Fletcher eyes unsettled right-field spot

February 9th, 2024

CHICAGO -- was put on the spot during a Friday afternoon Zoom conference by a question regarding his role on the 2024 White Sox.

More specifically, Fletcher, acquired from the D-backs via trade on Feb. 3 for Minor League starter Cristian Mena, was asked if he saw any reason why he couldn’t be the starting right fielder when the Tigers visit Guaranteed Rate Field for Opening Day on March 26.

He took a straightforward but diplomatic approach.

“I'm going to show up this Spring Training and I'm going to compete, do whatever I can to try to help this team win,” said Fletcher. “So you know, I'm just here to compete and try to win a spot.”

If southpaw Tarik Skubal is the starter for Detroit, then the left-handed-hitting 26-year-old might not get that Day 1 nod. As a rookie in '23, Fletcher hit .369 in 65 at-bats against right-handers, but just .143 in 28 at-bats against left-handers. Fletcher had the same sort of splits with Triple-A Reno, posting a .974 OPS in 200 at-bats against righties but a .708 OPS in 78 at-bats against lefties.

A day before acquiring Fletcher, the White Sox added veteran outfielder Kevin Pillar, a right-handed hitter, via a Minor League deal. Pillar, who has a career .769 OPS against lefties but .674 OPS against lefties, could work as a platoon with Fletcher -- at least at the season’s outset. But Fletcher knows these statistics come from a small sample size and that trend can change over time.

"It's definitely tougher to hit guys from that side of the mound. That's no secret,” Fletcher said. “I feel like that's definitely a work in progress, and I feel like I've hit left-handers well throughout my Minor League career.

“A lot of it is pitch selection. Just controlling the zone. Not letting them get you to expand, getting a pitch out in my zone where I want it and, you know, not missing it. I feel like I might have expanded a little bit more than normal last year against left-handed pitchers. Getting the ball in a spot where I can handle it will be a key.”

White Sox assistant general manager Josh Barfield is very familiar with Fletcher, having watched him develop as Arizona’s Minor League director before coming to Chicago.

Reigning National League Rookie of the Year Corbin Carroll, Alek Thomas and Fletcher came up together in Arizona’s system, forming a strong bond of competitive friendship. It was strong enough that Thomas texted Barfield after the trade and playfully lamented Fletcher’s departure.

“They all pushed each other. It was a really interesting dynamic,” Barfield said of the trio of outfielders. “They were all in a lot of ways competing for the same spot, but they were the best of friends.

“And they were different players but got the most of their ability and they play the game really hard and held each other accountable to that. [Fletcher] will continue to push that in our clubhouse.”

Aside from Barfield, Fletcher has prior relationships with several of his new teammates. Fletcher played with second baseman Nicky Lopez on Team Italy during the World Baseball Classic, as well as with first baseman Andrew Vaughn and infielder Braden Shewmake in college as part of Team USA. Fletcher also knows left fielder Andrew Benintendi from their University of Arkansas connection.

“As a former Razorback legend here by the way, everyone loves him here,” said Fletcher of Benintendi.

Even if Fletcher won’t lay claim to the right field job on Feb. 9, he knows there will be plenty of chances to play and compete with the ‘24 White Sox.

“Defense has always been first for me,” Fletcher said. “At a young age, I realized you're not going to hit all the time, and when you're not hitting, you need to be able to do something to help the team. So I got to focus a lot on defense when I was younger, in college and throughout the Minor Leagues.

“Offensively, I feel like I've always hit for average. The last couple years, I feel like I've driven the ball a little better, just getting the ball in the air, getting balls in the gap, catching some balls out front and letting them leave the yard. But I'm not really trying to transition to a power guy. I'm always going to be a gap-to-gap guy. I know what I'm good at, so I'm going to try to continue to do that."