White Sox and Luis Robert Agree on $50 Million Extension

The White Sox have been active this winter. They retained José Abreu, signed free agents Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnación, and Gio Gonzalez, and traded for Nomar Mazara. While a Luis Robert contract extension, first reported by Bob Nightengale, might not change the team’s outlook in the near term, it does mean that the White Sox won’t manipulate Robert’s service time by keeping a deserving player in the minor leagues to start the season. The deal will guarantee Robert $50 million over the next six seasons, with two $20 million team options, bringing the potential total value of the contract to $88 million over eight seasons.

This is the second straight year to see the White Sox sign a top prospect without any playing time in the majors to a contract extension. Last March, Eloy Jiménez agreed to a six-year deal worth $43 million with a pair of team options that could take the contract to $75 million. A little less than year later, Robert gets a slightly higher guarantee and slightly richer option years. When Robert signed out of Cuba, the last big-bonus amateur to do so under the old international free agent rules, he received a bonus of $26 million. All told, Robert will have received $76 million in guarantees before he ever swings a bat at Guaranteed Rate Field.

The CBA between the players and owners puts players at a severe disadvantage when negotiating these types of contracts. Robert shouldn’t have to consider whether signing the deal will put him on the Opening Day roster, as his play and readiness, honestly assessed, should carry the greatest weight, something Kris Bryant and the player’s union are still arguing five years later. If Robert dreams of a seven-figure salary, the potential exists three years from now in arbitration. As for negotiating a contract in free agency, with multiple bidders and a potential nine-figure guarantee, the seven years (assuming service-time manipulation) represent roughly one-third of his entire life to date. None of those factors are under Robert’s control.

Understanding that this system, designed to provide incredible bargaining power to teams at this stage of a player’s career, exists, the decision made by Robert and his representatives was a reasonable one. The White Sox have bought out any controversy they might be keen to avoid by suppressing Robert’s service time, guaranteed Robert the money he would likely have made in arbitration, and gained an additional year of team control (two, if he had made the Opening Day roster), and given themselves cost certainty. For Robert, he’s now guaranteed the money he might have made in arbitration if he played well, and if he does indeed perform up to expectations, he’s given up just a year or two of free agency while taking in another $40 million and becoming a free agent after his age-29 season.

Comparing this contract to worse deals shouldn’t be used to obscure the system that leads to deals like this being struck, but it can provide some useful context. Consider that the Braves signed two established players — at least one of whom might at the time have been called a star — in Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies for a combined total of $169 million over 19 years, potentially buying out eight years of free agency between them if all of the contract options are exercised. The contracts to Robert and Jiménez, who hadn’t yet reached the majors at signing, could pay $163 million over 16 years while buying out just four (or two if considering service time manipulation) years of free agency if all options are exercised. The current system serves to keep salaries down for players like Jiménez and Robert, but given the constraints of that system, both Robert and Jiménez received what might serve as reasonable deals in this universe, while Atlanta’s pair of stars signed deals operating on another dimension of gross inequity. That doesn’t make the system good, but it does help to put the deals in context, and explain Robert and his camp’s assessment of the extension.

Leaving aside the contract, Robert as a player is at once tantalizing with his tools, improving his skills, and besieged by a major question mark at the plate. Before last season, Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel gave Robert a 55 Future Value and made the following notes in the White Sox prospect write-up:

Because his thumb cost him April, May, and July (he re-aggravated it), it was hard to get extended looks during 2018 until Robert’s six-week stint in the Arizona Fall League (which was also interrupted by a hamstring issue). LouBob’s AFL stats were fine, but his swing path left him vulnerable to velocity on the inner half, and he too often expanded the zone. There’s doubt that he’ll get to all of his raw power in games, both due to the swing path and lack of plate discipline, but it isn’t as if he’s had time to make proper adjustments yet, and the pitching he saw in Arizona was the best he’s seen in his life.

Robert’s tools were undeniable, but the results were lacking. I spoke with Longenhagen, who indicated that Robert worked on a new swing in 2019 and got great results. His groundball rate was 46% in 2018 in a little over 200 plate appearances and he hit no home runs. Even if you include the Arizona Fall League, he hit just two homers in 279 plate appearances across the whole season. With a new swing, Robert dropped his groundball rate to 29% and his homers went way up, smashing 32 in 551 plate appearances. There are still concerns about Robert’s ability to hit good breaking pitches, and his low, 5% walk rate with a strikeout rate near 25% shows there are still swing and miss issues that need to be worked out.

Despite those concerns, his ability to play a good center field combined with improving his swing (and the effort and ability that takes) instills more confidence that Robert will be able to get to his power in major league games. This likely moves Robert up to a 60 FV this year, the same as Jiménez was a year ago. Robert already projects for roughly three wins over the course of a full season at just 22 years old. He will join Yoán Moncada (24), Tim Anderson (26), and Jiménez (23) to make one of the more exciting young cores in baseball, with Nick Madrigal (22) on the way and the enigmatic, ground ball-heavy Nomar Mazara (24) also part of the lineup with veterans Abreu, Grandal, and Encarnación.

Luis Robert was always supposed to be a part of Chicago’s next window of contention, but this contract cements his status with the club, this year and beyond. The deal isn’t strictly fair given the potential value he could bring to the White Sox — the leverage the team has in situations like this makes that difficult. But given the current labor situation, it counts as reasonable. After all their free agent signings, the team is now a contender, and it might have more room to add more given a below-average $124 million payroll. Free agents are always going to help, but if the White Sox are going to make the playoffs, it is their homegrown (or at least traded for) prospects who are likely to decide the club’s future. Grandal and Encarnación and Keuchel might push them over the top, but Moncada, Anderson, Giolito, Jiménez, and now Robert provide the base to make it possible. If someone had asked two years ago when the White Sox might have more wins than the Cubs, 2020 would have seemed like an overly optimistic answer. It’s not anymore.





Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

46 Comments
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Rational Fan
3 years ago

The disconnect between the projections of Robert – which are, arguably, the best of any current prospect – and the FG’s scouting evaluation is fascinating to me. I find it fascinating because usually what causes skepticism is a player who has more tools than results.

Robert has combined the best tools in the game with production that warrants a 3 WAR projection as a rookie.

With Moncada, he was more tools than production in the minors so I could always understand some of the skepticism.

With Robert, he’s been elite tools and elite production.

Trotter76member
3 years ago
Reply to  Rational Fan

Maybe people dreamed on that 19% BB rate and .491 OBP in Rookie ball and thought here comes the fast OF version of Joey Votto. Now that he’s settled around a 5% BB rate in about 700 ABs since high-A ball, they worry that the plate discipline isn’t really there and it could get exploited at the MLB level. While a 22-24% K rate isn’t egregious, those are warning signs that need to be called out when projecting him.

Since he and Eloy are likely to be compared a lot, consider that Eloy had a higher BB rate and lower K rate in the minors and his rookie year saw 6.0%/26.6% rates along with his 31 HRs on the way to a 2 WAR season. There will likely be an adjustment period for Robert and I think a 3 WAR projection is a bit rosy.

Anthony Princeton
3 years ago
Reply to  Trotter76

Fangraphs appears to be the outlier on Robert. If I am not mistaken, MLB.com, Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America had him as a top 5 overall prospect at mid-season. The 3 WAR figure does not seem that off when you consider his elite speed, elite arm and defense in CF.

Rational Fan
3 years ago
Reply to  Trotter76

Eloy is a poor baserunner and defender; his carrying tool is his bat. The risk for Eloy was always going to be higher than the risk for Robert – who can contribute positively to the game in ways that aren’t solely based on his bat.

Robert really had no reason to adjust his approach last year; also, 24% is far from an alarming k-rate for a guy who was young for his level. While Bryant walked a lot more in AAA, he carried a 27-28% K-Rate; I was skeptical because of that, and boy was I wrong about him.

As I noted, the fascinating thing is Robert grades well in both scout speak (tools) and analytic speak (projections/ZIPS/Steamer) yet some here at FG’s have been rather down on him. Steamer sees him as being 10% better than league average with the bat, already, as a 22 year old.

RoyalsFan#14321member
3 years ago
Reply to  Trotter76

3WAR projections for rookies are nearly *always* rosy.

sadtrombonemember
3 years ago
Reply to  Trotter76

So it’s interesting–about a week ago I pulled a list of guys who struggled with K’s in the upper minors, whose rates were above 28%. There were something like 130 guys on the list. 3 of them became stars (Moncada, Chapman, and Gallo). The rest of them, I couldn’t tell you their names. They all busted. Guys in that range, they’re a mess. Don’t count on them. And aside from Chapman, none of them actually “fixed” their strikeout problems.

Then I pulled a lit of guys with K-rates between 24%-28% in the upper minors. This list included guys like Kris Bryant, George Springer, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge…there were about 250 names on the list but there were a huge number of stars, and quite a number of superstars that came out of it. And a large number of them did eventually solve their strikeout numbers, although their first couple years were kind of ugly in that department.

I agree that K/BB ratio is kind of scary, but at the same time, there is nothing about the K-rate itself that portends imminent doom. I think it’s totally fair to acknowledge some of the risk here (and that he’s got a good chance of needing an adjustment period) while also pointing out that he’s got a decent chance of eventually being okay in that department.

rhdx
3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I agree completely on the adjustment period. He hasn’t face enough elite pitching. But he seems to have made significant improvements last year and now the Sox have no reason not to give him as much time as he needs to develop.

rhdx
3 years ago
Reply to  Trotter76

As mentioned, Robert should add value with his legs, plays CF, and projects to be a quality defender. Being projected for 1 more WAR than Eloy seems reasonable.

FrancoLuvHateMets
3 years ago
Reply to  Rational Fan

30 game power is interesting for a guy who hit 32 dingers in 120 games last year.

Anthony Princeton
3 years ago

Yeah it’s laughable frankly or I am missing something. 32 HR’s 31 2B’s and 11 3B’s in 2019 for Robert. He has slugged .551 over 873 minor league PA’s. Meanwhile, Jo Adell, has a 50 game power and has slugged .518 over 1008 minor league PA’s.

sandwiches4evermember
3 years ago

Well, based off of his 2017/8 results of hitting 3 HR in ~200 PA, it seems reasonable. (The grades haven’t been updated for CWS yet, as best as I can tell.)

Anthony Princeton
3 years ago

Prospects were updated in July 2019 at the very least. Eric and Kiley chose not to change Robert’s numbers.

dl80member
3 years ago

That 30 current power was likely at the beginning of 2019 before the power breakout happened. Hence the 55 “future power”.

Anthony Princeton
3 years ago
Reply to  dl80

Robert has come up multiple times and they did update their rankings during the summer.

This is from the Kiley chat on 7/24/19

Josh Nelson: What do you need to see from Luis Robert to give him a FV 60+?

1:27
Kiley McDaniel: This goes back to a conversation I have with fantasy baseball dynasty friends that ask me which hitting prospects to pick up when they’re promoted. I tell them generally to take the lower K rate because their game translates to the big leagues easier (better performance from day 1) and they’ll reach their upside faster, even if it’s lower.

1:28
Kiley McDaniel: Then a friend didn’t want to bug me and assumed using K% as a guide that Lewis Brinson (18% in AAA in 2017) was a better bet than Cody Bellinger (20% in AA in 2016, 27% the year before that).

1:29
Kiley McDaniel: In retrospect that seems silly, but you can see there’s limits to this approach

1:29
Kiley McDaniel: I had to explain that Brinson was a swing and miss type with crazy tools that had a lower K rate because his tools didn’t allow him to be tested until MLB, so his AAA K rate makes him seem lower risk than he is

1:30
Kiley McDaniel: and Bellinger is power-focused, does it well and is an athlete with bat control (important distinction), so his approach was a conscious tradeoff and was mature in that it would work in AA similarly to how it would work in MLB

1:31
Kiley McDaniel: which is not obvious even from reading our reports closely, though you may pick up that sort of nuance if you’re a long-time reader

1:32
Kiley McDaniel: I bring all this up to say that while I’m not saying Luis Robert is Lewis Brinson, his issue is similar in that he’s so toolsy he can’t be challenged in AAA. We’ve heard from analysts and scouts that his pitch selection is still an issue (particularly off-speed) and he’ll need to figure that out in the big leagues, which could be painful and slow (Brinson) or go quickly because his tools are also elite in MLB and that it won’t challenge him for more than a couple months (Ronald Acuna).

1:34
Kiley McDaniel: Another recent White Sox super prospect, Yoan Moncada had an issue somewhere between Bellinger and Brinson, in that he was a little stiff and didn’t have elite bat control, but had a good approach, so he just needed to dial in his approach to do maximum damage when the right pitch was there and realize he wouldn’t be a career .300 hitter.

1:35
Kiley McDaniel: It took Moncada about 900 PA to make an improvement (he’s been pretty BABIP lucky this year, so the improvement is a little overstated) but we’ve said before that we’d much rather have a Moncada-type because the pitch selection and power means you’ll always get to the power in games since you can pick pitches to drive, you just may hit .250 or whatever (but w/solid OBP).

1:37
Kiley McDaniel: The other type of player, Brinson/Robert will have trouble getting to the power in games against elite pitching due to poorer pitch selection, also not walk much, so at least until an adjustment is made (if it is made), it’s empty batting average driven by bat control and people waiting for the breakout.

1:37
Kiley McDaniel: Explaining this in detail a few times makes me think we should grade plate discipline and bat control when elite hitting prospects are in the upper minors to help classify which sort of hitter each guy is.

1:38
Kiley McDaniel: So, the much shorter version is that Robert probably won’t be a 60 FV for us because to prove that he’s clear of the Lewis Brinson trap will probably take most of an MLB season to prove, given that we don’t think he’ll change in Triple-A.

1:38
Kiley McDaniel: (thus he will have graduated the prospect list when/if he proves it)

sadtrombonemember
3 years ago
Reply to  Rational Fan

I think it’s mostly that Eric and Kiley are pretty conservative about moving guys up, and there were some concerns about whether the power would play before this year.

Their general reluctance makes them look good a lot of the time, because quite often guys who explode suddenly revert back the next year. In other cases, they whiff on breakouts. Regardless, I think we should probably wait to slam Eric and Kiley on this one until we know what they actually say about him.