PHOENIX – Oscar Colás wasn’t exactly surprised when he heard he’d be given the chance to win the White Sox’ everyday job in right field.
“I saw that, on social media, in the news,” the 24-year-old outfielder said Tuesday through team interpreter Billy Russo. “I knew that I would have a good chance to have this opportunity because I was working for that, and during the time I was working in the Dominican Republic, I really put in a lot of work to get to this point.
“It was not a surprise. I knew this time would come.”
We got pretty used to hearing this kind of thing from guys who had never set foot on a major league field during the White Sox’ rebuilding years, Eloy Jiménez calling Luis Robert Jr. “the next Mike Trout” and Michael Kopech calling Jiménez “the Babe Ruth of our generation.” That sort of bluster got fans hyped up for the future.
The future, of course, has been here for a while now, and White Sox fans are a little less excited by big talk these days. Certainly they’re generally done placing their faith in prospects who have never played a big league game. But here the White Sox are, in the supposed thick of their contention window, placing their faith in a prospect once again. The front office made no moves this offseason to address a supposed need in right field and are instead pointing to Colás as someone who can provide the upgrade they need at the position.
Colás, of course, is not your run-of-the-mill prospect. The top-rated player in his class of international free agents, he played in Japan, where he was briefly hailed as “the Cuban Ohtani” for his ability as a two-way player. He’s long past the days where he’d both pitch and hit, but there are still vestiges of those times in the strong throwing arm he possesses in the outfield.
It’s the bat, though, that has the White Sox convinced he can deliver at the major league level. He tore up the minor leagues last season playing at High A, Double-A and Triple-A, smacking 23 homers, driving in 79 runs and slashing .314/.371/.524 in his first season playing in the United States.
The numbers are the numbers, and that production, as well as the maturity the White Sox look for when deeming players ready for the jump to the majors, was enough to convince everyone involved in the decision-making process that Colás deserved a shot at a starting job this spring.
But Pedro Grifol is intent on making it clear: A shot is not a coronation.
“He’s an extremely focused kid. There’s no BS about him,” the new South Side skipper said. “He comes here to work. He’s competing for a job, and he knows it. This is what he loves to do. He takes pride in it. He asks a lot of good questions. He’s extremely detailed for a young kid. Obviously he’s got ability.
“The consensus is that this kid has the ability to become a really good big league player. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s competing for a job. Let’s not lose track of that.”
Some part of that might just be manager speak, and Grifol raised plenty of eyebrows when he applied the same qualifier on a veteran like Leury García a day earlier, emphasizing that there was an ongoing competition for the utility-man spot on the roster and that everyone besides the team’s “main guys” was in the middle of a springtime competition.
But Colás has only 117 games under his belt as a member of the White Sox’ organization, with only seven of those coming above Double-A. Is that enough minor league seasoning?
“Yes, of course,” Colás said. “I’m ready for whatever comes. When you are at this level, you have to be ready for whatever comes.”
Grifol was a tad more diplomatic, though basically said Colás wouldn’t be in a position to win a job if he wasn’t ready to do it.
“I think this organization has really good evaluators that have been here for a long, long time and have seen players develop in the minor leagues and get to the major leagues and perform in the major leagues,” Grifol said. “That’s part of our industry. It’s part of scouting. It’s a part of what we do, the evaluation part of it.
“This is my first glance at Oscar, but there’s a lot of people here that have seen him play on a daily basis that have evaluated him.”
Colás’ lack of experience is enough of a reason to consider this an unresolved matter, and he’ll have to back up all the offseason hype this spring. But he’s not the only one looking to grab a significant chunk of the playing time in right field.
Gavin Sheets came up as a first baseman, and he doesn’t have high defensive marks in right field, where he shifted to try to earn a spot while José Abreu and now Andrew Vaughn stood at first. But he does boast a powerful lefty bat – Colás is a lefty, too, for what it’s worth – and the experience of going through some struggles at the big league level, returning to the minor leagues and returning to the majors and having some success in the second half of last season.
Colás might have Sheets easily beat with the glove and his throwing arm, able enough that he played center field in the minors last year – “I think my work in the outfield is excellent,” Colás said Tuesday – but Sheets can still put up a fight with the bat. After his return from the minors last summer, he slashed .263/.310/.458 with 11 home runs and 43 RBIs.
But working on his defense was near the top of Sheets’ to-do list this winter. Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that he’s got his own batch of confident quotes heading into 2023.
“(I’m) trying to build off of the second half, trying to get better in the outfield,” Sheets told CHGO on Tuesday. “I thought I made some really big strides from April to September last year. I read all the stuff, I see all the stuff, and I know I’ve got to get better out there. And I think I did by the end of the year. I’m going to continue to get better out there.
“(The defense) is ready to go. I’m a lot more confident. In April and May, I wasn’t confident in my reads, I wasn’t confident in my first step. As soon as you lose that, you lose jumps on the ball. By the end of the year, I had better first steps, I was more confident getting to the wall, coming in. So it’s getting a lot better, which I’m excited about.
“I expect a big year. I’m excited. I’m confident. Wherever I play, I don’t really care, but I want to be a part of that lineup. I think I can have a good year, I think I can put together some pretty good numbers. I want to be a threat in this lineup. … I know what I can do when I’m going well. So I’m ready to roll.”
There’s a reason there’s no winner in this position battle yet, and the White Sox have weeks and weeks of spring camp to figure out the best way to go. There’s also a world where both guys impress and both make the roster and both get a lot of playing time in right field. That’s all to be determined.
Colás and Sheets, though, can both deliver something the White Sox desperately need in the wake of last season’s disappointment: power. Their left-handed power bats figure to be extremely valuable as the team looks to remake itself offensively.
With Elvis Andrus in to play second base, there’s really only one starting job up for grabs. The fight for the starting gig in right field is officially underway.