It's only been two spring training games and a handful of plate appearances so far, but right now seems like a good time to ask a deeply important question:
What number should rookie slugger Andrew Vaughn wear for the White Sox this season?
Vaughn, the team's top prospect and one of the top 15-20 prospects overall, wore No. 81 on Tuesday when he hit a three-run home run against the Rangers in a 5-5 tie at Glendale, Ariz.
But he's also said in the past that he'd like to wear No. 99 in the bigs as a homage to Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn — presumably no relation, but who can be sure?
For now, just take a look at his stroke.
The Sox need another strong bat in their lineup and Vaughn, whose powerful right-handed stroke is reminiscent of Paul Konerko but quicker, seems like the man of the moment. The other top Sox candidates for DH are Edwin Encarnacion’s invisible parrot and Jack Parkman from “Major League II.”
The White Sox drafted Vaughn third overall in June 2019, the same month he won the Golden Spikes Award for being the best amateur baseball player in the U.S. He turns 23 in April, but comes in with only 245 plate appearances in the minor leagues, with nothing higher than advanced Class A. Like every other minor leaguer, he played very little in 2020 because the COVID-19 pandemic prompted owners to scuttle the entire schedule. Vaughn got some at-bats in spring training/summer camp, plus more practice time at the team's alternate site in Schaumburg, but the Sox never activated him for the big leagues. A gap year is not ideal in pro baseball.
Because of this, it might seem like the Sox are rushing Vaughn if they put him in the Opening Day lineup. But he does not come off like someone who is being rushed. Players and staff are falling over themselves in Vaughn's praise. People like Sox hitting coach Frank Menechino, slugger Jose Abreu and right-hander Lucas Giolito talked him up huge Tuesday. They say he's ready to play now, despite the truncated professional rèsumé. So he just needs a number, something to cover his back when he walks to bat. No blanks allowed.
Number 81 still feels high for baseball, more like a football number or even hockey, where it might hang in the United Center one day for Marian Hossa.
The White Sox are a little different, though; they roster several players who wear high numbers on purpose, not because the team was running out of ordinary digits. Most notably, outfielder Luis Robert wears No. 88. Right-hander Dylan Cease wears No. 84. Abreu wears No. 79. A lot different than the days of Ruth (No. 3) and Gehrig (No. 4). In the olden times, high numbers in the majors would fizzle around 49, with Don Drysdale (No. 53) being a famous exception among the great players. Carlton Fisk, with the Sox starting in ‘81, really mocked norms by wearing No. 72.
Vaughn wore No. 94 a year ago, probably because the Sox ran low on lower numbers. Whittling down from No. 94 to No. 81 this season is a sign of advancement for Vaughn within the spring training hierarchy. He's getting closer.
But maybe he WASN'T kidding about No. 99 for Wild Thing (and also Manny Ramirez, who wore it during his brief time with the Sox)?
If that's the case, the White Sox are probably destined to sell a million jerseys, none of which they can officially put on sale until Vaughn gets one big league at-bat.
And when will that be?
It’s possible that Vaughn will avoid the kind of obstruction many teams (including the Sox) tend to make minor leaguers endure until certain contract mileposts pass (notably the ones that typically happen later in April and June). On that note, MLB announced Tuesday that the Triple-A season won’t start until May 1 (at least). The delay gives more time for players, staff and fans to get vaccinated, which makes everyone safer, while also giving more time to put fans in the stands for games. It also would delay Vaughn's arrival if the Sox cut him when the Cactus League ends.
Vaughn needs to play games. More wind sprints and intrasquad doings at Camelback Ranch in April won’t help Vaughn help the Sox much in 2021. Especially when the Sox don’t have obvious better options for DH (aside from the parrot, maybe).
It’s also possible that Vaughn’s agent and the Sox are working on a contract extension that offers the team cost guarantees and makes all of the service-time manipulation stuff moot. Hopefully the Sox won’t hold it against Vaughn if he turns them down, and bring him up anyway.
Which means, again, that Vaughn needs a uniform number.
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