Analysis

White Sox: Center Field Clarity Needed for 2017

With the 2017 Spring Training schedule about to get underway the White Sox front office and coaches will have to pay extra attention to the center field position.

Lets imagine for a moment that there’s a new evaluation method in baseball. It’s a continuum where on one end you have sabermetrics, advanced stats, and objective facts. On the other end you have your eyes, a player’s grit and determination, and a mysterious, immeasurable trait Hawk Harrelson likes to call “the will to win.” Players can move around this continuum freely depending on situations or what the argument calls for. So far in camp the White Sox have two players on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the center field position. For one Peter Bourjos we have plenty of statistics and numbers to crunch, but for so-far-injury-prone Charlie Tilson we can only observe. Sure there’s five years’ worth of minor league statistics for Tilson but there’s only two at-bats of major league service to this day. Bourjos has been around for several years and we’ve come to learn what to expect out of him on a day-to-day basis.

Depending on the results of Charlie Tilson’s ten-day shutdown the 2017 season could go one of two ways. Behind door number one you have Charlie Tilson in center field, having recovered from his stress reaction which lead to him earning the position coming out of spring camp. Behind door number two you have Tilson out and Peter Bourjos donning the center field cape and cowl for 2017. While on paper they seem similar – two inches apart, ten pounds apart, both from Illinois – their roles with the team could change the outlook of the season. (I mean technically there’s a third door where Tilson is healthy and Bourjos wins the job anyway. And maybe even a fourth door where Leury Garcia comes in… but I want to keep this a coupe and not a sedan.)

You have Tilson, a 24-year-old major league unknown whose 2016 season ended in the most 2016 White Sox way possible. The Sox acquired Tilson in a trade deadline deal last season that sent left-handed reliever Zach Duke to the St. Louis Cardinals. All reports out of the Cardinals organization at the time indicated that Tilson wasn’t necessarily going to amount to much, and the Sox were ready to see Duke dress in another uniform. In five seasons’ worth of minor league play Tilson has a career slash line of .293/.346/.392. In 2015 for class-AA Springfield he stole 46 bases, which would introduce a speed aspect to a White Sox team that saw Todd Frazier lead the club in stolen bases last year with 15. Tilson is most likely chomping at the bit to show the White Sox and the baseball world what he can do. Unfortunately for Tilson he keeps getting hit with injuries which is causing the White Sox to look elsewhere to fill the gap.

Enter Peter Bourjos. Bourjos signed a minor league deal with the White Sox on January 30 of this year and now finds himself in the spotlight following Tilson’s setback. Bourjos was known for his speed in the minor leagues and earlier in his major league career but hasn’t really dusted off the wheels since then. Bourjos, a career .243 hitter, has expressed sympathy towards Tilson but one could guess he’s also a little excited to have an opportunity to earn the job. Bourjos played in 123 games with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2016, batting .251 with seven triples, five home runs, 23 RBI, and 40 runs scored.

Should Tilson’s injury end up being worse than people initially thought then not only does his progression slow down, the White Sox as an organization slow down as well. The team is very high on Tilson and wants to see him in the outfield but should he miss more time and Bourjos earns the job out of spring training then the whole rebuild schedule kind of takes a hit. Sure you need someone out in center field every day but how does Bourjos fit in long term? Why not take a look at someone young and still in development, like Adam Engel or Jacob May? Rumors have even circulated about Yoan Moncada putting in a few innings in center, though the odds of that are slim to none. Bourjos, 29 years-old, would bring veteran experience and above average defense but his presence at the beginning of a rebuild doesn’t make much sense when there are other prospects waiting in the wings for their shot. The only logical conclusion would be if the Sox got what they could out of Bourjos at the beginning of the year and then flipped him for something substantial at the deadline, but that has a lot of assumptions factored in. Point being: Tilson is a rebuild, Bourjos feels like a safeguard.

In the next few days we’ll find out what exactly is going on with Charlie Tilson. After an official announcement is made then it will be a little more clear what to expect out of the center field position in 2017. Adam Eaton left big shoes to fill, offensively and defensively. He was the spark plug to the White Sox offense during his time on the South Side and he will definitely be missed. That being said, the baton has been passed and it’s time to see who will be that guy for the foreseeable future.

The White Sox probably know more about their plan than I do.

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