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The Gavin Sheets issue

The struggling power hitter highlights long-term organizational weaknesses

Power outage: Gavin Sheets’ slugging percentage has declined sharply since a strong showing in 2021.
| Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Gavin Sheets, 26, has a .419 OBP (.280/.419/.280, 114 wRC+, -0.1 fWAR) in a limited sample so far in the young season, but strangely, he has done more harm than good. Despite the high OBP, Sheets has not inspired confidence to be a bright spot off the bench, and he is a microcosm of many White Sox problems in the Rick Hahn era.

To Sheets’ credit, he has hit right-handed pitching pretty well throughout his young career (.256/.320/.461, 118 wRC+). Even the playoff squads of 2020 and 2021 did not find production against righties easily, so this is nothing to scoff at. Sheets still has time to figure it out, but for the moment, that is the only positivity on his profile that I can offer.

The White Sox sure have a lot of players without much defensive value — and they have had that issue for years. White Sox managers have also been forced to play their players out of position due to roster insufficiencies. Sheets falls under both dubious categories, as he is a primary first baseman who has played way more outfield than first base at the MLB level. The results have been similar to what most fans would expect, which has been more relevant than usual lately.

As far as the play against Minnesota, there is plenty of blame to go around. Of course, the front office deserves some. When a team plays Gavin Sheets in the outfield often enough, sooner or later, a SportsCenter Not Top Play like that will happen. Manager Pedro Grifol arguably deserves some, as Oscar Colás was available, but not starting Colás was understandable because the rookie cannot be expected to start every game. Finally, there is Sheets, who really should have made this catch, even though he was playing out of position.

There have been a few such plays during his time in the outfield. Since the beginning of 2022, Sheets ranks 114 out of 126 outfielders in terms of outs about average, with -6 of them. It is also worth noting that he has accumulated this amount without being a full-time outfielder, logging just 90 games in that span. As it relates to Sheets’ defense, it is probably too early to judge, but the small amount of action he has gotten at his main position has not been great, either.

Then, there is the issue of Sheets’ bat. Despite his strength against right-handed pitching, he needs to improve to deserve a spot on a major league roster. Sheets has not proven that he can hit left-handed pitching (.153/.219/.186, 16 wRC+) yet. As a result, due to Sheets’ lack of defensive value and struggles against lefties, his ability to hit right-handed pitching is crucial. A 118 wRC+ career mark against righties will not cut it, unless he improves significantly elsewhere.

Assuming defense and hitting lefties both continue to be weaknesses, there is still a path to long-term MLB success, though options are limited. Kyle Schwarber, who led the NL with 46 home runs last year, has largely survived in the league due to his ability to mash righties. Schwarber’s platoon splits are massive, and he has never found consistent success at any position, but he hits for power — and lots of it. After a strong season from a power perspective in 2021 (.506 slugging), Sheets slugged .411 in 2022 and sits at only .280 so far in 2023. That is a trend he will have to reverse, and pronto.

In 2017, the White Sox selected Sheets in the second round. To Sheets’ credit, he has outperformed many recent White Sox second round draft picks. In terms of WAR, the most valuable White Sox second round draft pick of the 21st Century is Ryan Sweeney, followed by Trayce Thompson. This highlights another long-term organizational problem. It has become highly uncommon for the White Sox to find production from unlikely sources. Even from their recent early-first round picks, MLB value has been hard to come by (see Carson Fulmer, Zack Collins, Jake Burger, Nick Madrigal turned into Craig Kimbrel turned into AJ Pollock, and Andrew Vaughn).

Strangely, if Sheets was drafted in a similar spot by another organization, I have a hunch he would be more successful. He might not be quite the slugger Schwarber is, but would he be a serviceable major-leaguer with a stable job on a 26-man roster? It is hard to know, but probably. The White Sox are miles beneath the best teams in terms of player development, and roster construction is bad enough that players are often out of position. Would Sheets be a better player if these problems did not exist? Absolutely.

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