The White Sox Just Lost Their Most Important Player

The White Sox took a giant blow Sunday when young centerfielder Luis Robert injured his right hip flexor running to first while trying to beat out a grounder to third against Cleveland. As it turns out, the injury wasn’t minor, as he was diagnosed with a Grade III strain — a complete rupture of the muscle involved — and will not be able to resume baseball activities for 12–16 weeks.

Chicago hasn’t officially ruled out Robert for the season, but there’s enough uncertainty that senior VP/general manager Rick Hahn did not give a particularly optimistic assessment of when his return could be.

“But it’s safe to say in terms of projecting his possible return, it’s too soon to know. Quite frankly, we are not going to be able to provide you with an educated projection of that for another 12 weeks or so as we see how he progresses.”

The most serious consequence of Robert’s injury is naturally a painful recovery process for last year’s AL Rookie of the Year runner-up. But the White Sox have more than 130 games to play, meaning there will also be consequences for the team and some pivotal decisions to make.

Losing Robert is particularly unwelcome for the Sox, as he represents the second serious loss at a position at which they’re not terribly deep. In an unfortunately timely look I did last month at baseball’s most irreplaceable players, the ZiPS projections pegged him as the seventh-most crucial player in the majors in terms of effect on the playoff race.

From a straight-up projection standpoint, Robert falls short of most of the names on this list. Just on the Sox, ZiPS thinks Lucas Giolito is a significantly more valuable player overall, at least when he’s not pitching in the morning. But if something should happen to Giolito, Chicago has spare arms to patch up the hole. If the team loses Robert, let’s just say ZiPS does not have a case of Leurymania or Engelalia. The race with the Twins is likely going to be a tight one, and the Royals have shown surprising spunk. The White Sox could ill afford an injury to their center fielder.

Not a lot has changed in two weeks that would mitigate this concern. A current look at the state of the AL Central now indicates a division that’s more open than before.

ZiPS Projected Standings, AL Central (After Robert Injury)
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Chicago White Sox 88 74 .543 48.3% 13.5% 61.9% 6.3%
Minnesota Twins 87 75 1 .537 34.1% 15.3% 49.4% 4.5%
Kansas City Royals 82 80 6 .506 10.7% 8.4% 19.1% 1.4%
Cleveland 80 82 8 .494 6.9% 5.8% 12.7% 0.9%
Detroit Tigers 64 98 24 .395 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

Before the injury, ZiPS projected the White Sox with a five-game edge in the division — a comfortable advantage, but not one that represented dominance in the Central. Losing Robert changes things considerably, even projecting, as I do here, that he would come back in September at 100%. Expressing the division race in terms of probability change highlights just how big a deal this is for the Sox.

ZiPS Standing Changes, AL Central
Team Divisional Change Wild Card Change Playoff Change Championship Change
Chicago White Sox -18.5% 0.5% -18.1% -3.3%
Minnesota Twins 11.4% -5.9% 5.6% 0.9%
Kansas City Royals 4.1% -1.2% 2.9% 0.3%
Cleveland 3.0% -0.7% 2.3% 0.2%
Detroit Tigers 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

With one injured hip, nearly a third of the scenarios in which the White Sox win the World Series evaporate, dropping that likelihood from about one-in-10 to one-in-16. It gives succor to the Twins, now projected to have the strongest roster in the Central, and more breathing room for Kansas City and Cleveland to make underdog runs. (Replacing the entire White Sox roster with the FanGraphs staff would probably not be enough to help the Tigers make the playoffs.)

The consequences to Robert over the long haul are also very real, at least until he’s able to demonstrate that this is just a road bump on a hopefully long career. The correlation between speed and defensive abilities in center field is fairly loose: There have been a lot of fast runners who were poor defensively and a healthy serving of relatively ordinary runners were very good. However, a change in speed is a leading indicator, and as of right now, ZiPS is adjusting Robert’s baseline defensive expectation down by three runs based on a leg injury resulting in missing more than half a season.

When Chicago lost another of their young stars, Eloy Jiménez, to a torn pectoral tendon, they lucked into Yermín Mercedes having one of the most surprising 2021 seasons of any hitter in baseball, limiting the consequences of the loss. Now the team has to do it again, a tall order. Robert’s replacements — a combination of Adam Engel, Billy Hamilton, and Leury García — are all fairly well-established at this point, with ceilings more known than Mercedes’ entering the season. Andrew Vaughn was already being used in the outfield, something which wasn’t in the team’s plans this offseason, and while he’s drawing walks as expected, his batting average is buoyed by a high BABIP, and he’s shown little power so far.

Hahn has already indicated that the team will take a careful approach when dealing with the fallout, but I think the Sox need to be opportunistic here. Even if they can’t get a centerfielder in a trade — a possibility given that few of the likely sellers are deep at the position — grabbing an outfielder before other teams have to fill a need is crucial, in my opinion. If, for example, the Reds started offering up a spare outfielder, the White Sox would be making a mistake by not taking it very seriously.

However things shake out, the AL Central just got a whole lot more interesting. If the Pale Sox look a bit pale this morning … well, they ought to.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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2 years ago

I’m trying to think of center fielders who the White Sox would actually be able to get this early in the season, but good enough that they’d be worth trading for. Shogo Akiyama is hurt, Jackie Bradley Jr has been swinging and missing a lot, and the Marlins aren’t really out of the playoff hunt yet (they have a positive run differential, for instance). Randal Grichuk is swinging a hot stick but is also a big reason why the Blue Jays are still doing well and he’s not ideal in CF anyway, Ian Happ is swinging a cold stick and he’s not ideal in CF anyway, the D-Backs might not want to play Ketel Marte at CF full time.

Aside from banking on a bounce back from Bradley, there’s only one name I can think of, and that’s seeing if the Rays want to get out from under Kiermaier’s contract. He’s not hitting very well right now but he’s below his career norms, his defense is still very good (important in the White Sox’s outfield), and unlike Happ and Bradley he’s not quite stuck in total-offensive-zero territory.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Kiermaier is striking out even more and his pop hasn’t been there, he’s been propped up by BABIP so far. Still, TBR would love to shed the contract I’m sure, and good defensive CFs who aren’t total zeros offensively are rare finds, part of why Robert’s injury is such a big blow.

Who I thought of was Pillar, who isn’t as expensive, and has been the Mets’ 4th OF so far. Not sure what they would want in return, or if they want to part with decent depth like him, though.

2 years ago
Reply to  MRDXol

Part of the bigger issue at play is the Sox have an elite glove first center fielder on the team named Adam Engel but he’s dealing with his own issues and isn’t expected to be back anytime soon. Trading for a second Adam Engel for 3 weeks or however long seems like a poor use of resources. More likely, they continue to roll with Garcia/Hamilton/Gonzalez until Engel gets healthy. The problem comes when Adam Eaton gets hurt.

2 years ago
Reply to  texag

Or Brian Goodwin!

2 years ago
Reply to  texag

100 % agree. Engel is just as good or better than Kairmier amd can steal more bases.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Marte would be a big upgrade at the plate compared to Robert. Make the trade today!