A fast-rising outfielder the Cardinals once viewed as a potential cornerstone of a big league lineup is doing everything in his power to get that chance.
For the White Sox.
Remember Luis Robert?
The Cuban prospect the Cardinals made a push for in May 2017 is already making Class AAA look like child’s play.
Between his early-July promotion and Friday, Robert was 13 for 30 with five home runs and an absurd batting line of .433/.486/1.067. That gives him a 2019 minor-league slash line of .356/.409/.659 through 82 games (331 at-bats) since he started this season at a Class A Advanced affiliate.
The righthanded slugger has knocked 21 home runs, 23 doubles and seven triples across three minor league levels this season. He’s also robbed 32 bases. Robert’s rise has launched him to No. 5 on MLB.com’s list of 2019 prospects to watch. He started the season at No. 40.
Not bad for a young man who does not turn 22 for two more weeks.
“It’s been six games, so let’s keep a little perspective,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn told the Chicago Sun-Times before Robert homered twice in his seventh Class AAA game.
Hahn has Robert’s service time to fret over, after all.
That’s a pleasant problem compared to what could become a painful what-if for the Cardinals.
As the Cardinals approach the July 31 trade deadline, their outfield once again offers as many unknowns as answers, now and in the future.
Nine different Cardinals have spent time in the outfield in 2019.
As a unit, the outfield entered Friday’s game in Cincinnati ranked eighth in the NL — and third in the Central — in on-base plus slugging percentage (.779).
Starting left fielder Marcell Ozuna, the lone outfielder who has significantly outperformed his career averages during a significant sample size this season, has been sidelined by broken fingers that might threaten his power once he returns.
Starting right fielder Dexter Fowler, who has crawled out from the wreckage that was his 2018 season, is spending more and more time in center field but remains blocked from the leadoff spot despite his team-best .351 on-base percentage.
Starting center fielder Harrison Bader, the fan favorite and defensive whiz who was supposed to stop the center-field turnstile, has not hit well enough to secure his position. Of the 242 major leaguers to total 200-plus at-bats so far this season, Bader’s .204 average ranks 236th. And of the 249 big leaguers who have more than 50 at-bats against lefthanders, only six have a lower average against southpaws than Bader’s .159.
The easiest solution would be slotting surging slugger Tyler O’Neill into the lineup with Ozuna (left field) and Fowler (center) when Ozuna returns, but even that fix would be temporary. Ozuna’s contract is up after this season, and there have been no rumblings of an extension.
O’Neill hopes to prove he can become a starter. Prospect Randy Arozarena, 24, has hit a blistering .367/.438/.570 through 33 games at Class AAA this season, and has to be wondering when he will get his shot in St. Louis. It’s impossible to know what he or prized prospect Dylan Carlson might do until they get a chance. More churn seems evident.
Meanwhile, Robert climbs. His ascent comes after his first two minor league seasons were shortened and stunted by injuries to his knee, ankle and thumb. This season has shown the version of Robert the Cardinals desired to sign due to the tempting combination of his talent and the absence of the usual big spenders in the market for international amateurs that year. Teams like the Dodgers, Cubs and Red Sox were blocked from a Robert pursuit due to previous dollars spent. Additionally, Robert represented the kind of elite talent the Cardinals rarely get a chance to draft in general, thanks to a draft system that rewards tanking. With Robert, the Cardinals could attack, but it would come with a cost.
A dollar-for-dollar tax would have to be paid on the contract that landed the player.
The White Sox saw the same opportunity, faced the same tax penalty, and won over Robert with a hefty sum and a compelling sales pitch that leaned on their scouting of Robert since he was in his early teens, along with the organization’s successful history with Cuban players.
“I feel comfortable with this team, with the people that I met with,” Robert told reporters the day he signed his contract. “I picked the Chicago White Sox because it was the team that scouted me most.”
The money didn’t hurt, either. What was Lance Berkman’s memorable line years ago? “It’s always about the money.”
The White Sox handed Robert a $26 million signing bonus, meaning they paid $52 million after the tax from exceeding their international bonus pool.
The Cardinals’ offer, which would have faced the same tax, was for less. They did not receive a chance to counter.
“When you’re looking at the overall investment it’s real and historically there aren’t too many players who sign for those type of dollars,” John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, said in 2017 after the Cardinals received word they had not landed Robert. “It’s really hard to justify those types of dollars for any player with a lack of a proven track record. No matter how you try to equate the Cuban league or his international experience, it’s very hard to calibrate what that means to here (in the majors).”
Robert hasn’t yet proven anything in the majors, but he might get there before the Cardinals’ outfield churn settles.