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Jacob May building case for center field

White Sox prospect could be a stopgap if a rough debut won’t derail development

MLB: Spring Training-Texas Rangers at Chicago White Sox Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In the contest for the jackpot of playing time in center field, Jacob May threw down a pretty good hand on Saturday. He went 4-for-6 with a double and a triple from the leadoff spot against the Dodgers.

If nothing else, it’s a reminder that May remains a prospect of some intrigue in Charlotte. The circumstances — Charlie Tilson’s foot injury — make such standout performances even more noticeable. In a field of flawed candidates for center, May might have as good a case as anybody else.

May’s biggest problem has been health, not talent. He got off to a rousing start at pitcher-friendly Birmingham in 2015, hitting .311/.359/.359 with 25 steals (in 36 chances) over 52 games. Then he was concussed in a nasty collision with Tim Anderson ...

Anderson May collision zoom

... and when he returned, he was far less effective (.235/.295/.306 over 46 games), which is understandable. It was kind of a miracle he was able to make it back with so much season left.

He played even fewer games in Charlotte last season, missing a month during the first half with an oblique strain, then serving another stint on the disabled list in the second half for a different abdominal injury. He lost 20 points of OBP (.329 to .309) between Birmingham and Charlotte, while his strikeout rate jumped by 5.5 percent to 22.4, which is ugly for a guy who might only leave the park a couple times a year.

His trajectory says that he should take his game back to Charlotte for finishing school. But thanks to Charlie Tilson’s foot injury opening up the center field job for at least a good part of April, he somehow rises to being not the worst option.

His main competition is Peter Bourjos and Leury Garcia, and they’re all having good springs ...

  • Bourjos: .387/.387/.581, 0 BB, 4 K, 1/1 SB over 31 PA
  • May: .357/.386/.548, 2 BB, 8 K, 4/5 SB over 44 PA
  • Garcia: .333/.366/.436, 2 BB, 2 K, 2/4 SB over 42 PA

... which takes the easiest reward system off the table. Barring injuries or other severe flaws manifesting themselves, you’re left weighing individual pros and cons for three limited players:

Bourjos: He gives the outfield an MLB name, as he’s played 713 MLB games. The problem, at least after his first full season back in 2011, is that it hasn’t been on the strength of his bat. He’s glove-first, and his metrics suggest that it isn’t what it used to be in center field. Also, he’s not yet on the 40-man roster, and would have to take up the only open spot, assuming Geovany Soto is ticketed for the other one.

Garcia: The two strikeouts in 42 plate appearances is a new development, as Garcia’s swing-and-miss problem undermined any attempt to make himself useful at the plate around big-league pitching. He’s tamed the problem enough at Triple-A, but has yet to do so in his three stints with the White Sox. Maybe the fourth time’s the charm, and he’s worth some kind of shot since he’s out of options. He’s the roughest center fielder of the bunch, but mostly due to a lack of reps. He’s made some nice catches out there considering the inexperience.

May: He might be the best defensive center fielder of the bunch, but he also has the most development remaining due to the aforementioned injuries. Ideally, everybody would be better off evaluating his progress in Charlotte during April to see what kind of finishing work remains. But he’s on the 40-man, and if you want somebody to catch the ball for the shakier pitchers, an April audition in Chicago might not be the worst idea in a field of suboptimal ones.

Unlike other rookies, service time really isn’t a concern here. May just turned 25, and his speed-and-defense profile is the kind where a team should utilize it sooner rather than worrying about later (Bourjos, who just turned 30, is a good example).

Besides, May might not be polished enough to stick in Chicago on his first try, or even his second. The biggest question then is whether an ugly month in the majors would hamper his development. Maybe he’s somebody who can absorb a few blows and return to Charlotte undeterred, and that’s a wager the Sox would have to make.

There isn’t a great choice of the bunch, but May could be an OK one as long as they try to minimize harm, rather than giving him a higher profile like batting first simply because he’s fast. In this case, I’m hoping Scott Merkin is referring to the ninth spot in the order:

Jacob May has a great understanding of his role offensively if he was able to break camp as the White Sox center fielder.

"Get on base, anyway possible," May said. "Walk, getting on with an error, anything I can do to get on base, cause a little havoc and I can get in scoring position for the big guys like Jose Abreu and Todd Frazier.”