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Andrew Vaughn and the burden of lofty expectations

by Adam Kaplan

Throughout his tenure within the organization, the Chicago White Sox have placed lofty expectations upon Andrew Vaughn – many times to his detriment.

The first time this occurred was in 2019 when the team drafted the Cal product third overall in the amateur draft. Anytime an athlete gets drafted as high as Vaughn was into a professional sports league, there’s the expectation that said player will excel, if not become a star. However, for a player supposedly as talented as Vaughn is, the high draft selection shouldn’t necessarily be a major impediment to major league success. The expectations were high, but theoretically, a challenge Vaughn should be able to meet.

Then, in 2021, the Chicago White Sox decided to take their former first-round pick and make him their regular designated hitter to start the major league season. A February 2021 article from NBC Sports Chicago quoting Sox Assistant General Manager Chris Getz states:

“Based on what we’ve seen with Andrew Vaughn since he’s been a part of the organization – and I anticipate he’s going to carry that same approach that has made him successful not only as an amateur but throughout his time here — I would imagine with the amount of success that he’s had and he probably will in spring training, that he’ll be in position to be that DH or be on the major league club. He’s ready to help this team.

He was a very advanced hitter coming out of Cal. That was quite obvious right out of the gate. What separates Andrew is his mentality, his makeup, how under control he is in the box, his discipline to sticking with an approach that works for his swing. … He’s got a very sound approach at the plate, and we feel that that’s going to translate very well in the big leagues when he’s asked to perform at that level.”

Despite a total of just 55 games played in the minor leagues in 2019, and none above the High-A level, the White Sox organization was laying the groundwork to convince the fanbase that Andrew Vaughn was truly ready to contribute to a major league roster, on a team that (theoretically) had World Series aspirations.

In hindsight, it’s hard not to view the Vaughn promotion as a cost-cutting measure rather than as a player the organization truly believed was ready for the major leagues.

Andrew Vaughn made the league minimum of $570.5M in 2021 while posting offensive numbers that were less than impressive. He finished the season with a 93 wRC+ (100 being average) with a triple slash line of .235/.309/.396 and an fWAR of -0.3. Vaughn’s splits looked even worse with a 154 wRC+ against lefties, yet a paltry 67 wRC+ against righties. There is not a lot of room on a major league roster for a right-handed batter who can’t hit right-handed pitching. This was part of the reason Vaughn saw his playing time diminish in the playoff series versus the Houston Astros to Gavin Sheets.

Though, optimists could squint at Vaughn’s 2021 season and see room to grow based on the sub-optimal position the White Sox organization put him in. A 93 wRC+ doesn’t look so bad for a player with almost no minor-league experience playing out of position defensively. Remember, Vaughn played much of the year in the outfield thanks to a Spring Training injury to expected-starting left-fielder Eloy Jimenez. This serves as yet another example of the problems of having little-to-no depth, resulting in the White Sox trotting out a first baseman that was mainly their starting designated hitter at a position at which he had no experience – thanks largely in part to budgetary concerns.

As it turns out, the optimists were right. Mostly. Throughout the beginning of the 2022 season, Andrew Vaughn made a legitimate case to be selected for the All-Star Game. He started hitting both righties and lefties effectively and ended the first half with the 8th highest wRC+ (133) among AL outfielders. It looked like Andrew Vaughn had turned a corner.

And then the second half came.

Vaughn’s second-half wRC+ in 2022 was 89, dropping him to 26th best among qualified AL outfielders. He slashed .234/.285/.381 during this time which brought his total numbers on the year to .271/.321/.429, good for a wRC+ of 113. His fWAR (-0.4) was also tanked thanks to being the worst defensive outfielder in the Majors, per Statcast. Despite major improvements from his rookie to sophomore year, Vaughn showed average power (17 HRs in 555 PAs) and an inability to draw walks (5.6 BB%). These are fine numbers, but well below the expectations that came from an organization that hyped him up to unreasonable levels and stated multiple times that the player was untradeable.

In the off-season between 2021 and 2022, it was reported that the White Sox were interested in acquiring Sean Manaea (and to a lesser extent Frankie Montas) from the Oakland A’s. However, it leaked that the A’s wanted Andrew Vaughn in return, an ask reportedly the Sox refused to consider. The White Sox probably made the right decision not trading away a young player with high-upside and multiple years of team control for players of Manaea’s and Montas’ caliber (and limited years of team control), but the organization leaking that it thinks Vaughn was “untouchable” was also unnecessary pressure added to a player who may not reach the high goals of expectations. A first baseman type player with a wRC+ under 120 should not fall into the “untouchable” category, despite the player’s age.

In 2023, Andrew Vaughn finally gets to play his natural defensive position of first base. However, with that gift comes the curse of having to follow in the footsteps of Jose Abreu, Paul Konerko, and Frank Thomas. Abreu is a former ROY and MVP who spent years on the South Side, performing at a high level and becoming both a clubhouse and fan favorite. Konerko was another fan favorite who helped the Pale Hose to its first World Series in basically our lifetime. The Big Hurt is a multiple MVP winner and rightfully was inducted into MLB’s Hall of Fame. Andrew Vaughn is now the heir apparent to take over Chicago’s first base duties.

2023 will be a big year in the development of Andrew Vaughn. Despite the multiple decisions the Chicago White Sox organization had made along the way that played a part in limiting his upside early in his career, Vaughn now has the chance to shine. He needs to show better plate discipline, hit for more power, and become a stronger contributor on offense. He doesn’t need to immediately morph into a superstar, but he does need to show why he was a top-five draft pick and move towards proving why the Sox were right in believing he’s “untouchable.”

Offensively, the White Sox lost a player who consistently hit 30 home runs and drove in 100 runs and only replaced him with a high BA/OBP player. If the White Sox offense is going to be successful this season, it’s going to fall, in part, on the shoulders of Andrew Vaughn.

Andrew Vaughn was recently a guest on the White Sox Talk podcast. He fully understands how big the shoes that he’s stepping into are and understands what’s expected of him going forward.

The question now will become if he can deliver.

Follow us @SoxOn35th for more throughout the season!

Featured Image: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

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