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Tone Down The Future

We knew a little bit about Harry Chappas when the diminutive rookie was slated to be the White Sox Opening Day shortstop in 1979. He had been a September call-up the season before, leap-frogging from Single-A Appleton to Comiskey Park. Then Sports Illustrated put him on its spring training cover, an honor that so far has eluded young fellows such as Eloy Jimenez and Yoan Moncada, who have more talent in their pinky fingers than the 5-foot-5 Chappas had in his entire compact frame.

But that was the point. Chappas was an anomaly, one of the smallest major leaguers in history, a genuine curiosity. Lacking the social media of today, exposure to Chappas was limited until he reached the major leagues. This wasn't unfortunate in his case because the kid couldn't play. He was gone by the end of April.

Consider if today's White Sox had no electronic media to hype the burgeoning prospects they hope will lead them to post-season bounty in the very near future. Few, if any, Sox fans would subscribe to the Charlotte Observer or Birmingham News simply to check on the progress of Dylan Cease or Luis Robert, though you would have the Sporting News. Still, without Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the social media complex, the youngsters could toil more or less in privacy without the daily scrutiny afforded by the Internet.

However, since the product on display on the South Side more often than not is of inferior quality, the marketing department dwells on the kids on the farm in order to focus on the future as opposed to the mounting losses of the present ballclub. Graphics on the videoboards and Sox telecasts highlight the exploits of the prospects. Anyone with more than a passing interest in the team knows the names, the top draft picks, the international signing bonuses, and the latest additions to the minor league injury lists.

In ancient times, future stars could be buried in the wilderness in places like Glen Falls, Dubuque, or Knoxville, while today Kannapolis and Winston-Salem are part of the daily conversation. Sox telecasts have featured live phone interviews with catcher-of-the-future Zack Collins and Kannapolis manager Justin Jirschele. We can listen to sidelined pitcher Michael Kopech talk about the frustration of inactivity while he recovers from Tommy John surgery. On the big league club's days days, we can watch Sox minor league games live on NBC Sports Chicago.

It all smacks of a contrived choreography aimed at where the franchise is headed and not where it's been, and, considering the recent futility, we understand the strategy.

Of course, there are no guarantees. Collins has shown notable power and defensive prowess in parts of four minor league seasons, throwing out about a third of would-be base stealers, but at the plate he's struck out more than one in three at-bats. Cease and Robert appear to be "can't miss" prodigies, yet Jimenez has received even greater publicity, and we've seen him struggle prior to going on the IL on April 27. Jimenez, who is due for a rehab assignment this week, was slashing a quiet .241/.294/.674 with three home runs when he got hurt. Seeing a steady diet of breaking balls, he's struck out 25 times in 21 games.

It's a big deal when the top-rated talent arrives. No. 1-rated Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Blue Jays, just 20 years old, trotted onto the field in Toronto on April 26 to a standing ovation. More than 28,000 fans showed up, the Jays' biggest crowd of the year other than Opening Day. His Hall of Fame dad, Vladimir Sr., cheered from a deluxe suite. In a tie game, the kid doubled to lead off the bottom of the ninth and three batters later, a walk-off home run accounted for a storybook ending.

The atmosphere was much the same last August for Kopech's introduction at The Grate. The Twins provided the competition, and there was palpable energy and cell phone cameras flashing as Kopech delivered his first pitch. Even after Joe Mauer singled up the middle, fans remained on their feet as the flame-throwing right-hander went on to retire the side without any damage.

However, after a scoreless second, the heavens opened, and Kopech was lifted after a lengthy rain delay. In his fourth outing, the Tigers lit up Kopech for seven runs over three-plus innings, after which it was revealed that the young pitcher would need reconstructive surgery to repair his right elbow. Not even all the hoopla and rave reviews by the experts could keep the script intact.

The story isn't nearly as bleak up in Toronto, but the initial shine is gone since young Guerrero came on the scene. The Blue Jays won three straight as soon as Vlady appeared, but after Ivan Nova silenced their bats in a 7-2 White Sox win on Saturday, and Lucas Giolito held them to a single run on Sunday in the Sox 5-1 win, the Jays have now lost 10 of 12.

Don't look now, but after the Sox' 4-3 road trip, they've now won nine of their last 16 games. Last week's opponents, Cleveland and Toronto, are in town this week for a six-game homestand.

Meanwhile, Guerrero Jr. doubled in the first inning Sunday off Giolito, his first extra-base hit since his debut. He's hitting just .191. This from a guy who hit .331 in the minors.

Of course, the sample size is negligible, and Guerrero has the pedigree and talent to become a star. But we know the road is never as easy as it appears.

One of the better players in White Sox annals, Robin Ventura, endured an 0-for-39 spell at the start of his rookie season in 1990. After 23 games he was hitting .117. The next season he hit .284 with 23 homers and 100 RBIs.

Despite initial struggles by players like Guerrero and Jimenez, the prognosticators get it right with notable frequency. Going back to 2000, the players who were named Rookie of the Year often were high draft choices and talented international players predicted for stardom.

Of the 38 ROYs in the past 19 seasons, 10 were international players, including Ichiro (2001), Hanley Ramirez (2006), Jose Abreu (2014) and Shokei Ohtani (2018). Another 15 were first-round draft picks, including Justin Verlander (2006), Ryan Braun (2007), Evan Longoria (2008), Buster Posey (2010), Bryce Harper (2012), Mike Trout (2012), Carlos Correa (2015) and Kris Bryant (2015). There were just a few outliers, like Albert Pujols, who wasn't selected until the 13th round in of the 1999 draft and won Rookie of the Year honors in 2001.

While the majority of the outstanding rookies have gone on to become established players, a few such as Jason Jennings (2002) and Andrew Bailey (2009) never attained stardom. Jennings, a starting pitcher, went 16-8 with the Rockies his rookie season but never came close to that again, while Bailey, a relief pitcher, recorded 75 saves his first three seasons with Oakland but injuries dogged him the rest of his career and he was never the same.

But clearly, players who are accorded the "can't miss" tag often, indeed, do not miss. Of the top prospects this season, San Diego shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., who originally signed with the White Sox, is off to a solid beginning, hitting .300 before pulling a hamstring at the end of April.

We've also seen the benefit of patience in the case of Yoan Moncada, whose entry into the world of major league baseball last season was anything but scintillating. However, he's becoming a force this season both at bat and in the field. You have to wonder whether all the build-up, exposure and chatter surrounding top prospects like Moncada and Jimenez have hurt rather than helped these young guys. Both have unquestioned talent. Maybe it's time we all backed off a bit and simply let the kids play.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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