No one expected Andrew Vaughn's rookie season to go quite like that.
Vaughn was expected to be a featured player for the Chicago White Sox in 2021, sure, and we spent much of spring training listening to Tony La Russa talk about how impressed he was with the young slugger, who looked slated to be his regular designated hitter. Then Eloy Jiménez went up to rob that home run, and suddenly Vaughn's bat was no longer the focal point of his first taste of the majors.
Vaughn couldn't have impressed more as a more-than-competent left fielder, appearing there in 95 games. He didn't just avoid disaster, he was plenty good, filling in admirably in an emergency, sure, but showing the White Sox a versatility that has the capability to open up their long-term plans moving forward.
In the middle of the lockout, and with plenty left on Rick Hahn's offseason to-do list, it's hard to say where Vaughn will even play in 2022. He and Gavin Sheets, if we're just going by the stats from their respective rookie showings, could be a righty-lefty platoon monster in right field, where Vaughn played 18 games last season and Sheets played 13.
That's not a lot between the two of them, of course, and though Vaughn has given the White Sox every reason to believe he could handle right as well as he handled left — he's a former pitcher with a strong throwing arm — perhaps Hahn would rather take the opportunity to add a jolt to the lineup and fill right field with an impact bat from outside the organization. It'd be no worry for Vaughn (and Sheets), though, who could take his talents to DH, where it was expected he'd swing while waiting for José Abreu's sensational career to wrap at first base.
In addition to being able to slide in occasionally for Abreu, Vaughn, too, was deployed twice as a third baseman in 2021, giving him the ability to spell Yoán Moncada at the hot corner. He was also pressed into emergency duty at second base one afternoon in Kansas City, and though that's not likely to make him the second-base solution the White Sox are still on the hunt for, La Russa had nothing but good things to say about Vaughn's ability there, too.
So one major thing to expect from Vaughn in 2022 is for the White Sox to keep taking advantage of his versatility. They'll hope his services at a variety of positions are more of the supplemental variety, given their wish for good health for the guys who usually play there. But versatility like Vaughn's is one of a manager's favorite things, and La Russa is likely to keep leaning on it.
All that said, nothing Vaughn does in the field as a sophomore should take attention away from the ongoing development of his bat. He was fine swinging it in 2021, but a late-season slump of pretty massive proportions led to a .235/.309/.396 end-of-year slash line. And the splits were jarring: an out-of-this-world .938 OPS against left-handers and a drastically low .610 OPS against right-handers. It didn't matter which appendage pitchers used over the regular season's final month, though, when Vaughn slashed an ugly .095/.156/.095, appearing in only 12 games.
But the White Sox have seen this before and only need to dial the collective memory back a year to remember the woeful final month of Luis Robert's rookie season. A year before that, Jiménez had the too-be-expected struggles of someone breaking into the big leagues, even in a rookie season that, like Vaughn's, featured some exhilarating high points and some memorable home runs. But Jiménez went on to win a Silver Slugger in his sophomore season, while Robert's second year ended with talk of him as a slam-dunk MVP candidate moving forward.
That's not to say the exact same lightbulb will go on for Vaughn, but it certainly could. He's a guy who's long been discussed as an advanced hitter, and we saw plenty of evidence of that at times during his rookie season. Vaughn was the No. 3 pick in the draft for a reason, and there was a similar explanation for his place in the White Sox' plans during a 2021 season that carried championship-level expectations from start to disappointing finish.
Barring a shocking win-now move — like the one Hahn pulled off last summer, when he sent Nick Madrigal to the North Side — Vaughn will continue to be a large part of those plans, in the immediate and in the years beyond. He's envisioned as a middle-of-the-order hitter for a World Series contender, and the only thing that could keep him from reaching that status as soon as 2022 is that the White Sox already have a lot of those guys, enough of them to take up all the spots in the middle of their order.
But Vaughn's continued development at the major league level will be one of the big things worth watching this year, not only because it will speak to what he's capable of one day, but because it will speak to what the White Sox are capable of in 2022.