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White Sox need Luis Robert Jr. to hit game-winning homers more than they need him to lead clubhouse

Vinnie Duber Avatar
August 16, 2023

Luis Robert Jr. hit the ball — really, really hard — and it felt like one of those moments.

It probably didn’t take very long for reality to set in for anyone watching. The White Sox, even after grabbing a clutch 5-3 victory over the Cubs on Tuesday, are 24 games under .500.

But Robert’s game-winning blast deep into the bleachers, which broke a 3-all tie in the seventh inning, had some magic to it. It brought to mind other great White Sox moments at Wrigley Field: A.J. Pierzynski homering off Ryan Dempster in 2006, Eloy Jiménez launching a game-winning homer in 2019, or José Abreu going on a home-run barrage in 2020.

This might not have been “Thanks, Cubs,” but it was close, Robert flipping his bat and shushing the Cubs fans who were giving him crap behind home plate.

“That was passion right there,” Elvis Andrus told reporters. “I think the fans were saying something funny. That was a way from him (of saying) who’s the boss today.”

That it was Robert starring in this latest Crosstown scene was no surprise. The guy has put on an MVP-style performance this season, even if he has little chance to top the vote with two-way megastar Shohei Ohtani still hitting and pitching at an elite level.

But regardless of where he finishes, undoubtedly, the White Sox will be building their future around Robert.

They knew this, of course, when they signed him to a big-money contract extension before he’d played a single major league game.

They didn’t know he’d be one of the only players the White Sox based their future on to actually live up to the hype. While injuries and underperformance have prevented the expected successes of Jiménez, Yoán Moncada and, to a lesser degree, Tim Anderson to this point in their careers, Robert, finally blessed with health this season, has become that otherworldly talent.

“I honestly think he’s very underrated, and it’s really not fair to him. I think he’s one of the best in the game,” Touki Toussaint said. “He needs to be on that list of all those other guys.”

This is, of course, what the White Sox are paying Robert to do.

Robert was billed as a six-tool player on his way to the big leagues. No one ever said the sixth tool was leadership.

So maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Robert isn’t ready to shoulder that load quite yet.

“I don’t see myself as a leader,” Robert said, through team interpreter Billy Russo, before Tuesday’s game. “I try to do my job and be on the field and do the things that we should all push to do and maybe be an example for others. But I don’t see myself as a leader.”

We’ll set aside the fact that being an example for others is a way to lead. In fact, that’s what lauded clubhouse leader Abreu did, showing Robert, Jiménez and Moncada, in particular, how to be major leaguers by going about his business the way he always had. It just happened to be the model way to be a White Sock, team brass always said.

Robert can lead that way, too, and he’s actually been applauded for multiple kinds of leadership traits this season by manager Pedro Grifol, be it taking rookie countryman Oscar Colás under his wing or expressing a commitment to playing in as many games as possible.

“When you’re talking about leadership, that’s what leadership is about,” Grifol said last week, when informed of Robert’s stated goal to play in at least 150 games this season. “Expecting yourself to go out there for 150 games, that’s leadership.”

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, so to speak.

But the reason the question of whether Robert will emerge as a leader for this White Sox team is a worthy one isn’t because he’s the best player on the team. It’s because the team, with him at its center, is in such dire need of a leader.

“Over time, I realized that the leaders I thought we had in there weren’t leaders,” Grifol said last week. “So we took a step back, we regrouped, and here we are.”

That revelation from the manager was made after former relief pitcher Keynan Middleton criticized the White Sox’ clubhouse culture and cranked up the spotlight on a host of problems team brass had been talking about for weeks. Grifol has spent the last week-plus talking endlessly about what he wants his team’s culture to look like and which players are going to step up to make it happen.

General manager Rick Hahn said the White Sox have already started the work of fixing those problems, the front office making it a priority with the many deals made at the trade deadline. There was a supposedly positive team meeting on a recent trip to Cleveland. But the real work will continue and happen over the final few weeks of the season.

Who’s going to step up? Well, that’s another reason Robert’s pregame media session Tuesday was so … illuminating.

After he declined to call himself a clubhouse leader, he was asked if there are any leaders on this team and replied, “I don’t know.”

Oh boy.

That could be heard in multiple ways. Throw in the language barrier, and you could debate whether he was issuing a scathing indictment or simply unable to come up with a good way to answer the question.

But the issues behind the doors of the clubhouse weren’t completely fixed with trades and a team meeting. This is going to take time.

Is the next White Sox leader on this roster right now? Is he waiting to be added in an offseason acquisition? Is he making his way through the minor leagues? That we don’t know — and that the guys in that clubhouse don’t know, either — points to how much work there might be to do if the team is going to contend in 2024, something deemed “viable” by Hahn after the trade deadline.

Indeed, this could just be humility from Robert. Maybe his teammates do find him the leadership type, the heir apparent to Abreu who could steer the next generation of White Sox in the right direction simply by going about his business the way Abreu taught him to.

Or maybe Robert is just going to hit homers and play Gold Glove defense and steal bases. That’s fine, too.

A successful White Sox future isn’t contingent on Robert being the clubhouse captain. It’s contingent on him staying healthy, the most obvious reason he’s been able to break out in 2023 — and the other topic of discussion surrounding the center fielder on Tuesday.

Robert has finally delivered on the promise he carried with him as a can’t-miss prospect, the guy described as the best of the youngsters who were supposed to power a perennial contender on the South Side.

That latter part hasn’t happened, but hey, here’s Robert doing his part.

If there’s going to be anything close to contention for these White Sox in 2024, though, he needs to make health a recurring part of his game after back-to-back seasons hampered by injuries.

All that is why a sprained finger suffered sliding into third base last week is of such interest. It sidelined him for three games against the Brewers this past weekend, all White Sox losses. He returned to the starting lineup Tuesday, but the talk pregame was about how this malady was far from in the rear view mirror.

“I’m not 100 percent, but I think I can play,” Robert said. “With the heat of the game, everything’s going to go well. I don’t think I’m going to have any problems.”

“He’s going to go out there, he’s going to feel it a little bit, he won’t be 100 percent,” Grifol said. “He’s still going to have some pain.”

If you’re having flashbacks to the end of last season, when another base-running injury turned Robert into a one-arm swinger, you’re probably not alone.

Grifol remembers that version of Robert, watching him from the opposing dugout when he was coaching with the Royals. Now the South Side skipper, he doesn’t think this is going to be a repeat of that, though he wasn’t ready to say Robert would go completely unaffected before watching him in batting practice Tuesday.

“I don’t think (there will be an effect from his finger while he’s) in the field. There’s been a little bit of that hitting,” Grifol said. “But we’ll see here in BP today. I don’t think it’s going to be like last year, though.

“I remember from the other side looking at it, it looked like he was in some pain, especially on the follow through where he just would release the bottom hand and just finish with the top hand. I don’t think that’s where we’re at, but we’ll see what we’ve got in BP.”

Indeed, Robert was well observed during batting practice, with trainer James Kruk standing next to the cage and talking with Robert between rounds. Robert was obviously deemed well enough to play in Tuesday night’s game, and he delivered the biggest hit of the game, one that ranks up with the best of his young career.

Grifol acknowledged Robert was experiencing some soreness early in the game. Afterward, Robert said, “As (long) as I can have a good grip of the bat and I can swing the bat well, it’s going to be OK.”

When it comes to the final seven weeks of this lost season, what do the White Sox need the most from Robert? They need him to stay healthy and be healthy for Opening Day 2024, the next time they’ll play a game with a chance to compete for a championship of any kind.

If he were to emerge as a leadership force in the clubhouse, that would be a nice bonus. But the White Sox don’t need Robert to be a leader, they just need someone to be a leader.

Right now, Robert is looking around the clubhouse, and he’s not sure if he sees anyone stepping into that role.

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