When the Chicago White Sox made the decision to start the rebuild that has lasted over 3 years now, a lot of players came and went. High-profile players like Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Adam Eaton left town for a new wave of talent for the next decade of South Side baseball. The final ‘big-name’ trade came on July 18, 2017, when the White Sox and the Yankees came to an agreement on a 7-player trade, surprisingly packaging Todd Frazier, David Robertson, and Tommy Kahnle together, in exchange for prospects Blake Rutherford, Ian Clarkin, Tito Polo, and veteran Tyler Clippard. This trade came as a shock to Sox fans, as all three players could have been traded in seperate deals, but they were packaged together to get Rutherford, at the time MLB.com’s #30 overall prospect in baseball, as the headliner in the deal. With high-name prospects such as Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez, Lucas Giolito, Luis Robert, Michael Kopech, and others making their way through the system, many fans have forgotten about outfielder Blake Rutherford. Rutherford looks to become a household name among White Sox fans as he looks to get closer to the Major Leagues in 2020.
Blake Rutherford was drafted by the New York Yankees in 2016 at #18 overall. Going into the draft, he was viewed by many as the top high school position player in the class. In his first season of single-A with the Yankees affiliate, he slashed .281/.342/.391, with 30 RBI but only 2 HR in 71 games. When he was acquired by the White Sox, he was sent to Kannapolis in single-A, where he spent the rest of his season, playing 30 games with the Intimidators, slashing a disappointing .213/.289/.254, with only 5 RBI and 0 HR in 30 games. There could be many factors that led to that decline, possibly the fact that he was traded to a completely new organization and city before he could even legally buy alcohol. Despite his 2017 season, Rutherford saw a promotion in 2018, starting the year in Winston-Salem, NC, where he saw his best year yet, and hit .293/.345/.436, and hit 7 HR and 78 RBI. He also put up career highs (excluding rookie-league) in BABIP (.351), wRC+ (120), and wOBA (.357). In 2018, Rutherford made the switch from CF to RF.
Coming off of his best season as a professional, Rutherford found himself underperforming during the first couple of months of 2019. Starting 2019 in double-A Birmingham, Rutherford struggled across April and May. Hitting just .185/.226/.291, with an OPS of .518, 3 HR, 14 RBI, 41 SO, and 8 BB over 42 games. The White Sox Director of Player Development, Chris Getz, came out with a quote (via @FutureSox) at SoxFest 2020 regarding Rutherford’s tough start to 2019:
“Chris Getz admits that outfielder Blake Rutherford was going through some “stuff off the field” during his April and May struggles in 2019 with Birmingham. The organization is happy with how he bounced back to close the year.“
Regardless of what Rutherford went through, he responded with a strong finish to 2019, finishing the year from June through September, slashing .307/.364/.404 with an OPS of .769, 4 HR, 35 RBI, 77 SO, and 29 BB over 76 games. The two things that have held Rutherford back in his professional career have been his lack of power and hitting against LHP. Rutherford struggles against left-handed pitchers, and that did not change in 2019, hitting .216/.276/.291 in 134 AB. Those are two things to look at as the 2020 season gets started.
Rutherford looks to take the next step in his progression as a complete player in 2020, and he has started that by adding 12 pounds of muscle as he reported to Spring Training in Glendale, Arizona. Rutherford appears to look bigger physically, and looks to be ready for 2020. (Tweet/Video via Sean Williams/@Sean_W10)
The ability to add size to a player like Blake Rutherford could turn out to be very beneficial, considering this is the biggest aspect of the game that he is missing. Despite having only a few at-bats early in Spring Training, Rutherford made his power felt in a game on February 24 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Tweet/GIF via @NonnieJonnie from Sox On 35th/On Tap Sports Net)
What was almost a guaranteed home run, turned into something that won’t show up on the stat sheet. This play is notable though, because it showcases the muscle that was added by Rutherford, and it shows that he is trying to add more power to his game. Rutherford also got his first hit in Spring Training on February 28 against the Cleveland Indians, as he drove a ball into left-center, driving in an insurance run. (Tweet/GIF via @NonnieJonnie)
For a player who is still developing, it is hard to place a comparison on Blake Rutherford. A fair comparison for Rutherford is former White Sox outfielder, Adam Eaton. White Sox fans are familiar with Eaton, when he was a White Sox outfielder for 3 seasons, prior to being traded for Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning in 2016. In his 8-year MLB career, Eaton has hit .285/.363/.417, with an OPS of .781, and only 56 HR. If Rutherford continues towards the same projections and adds a little more power, Rutherford could have a similar career to Eaton. Rutherford has the benefit of being close with Christian Yelich, who is one of the best players in baseball. Rutherford has spent off-seasons training alongside Yelich at Proactive Sports Performance in Westlake, California. When Yelich came into the league, he struggled in the power category, topping out at 9 HR’s in his first 3 seasons in the MLB, and posting similar power numbers. Yelich found his power, and led the NL in BA, SLG, and OPS in 2018 and 2019. He also hit career highs in home runs, hitting 36 in 2018, then breaking that with 44 in 2019. Now is Rutherford becoming the next Yelich likely? Not at all. But having a player like Yelich, who has a similar build like Rutherford, could be instrumental for his training. Yelich posted similar power numbers throughout his Minor League run, as well as early into his career, so having him be able to critique and give advice is important to Rutherford’s development.
Where Rutherford starts the 2020 season is still a mystery, as it will either be in double-A Birmingham, or triple-A Charlotte. After spending all of 2019 in Birmingham, it appears that Rutherford will spend most, if not all, of 2020 in Charlotte. It will be interesting to see how Rutherford’s game will adapt in Charlotte, due to it being one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in the MiLB. Another factor is that AAA and MLB use the same baseball, which has a higher quality leather, and smaller seams, which allows for more traveling in the air. Both of those factors could play a large role in Rutherford taking the next step. One of the more open positions in the White Sox future is right field. With Nomar Mazara looking to hold the position for 2020, there is no outstanding prospect locking down the future at the position. Players like Blake Rutherford, Micker Adolfo, Luis Alexander Basabe, and Luis Gonzalez look to compete for the future of the position.