There are 26 million reasons why Luis Robert is going to be the White Sox’s starting center fielder in the not-too-distant future.
A young phenom in his native Cuba, Robert joined the Sox in May 2017 at age 19 for a club-record $26 million international signing bonus.
“He has the potential to be an impact center fielder for the long term, provides a special combination of power and speed that’s unique in this game to get, and he instantly becomes one of our top position-player prospects and one of the top outfield prospects in the game,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said.
Getting Robert acclimated to play in the U.S. was the Sox’s first hurdle.
Keeping the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder healthy is next on the list.
Last spring, Robert sprained a ligament in his left thumb and opened the year on the disabled list. He missed the first two months of the season, played for a month and missed another month after reinjuring the same thumb.
Limited to 50 games overall, Robert combined to hit .269/.333/.360 with the AZL White Sox, low Single-A Kannapolis and high A Winston-Salem.
“It was a season with a few bumps,” Robert said through an interpreter during spring training. “But at the end, I think I finished the season strong. It was a learning experience, and I think right now I’m in a better position to have success this year.”
The end actually came in the Arizona Fall League. With the thumb fully healed, Robert slashed .324/.367/.432 for the Glendale Desert Dogs.
“It was very important for me because I had an opportunity to get some at-bats there and perform at the level that I think I can do,” Robert said. “It was very, very important for me and for my confidence.”
Robert hurt his left thumb again last week on a headfirst slide into second base, but he was back in the Sox’s Cactus League lineup Monday.
As with multiple positions around the field, the Sox will go with veteran players in center field until Robert is ready to join the roster, likely at some point in 2020.
Jon Jay was signed to a one-year contract to help the Sox lure Manny Machado. The two are close friends, but Machado wound up signing with the San Diego Padres.
Jay still can help the Sox this season, and he has spent the majority of his nine major league seasons in center field.
“I’m going to show up to the ballpark every day and do what I can to help,” said Jay, who combined to hit .268 with 19 doubles, seven triples, three home runs and 40 RBIs with the Kansas City Royals and Arizona Diamondbacks last season. “Just help guys with their careers, help them individually. I just prepare myself every day to help the team win however I can.”
Adam Engel was the Sox’s regular center fielder in 2018, and he received Gold Glove consideration for his strong defensive skills.
The bat continued to be the problem, and Engel finished the season with a .235 average after hitting .166 in 2017.