Robert adds to Cuban presence on White Sox

Chicago looking to build championship team around young talent

May 20th, 2017

CHICAGO -- One day during Spring Training in 2005, I interviewed Orlando Hernandez and in a back room at the White Sox facility in Arizona.

We talked about their careers and the shared history of pitchers from Cuba, in particular the success that men like Camilo Pascual, Luis Tiant and the two Hernandez half-brothers, El Duque and Livan, had experienced in big situations. This was the first team that had two Cuban pitchers on the same roster since the Senators of the late 1950s, and I asked them what it meant for one team to have two on the same staff.

Hernandez smiled. "That's going to be [an answer] for the end of the year,'' he said. "If we do what we can, you probably won't have to ask the question, because you will see what it means.''

We sure did, with the White Sox sweeping the Astros in the World Series eight months later.

Can you blame the Sox for going back to the same strength-in-numbers approach with Cuban players?

Adding 19-year-old center fielder Luis Robert alongside 21-year-old second baseman , this time, the White Sox are gambling that they can build a championship team around two five-tool talents in the middle of the field.

They were finalizing an agreement with Robert on Saturday at a price that could be near $30 million. They'll pay almost twice that in an over-allotment tax, meaning they're investing almost as much in him as the Red Sox did in Moncada, whom they traded to the White Sox in a four-player package for Chris Sale this past December.

The Sox were outbid by Boston for Moncada at a time when they were focused on short-term gratification. The Sale trade signaled they have moved into a full-scale rebuild, and Robert quickly became a coveted target after defecting from Cuba.

Like Moncada, who figures to join the White Sox later this season, Robert brings major risk, as he's rarely competed with players better than those in Cuba's Serie Nacional.

But the potential reward that comes from having the two dynamic Cubans in a lineup that is currently built around Cuban legend is as exciting as anything that's happened on the South Side since Paul Konerko led the Sox into the postseason in 2005.

Moncada has captivated the South Side fanbase since he first put on a White Sox uniform at a hitter's minicamp in January. He hit tape-measure home runs that day, and he has only stopped hitting them because of a stint on the Triple-A disabled list with a sore left thumb, which isn't expected to sideline him long.

A speed-power player who was a shortstop in Cuba, Moncada is hitting .331 with six home runs and 10 stolen bases for the Charlotte Knights. He looked out of sorts when the Red Sox forced him onto their roster as a third baseman late in 2016, but he has improved his play at second base, which is likely to remain his position.

Moncada is listed at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, but he is built more like a middle linebacker than a traditional middle infielder. Robert, listed at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, is similarly put together. He blasts long home runs in batting practice, and he ran the 60-yard dash so quickly in a tryout that some scouts felt the field was mismarked.

While some reports say that Robert isn't far away from the Major Leagues, expect the White Sox to pump the brakes on talk that he could be an overnight sensation. Moncada has played 221 Minor League games for the Red Sox and White Sox, and that's probably a realistic projection for Robert.

It could easily be 2019 before Moncada and Robert are in the same lineup. But you know they'll be together in Arizona next spring, just as Contreras and Hernandez were.

The beauty of this is that the White Sox are getting in on the ground level with Robert and Moncada. They can play together for years.

It's a shame that Minnie Minoso isn't around to greet them, as he did Abreu before his American League Rookie of the Year Award-winning season in 2014.

Minoso passed away two years ago. He would have been so proud. He considered himself the White Sox No. 1 fan, and he would be filled with excitement about his team.

Justifiably so.