After an 11-season playoff drought, the Chicago White Sox managed just two postseason appearances before regressing to mediocrity in 2022 and falling off of a cliff last season. Ownership had stuck with the architects of the team — Rick Hahn and Ken Williams — throughout the barren years, but on the precipice of another rebuild, they finally decided to hand the reins to someone else.
New GM Chris Getz has wasted little time making his mark, acquiring five players for veteran reliever Aaron Bummer late Thursday night. Those new additions could make up about a fifth of Chicago’s Opening Day roster if all goes well, but Getz has indicated he isn’t close to done remodeling the franchise:
Attention all shoppers.— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) November 17, 2023
Chicago White Sox GM Chris Getz: "I've made it very clear that the White Sox are willing to listen in on any of our players.''
In an instant, Luis Robert Jr. became one of the most appealing targets on the trade market. The 26-year-old is coming off of a five-win season per fWAR after popping 38 homers, 36 doubles, and stealing 20 bags. Not to mention, Robert Jr. was also a Gold Glove finalist in center field, saving the ChiSox 12 runs up the middle according to Statcast’s Fielding Run Value.
He isn’t perfect by any means; his dynamic style of play has led to a laundry list of injuries including a groin strain, wrist and hand issues, a torn hip flexor, and perhaps unrelatedly, even complications from a virus. This past season was his first time playing in 100 games on his third try (not counting 2020), and even this year he had to go home early due to a knee sprain. Yet, changes that he made to his offseason routine last winter seemed to pay some dividends, and the benefits may continue to accumulate from here on out.
One other red flag in his profile is a questionable approach at the plate. To say Robert Jr. is a free-swinger would be an understatement; he has unloaded on nearly 60 percent of offerings in his career, ranking fifth in swing rate among 547 hitters with at least 300 plate appearances since his 2020 debut, and he’s shown little interest in developing more discipline through the years. That lofty swing rate has also resulted in whiffs on 17.8 percent of pitches, 19th highest among that same group of hitters.
Still, when he squares a ball up, it usually goes a long way. Mis-hits may drag down some of his batted-ball averages, but his 95th-percentile exit velocity, which ranked 40th of 492 hitters with at least 100 balls in play this season, demonstrated his excellent top-end power. Robert Jr. also notched about 20 more bases per 100 balls in play than you’d expect based on pitch quality and location alone. Some of this was surely due to his power, but his wheels can’t be discounted; his sprint speed rebounded to the 84th percentile after a pair of down years.
With excellent fielding, speed, and power, Robert Jr. has a lot to fall back on if any one of his skills dissipates over the life of his current contract. Even if he ends up contributing a league-average two wins per year, however, his deal would still be a bargain: he stands to make just $27.5 million over the next two seasons, and if he retains his current level of play, the two option years on top of that at $20 million apiece would be no-brainers as well.
All of this is to say that Robert Jr. would fit on any team. Yet, the Yankees have an especially gaping hole in center field thanks to the departure of Harrison Bader and the injury to Jasson Domínguez. The Bombers could opt to bring back the free-agent Bader on a short-term deal, but if they’re serious about competing, Robert Jr. is clearly the better option. Theoretically, they could even re-sign Bader and trade for Robert Jr., situating one of the two in left field where the team’s production (per fWAR) was the fourth-worst in the majors in 2023.
Having an outfield full of Gold-Glove-caliber defenders (assuming Judge regains his mobility following last season’s toe injury) is certainly appealing, especially with a cadre of young arms likely in need of defensive pick-me-ups on the horizon. However, any trade for Robert Jr. would probably cost the Yankees some of those arms; the White Sox seem destined for a lengthy rebuild, and they won’t be interested in less-controllable options that the Yankees have supposedly shopped such as Clarke Schmidt or Gleyber Torres.
So, it makes the most sense to pair a Robert Jr. acquisition with that of a pitcher to replace some of the depth that will be lost. This could take the form of a free-agent signing or the addition of someone else in the deal, such as Dylan Cease. But Robert Jr. alone will likely fetch a haul, so let’s set our sights on him first.