The thumb injuries that kept center fielder Luis Robert off the field in 2018, and the knee and ankle injuries that sidelined him during his first year on U.S soil in 2017 came with benefits, the White Sox’ prized Cuban outfield prospect says.
Robert, 21, knows he would have been better served getting more reps and playing more games in these key development years. Having missed time on the field is why he is making up for it by playing in the Arizona Fall League now — and doing so in grand style with a 14-game hitting streak, a prodigious home run and alert baserunning for the Glendale Desert Dogs — but Robert took a positive from being forced off the field by the injuries.
“Any time you miss time on the field it will delay your process, especially for a young player as I am,” Robert said through translator Billy Russo. “On the other side, all that time I was off the field has helped me adjust to this process in this new country. That’s something I feel good about.”
Signed by the Sox to a hefty $26 million bonus on May 27, 2017, the 6-3, 185-pound Robert spent the entire 2017 season in the Dominican Summer League, some of it on the sidelines. “All that time” he referenced was due to a minor injury to his left meniscus suffered while attempting to steal home and to his right ankle while running the bases.
Robert sprained his left thumb on a feet-first slide into second base during a Cactus League game in March — he hit a game-winning homer despite the injury moments later — and was out until June 5. Then he reinjured the same thumb and missed more time in July and was sidelined from Fall League action for a week by a hamstring injury, the latest setback in a disquieting trend.
All that time off, though, allowed for more time to adapt to his new surroundings and to the English language. That’s how Robert is looking at it, anyway.
“The biggest challenge for me is the language,” Robert said. “It’s really tough being in a place when you don’t know what people are saying. I can grasp a few words but I don’t know sometimes what people are telling me. That’s definitely frustrating but I’ve been trying to learn. But also the food. If you don’t know how to speak the language you don’t know what to order.”
Robert’s uncle has been around to help him along, but he’s not around the clock.
“Thank God I have my uncle here but he’s not here all the time,” Robert said. “When he’s not with me I don’t really eat very well. I just get like burgers, pizza. And that’s tough because that’s not the kind of food I’m used to. But that’s part of the adjustment process.”
Meanwhile, Robert continues to demonstrate a diversified tool set (as well as evidence of plate discipline) that has him ranked fourth among Sox prospects and 44th overall by MLB Pipeline. While showing plenty of power during batting practice, he did not hit a homer in 50 minor league games this season.
“I think my power is there,” he said. “It’s true that when I came off the DL I wasn’t feeling fine with my wrist [from compensating for the sore thumb] and I couldn’t swing the bat very hard but I feel better, right now 100 percent. I don’t have any pain or soreness.
“I think my power is going to be showing up little by little. I’m confident. I know I’m going to hit homers.”
No one in the Sox organization is higher on Robert than Sox manager Rick Renteria, who loves his range in center field and expects him to become a better power hitter with experience.
“He has a lot of strength, he has a lot of pop,’’ Renteria said. “He has a lot of power. I’m not worried about that and neither should anybody else.’’
Robert had quite a week, pulling a tape-measure home run to left in a Fall League game at Cubs Park Wednesday, collecting three hits Friday, and, in one sequence beating out a grounder to third for a single, stealing second, tagging up on a relatively deep fly to center and alertly scoring when the relay man took his time getting the ball in to the infield.
Robert is batting .386/.435/.526 with two homers, two doubles, three stolen bases, five walks and 10 strikeouts for the Desert Dogs, whose season ends Thursday.
“I’ve been working on my swing, trying to barrel the ball and cover the strike zone better,” he said.
Indications are Robert will begin the 2019 season at advanced Class A Winston-Salem, with a promotion to AA Birmingham coming rather quickly barring something unforeseen.
“My goal is to work hard in the offseason and be ready for spring training,” he said. “Whatever plan the team has for me next year. I can just control the things I can do and how I can perform. I want to get better every day, I want to learn and develop and be the best player I can be. That’s my goal and plan.”