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PHOENIX – One of the White Sox’ coaches, keeping an eye on running drills Sunday at spring camp, was thinking Luis Robert should probably take it easy.
This spring is short, a result of that pesky lockout that put the sport on pause for three months. With no way to communicate with players during the work stoppage, the White Sox are still learning where their guys are at, physically, and Tony La Russa doesn’t want anyone to try to make up for lost time by overextending themselves over the next few weeks — and as a result, wreck their availability come Opening Day.
That obviously applies to Robert, a special kind of athlete who missed months of last season after tearing his hip flexor. The White Sox need him if they’re going to accomplish their championship-level goals.
So, hey, Pantera, lighten up a bit, why don’t you?
“They were running at a nice pace, but not overextending. One of the coaches that watched Robert said, ‘Man, you’re supposed to go kind of easy,’” La Russa relayed during his Sunday media session. “(Robert) said, ‘That was easy.’
Every bit of baseball seems to come easy for Robert. He can cover every inch of the outfield, and his bat busted out in jaw-dropping fashion after he returned from his injury-induced absence last summer. Drifting over to catch balls that belonged to his teammates became a meme. Now he’s lapping them in base-running drills.
La Russa trotted out his “six-tool player” line that he got from Frank Thomas before the start of last season. And when you watch Robert even just take a few cuts during batting practice, it’s easy to believe it.
Watching him over the course of the regular season’s final two months in 2021, it was easy to believe something else: That this guy can be an MVP.
“That definitely makes me feel good just knowing people have that high of an opinion of me,” Robert said Sunday through team interpreter Billy Russo after being informed of the preseason MVP hype. “But I always try to do my best when I’m on the field. That’s never going to change. Whatever happens on the field is going to happen, but I’m going to try to do my best.
“Every baseball player has that goal in mind every year: win an MVP, Gold Glove and get as many awards and accolades as possible. At the end, what matters the most or the biggest goal is to win it all, win a World Series. That’s the goal not just for me but for every baseball player.”
Robert’s time at The José Abreu Finishing School For Gifted Ballplayers has paid off, obviously, and the young center fielder sounds just like the veteran first baseman with his talk of hard work and team-first goals. Abreu won his own MVP right as his team was vaulting out of rebuilding mode and into contention mode. Now Robert’s individual MVP-related fortunes and the White Sox’ championship hopes go hand in hand.
Robert showed he can be that kind of elite player, the kind of guy to shoulder the load for a lineup, with a stellar return from the injured list, slashing .350/.389/.622 with a dozen home runs and 35 RBIs over his final 43 games of the regular season. Add that to his impeccable skills in the outfield, and you have an all-around star capable of being one of the game’s top players.
The obvious key that springs to mind is health, and that’s what everyone will be talking about in the wake of his injury-shortened 2021.
“Keep him healthy and it will all work,” La Russa said. “Look what he did missing all that time last year. He came in and was a very important part of our second half … Frank said ‘Five tools? He has six.’ I’m not sure how you describe the sixth, but he has one more than the five-tool guys.”
“You don’t really have control over injuries,” Robert said. “Those things happen. You try to keep on top of your health and your body, but things happen. For this year, I just want to try to stay healthy and have as good of a season as I had at the end of last year.”
That would be something and put him right there with the best producers in the game. If you extrapolate his post-injury numbers to a full 162-game season, it’s 45 home runs and 132 RBIs.
But it’s not out of the realm of possibility for Robert, who’s wowed every step of his pro career to this point.
Robert might take his cue from Abreu, placing team goals first and foremost, but if he has an MVP-caliber season, it means those team goals are very much in view for the White Sox, who have plenty of other hitters – not to mention talented arms – that could put up big numbers. Heck, even with that sizzling couple of months last year, Robert might have stood behind Abreu, Yasmani Grandal and Tim Anderson as the top offensive players on the team. And remember that Eloy Jiménez is back after missing such a huge portion of last year, too.
Robert, though, stands out from the field, at least when talking about MVP potential, with everything he can do in so many different facets.
He makes it all look so easy. Maybe it’s time he makes winning an MVP look easy, too.
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