The COVID shortened 2020 MLB season is in the rearview. The pitching debacle that was Game 3 of the American League Wild Card Series for the White Sox is nothing more than a bad memory at this point. The Winter Meetings have come and gone. The Hot Stove that seemingly took forever to come to a boil has cooled. Adam Eaton is back. Lance Lynn and Liam Hendricks will be seen on the bump for the Southsiders this year, and Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa is at the helm. But, one question remains: Who will be the DH to start the season for Chicago’s team that resides at 35th and Shields?
In a recent interview, White Sox General Manager Rick Hahn eluded to the fact that because of the inability to guarantee playing time or multi-year deals due to the high hopes and expectations for prospects already in the organization, signing potential free agent targets had become more difficult as the offseason progressed. Of course, one of those prospects is Andrew Vaughn.
Vaughn has been talked about, a lot, by both the club and fans alike. The 22-year-old Santa Rosa, CA native was selected third overall by the Sox in the 2019 MLB Draft. Shortly after signing a $7.2 million rookie contract with the team, Vaughn was assigned to the rookie-level Arizona League White Sox. After slashing .600/.625/.933 with a home run, two doubles, and four RBI, in just three games he was then promoted to Kannapolis where he hit a respectable, but not eye-popping, .253/.388/.410 in 23 games before again being promoted to Winston-Salem.
With the Dash, Vaughn posted a similar slash line to the tune of .252/.349/.411 during his time in the Carolina League to finish up his 2019 campaign in the minor leagues. Those numbers at both the Low-A, and Advanced-A levels don’t exactly jump off the page. So why all of the hype? Why so much talk about this young kid who was primarily drafted as a first baseman?
Fast forward to 2020. Ugh, 20-freaking-20. I don’t need to recap any of the mess that was created by COVID, do I? No? Alrighty then. Moving on to why it’s pertinent to Vaughn’s story. We all know Spring Training started, and then abruptly ended. Major League Baseball and the players union tried to figure out ways to make a season work. We waited. They fought. Eventually, they came to an agreement. 60 games. That’s what everyone got. And most of us were happy, at the very least, to end up with that.
But there would be no minor league season. Devastating for young guys trying to make their way up. Guys that need development. Guys that needed to do what they need to do to impress. Guys like Andrew Vaughn. Then the announcement came that rosters would be expanded and a small amount of those guys would get a chance to play some baseball after all. At a satellite facility, no actual games, just a 16-man taxi squad to keep players ready in the event of some sort of issue, whether it was COVID-related or otherwise.
For the White Sox, that facility was the Schaumburg Boomers’ stadium. It was during this time in Schaumburg where Vaughn was able to show off his skill set against some of the best pitching the White Sox organization had to offer, aside from those already playing on the MLB team at the start of last season.
Schaumburg would be home to Vaughn during the latter half of the summer, along with the rest of the taxi squad. Director of Player Development Chris Getz said the stadium had been the perfect site for the squad. Deep down the lines and high outfield walls definitely make it an interesting place to watch long ballers hit impressive bombs. It was here where Vaughn would really turn some heads. The 22-year-old was said to be the most impressive hitter during his time there. He had the opportunity to face pitchers such as Ryan Burr, Matt Foster, Zack Burdi, Bernardo Flores, Brady Lail, and Garrett Crochet, all of which have had, or would go on to have some MLB experience. He also saw pitches from future hopefuls Jacob Lindgren, Alex McRae, and possible future ace Jonathan Stiever. Getz said that he handled them all, but, without playing a single game above Advanced-A ball, is it enough? The short answer is, nobody really knows?
On Monday, Tony La Russa addressed the media and had this to say of Vaughn, “first of all, if it’s in a cage or if he’s taking live batting practice — and I’m sure it would be the same in a game — he doesn’t ever step in there where he’s not ready to do damage. He’s got that hitter-ish attitude. In other words, I’m impressed. Second, he has no fear. And third, he works left-center, right-center, which is what high average hitters do, produce a lot of RBI, a lot of home runs, they start a lot of rallies. In other words, what I’m saying is very impressive.”
High praise indeed, but La Russa was not ready to say the job absolutely belonged to Vaughn. He also mentioned Sox prospects Gavin Sheets and Jake Burger being in the mix. La Russa believes in competition. Even though Getz said that Vaughn made a strong case last year in Schaumburg, the White Sox skipper had this to say of the potential DH candidate and his teammates vying for the spot:
“I’ll do a little dance with you. Yeah, it’s fair to say he’s the leading candidate and then I’ll say thanks and walk away and say he’s tied for first with the other guys that are the leading candidates.”
Gavin Sheets was selected by the White Sox in the second round of the 2017 MLB Draft, 49th overall. Drafted as a first baseman two years before Vaughn, and not invited to be a part of the taxi squad last year, Sheets was understandably miffed when told he wouldn’t be going to Schaumburg. Instead of letting that deter him, he decided to take the time he suddenly had to reinvent himself.
Sheets, the son of former major leaguer Larry Sheets, who was an outfielder and DH for eight seasons between 1984 and 1993 (he spent some time playing in Japan as well), saw the writing on the wall with the Sox drafting Vaughn and what high praise they held for him. His path to the majors now had another obstacle in it. Realizing that playing first base may not be in his future, he spent the last year learning everything he could about being an outfielder from his dad, making himself more versatile.
In 2017, Sheets played 56 games between the Arizona White Sox and the former Kannapolis Intimidators, hitting .279 with four home runs and 28 RBI. 2018 saw Gavin spend the year with Winston-Salem, slashing .293/.368/.407 with six home runs and 61 RBI in 119 games. But it was 2019 where he seemed to unlock more of his power potential. That year he was promoted to Birmingham where his slash line was .267/.345/.414 with 16 home runs and 83 RBI in 126 games. Recent reports say there is no slow down in that power potential as well.
It’s no wonder Tony La Russa is putting Sheets in the mix for a roster spot. Having a DH that can play first base and the corner outfield spots, with a bit of pop in his bat, can’t be a bad thing considering Adam Eaton’s injury history and Eloy’s gaffe’s in left field, right?! Did I mention Sheets hits from the left side of the dish? For the folks that think that Vaughn could use a little more time in the minor leagues to develop without being rushed, a la Gordon Beckham, this seems like a decent alternative. This brings us to the last name mentioned. Jake Burger.
Oh, Jake Burger. What’s to say? This is a kid who has seen his share of obstacles on his path to professional baseball. Burger, also a highly touted prospect at one point, was another top draft pick by the White Sox in 2017. Selected 11th overall, Jake went in the round before Sheets. Known for having a loud bat, he was expected to be a power-hitting fixture with the future club.
In a Cactus League game in February of 2018 Burger ruptured his left Achilles tendon. A few short months later, while away from the team rehabbing that injury, he suffered a second Achilles tear. Burger missed the entire year but continued to rehab to get back to playing baseball. Bring on 2019, right?… Not so fast. Jake would end up missing much of that season as well, due to a bruised heel.
There isn’t much to say about him other than he’s obviously got, heart. A lot of it. Many guys would have hung it up after everything he has been through. At 24-years-old, he, and the White Sox feel like he still has something to offer. To be considered a part of this DH competition tells you all you need to know.
So, who will it be? The odds are it will be a combination of a few guys throughout the season, and maybe even one or two that haven’t been mentioned here. Yermin Mercedes anyone? A deadline acquisition? As far as who the DH on Opening Day is, only time will tell. With the lineup as it’s constructed today, aside from the DH slot, the needle is definitely pointing up for this team. Whoever wins the job is going to have protection. It is hard to imagine that the DH slot will produce a combined 56 wRC+ as it did in 2020. Once that player is named, we’ll revisit this and try to break it all down again.
Featured Photo: San Francisco Chronicle