannapolis during his injury plagued 2018 season. It is that aggressiveness that could give him issues in his first taste of the big leagues.
It is entirely possible we see pitchers deployed in manners we have never seen before due to the condensed season. So does it stand to reason that we may see pitchers rely more heavily on breaking balls since their overall volume will decrease in 2020? This could represent the first test for Luis Robert at the Major League level. Unfortunately for the Sox, they don't have the luxury of Robert taking any lumps in his first foray at the game's highest level.
Adjustments will be critical for Robert now as he will have more scrutiny from an advanced scouting standpoint. His propensity to freely swing against breaking pitches out of the zone will be a key adjustment that he must make if he is to show the dynamic two way threat he can be. If we learned anything about Robert in 2019, it's that he has risen to the challenge from level to level.
Should he have some initial struggles at the plate, Robert will still provide value to this team defensively and on the bases. Both of these skills were prevalent in the abbreviated Cactus League action (when we could watch the games via webcast). His ability to cover alley-to-alley will be tested as he will be flanked by two subpar defenders in Eloy Jimenez and Nomar Mazara.
For too long as Sox fans, we have seen heralded prospects arrive at 35th/Shields and struggle out the gate. Even after putting together a monster 2019 season, Yoan Moncada is still dealing with some idiot fans calling into question his quality as a player because of this. Eloy Jimenez, who by all indications had a more refined plate approach than Robert, struggled out of the gate in 2019. In his first 85 PAs before a stint on the IL in late April, Jimenez slashed .241/.294/.380. So, I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility that we could see this happen with Robert. If it does, I fear he will fall prey to the same criticism that Moncada and Jimenez faced before him.
I remember last April seeing people call into question why the Sox would commit guaranteed money to a player that had never seen big league pitching only to watch him struggle upon his arrival. Robert will, sadly, face similar criticism as Eloy did if he doesn't come out guns blazing in late July. His $50 million guaranteed contract will be used as ammunition against him if his August slash line isn't satisfactory.
People seem to forget that hitting a baseball is really hard, especially at the Major League level. People also seem to forget that it is the exception and not the rule to see players excel immediately upon arrival. Juan Sotos are very rare if you look throughout the course of baseball history. Even Mike Trout, possibly the greatest player to ever live, struggled in his first cup of coffee with the Angels. He slashed .220/.281/.390 in his first 135 PAs. So if the great Mike Trout can struggle initially, it's not unreasonable to think that Luis Robert could struggle.
Robert is going to be challenged like never before when the game finally returns. He demonstrated last season that when healthy, he has all five tools at his disposal and the potential to be one of the most electrifying players in the game of baseball. But if he has a sluggish start to his big league career, don't call into question whether he was worth the commitment the Sox gave him just a few months ago. His development is going to be an evolving process in all likelihood. Just as we saw with Moncada and Jimenez, players with the freakish underlying ability of Robert can figure it out at a different pace. But when it clicks, he has the opportunity to be something truly special.
I know I personally won't be a bit surprised if big league pitchers use his aggressiveness against him early. While that really would be sub-optimal for a team that doesn't have much margin for error in 2020, even less now that there are 100 fewer games, it's often times part of the process. As I mentioned earlier, we've seen this movie many times with highly touted prospects for the White Sox. But, it would uplift the fan base to see domination from Robert starting on Opening Day. We know he has the tools and I think it's a question of when and not if Robert goes to a new level of stardom.