GLENDALE, Ariz. – Let’s play a little game called, “Who will open the 2021 season as the White Sox designated hitter?”
Manager Tony La Russa was willing to take part in this unofficial competition during a Tuesday Zoom, acknowledging Andrew Vaughn, the team’s top prospect, as the frontrunner. But that status didn’t hold long in La Russa’s mind.
“I'll do a little dance with you,” La Russa said. “It's fair to say he's the leading candidate and then I'll say thanks for the dance and walk away and say he's tied for first with the other guys that are the leading candidates.”
La Russa listed Gavin Sheets, who also has capabilities of playing first base and corner outfield spots, and Jake Burger, as other players who have been impressive through the first few days of camp and could work into that spot. Vaughn has to earn his promotion like anyone else, but in reality, he really is the favorite with general manager Rick Hahn adding recently how he’s seriously in the mix.
Vaughn has never had a plate appearance above Class A Advanced competition after being promoted to Winston-Salem in 2019 during the same season where he was the White Sox top draft pick. He didn’t have a 2020 Minor League season, like every other young player at the top prospect level on down affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the 22-year-old’s focus is a bit narrower and a bit more personal.
“I mean, I just want to go out there and be me,” he said. “Whatever happens, happens. You set goals for yourself when you are a little kid in the backyard, ‘I want to play in the big leagues.’
“Going into it, yes, I would love to make the team. That’s my ultimate goal. I’m going to do everything I can, but you have to let the cards play how they are going to play. I’m going to give it my all. I know that.”
Potentially being added to one of the game’s most potent lineups doesn’t seem to affect Vaughn. It might actually help being one of the nine guys instead of the guy once he arrives.
Many in the organization have talked about Vaughn’s advanced approach and fearlessness offensively. Regardless of his lack of experience, it would be tough to bet against him. But while La Russa is impressed in what Vaughn has shown, there are no guarantees.
“He's being viewed as having an opportunity to make the club,” La Russa said. “But when we start putting down the guys you expect to make the club, the guys that have an opportunity, one's in pencil, one's in ink. He's in pencil.
“You're just honestly telling him first of all the way he practices … once he gets in there during the game, how does he handle the at-bats? I know he's going to be working them. He's got to earn his way on the club. There's no doubt in my mind sooner rather than later he's going to be a real productive hitter. My advice is, which I think he already had coming in, every day you go out there make an impression.”
If there was a ’20 Minor League season, talk of a Vaughn big league promotion wouldn’t cause the slightest hesitation. But even without that competition, Vaughn felt as if he progressed at the team’s alternate training site in Schaumburg last season by facing better pitching than what he might have been facing in the Minors and sometimes taking 8-10 at-bats per day during intrasquad competition.
As for a slick fielding first baseman moving to the DH role, Vaughn views the role as if he were playing a position.
“You have to stay active,” he said. “You can’t be the guy who takes his at-bat, sits on the bench and thinks about it for eight more hitters. You have to go into it with a plan as you do at any other position, but you have that opportunity to go out to the field and kind of flush it. It’s a mindset to take on that role.”
The 2020 White Sox season ended via a deciding Game 3 loss in Oakland during an American League Wild Card Series, with Vaughn sitting in the stands watching as part of the extended taxi squad/traveling party. If he wins out in the DH battle, Vaughn could change the season-ending story for both himself and the team.
“It was very cool to get a glimpse of it,” Vaughn said. “It’s definitely going to push everybody, everybody who got to watch it, everybody that was involved in it, I think it’s going to be helpful.
“I feel very confident with my skillset. I can go and I can compete against anybody, and I do love the challenge. Major League pitching is elite, but I think my skill set can apply to that game.”