Andrew Vaughn left Cal after the 2019 season, ready to work his way through the Chicago White Sox system as a first baseman or designated hitter.
But since making the club’s major-league roster in 2021, circumstances have forced Vaughn to play 191 games in the outfield, compared to just 38 at first base and 35 at DH.
Things are about to change. When the White Sox report to spring training next month, the 24-year-old former Cal star figures to be back at his natural, life-long position.
First base is there for the taking because star veteran Jose Abreu signed a three-year, $58.5 million free agent contract with the Houston Astros.
An MLB.com story referenced the legacy Vaughn will follow at first base, where since 1990 Chicago has featured the tag team of Frank Thomas to Paul Konerko to Abreu at the position. That trio combined for the stunning totals of 1,123 home runs and 3,711 RBIs in their time with the Sox.
“Those are big steps to step into,” Vaughn told MLB.com in a recent interview. “I don’t want to be that guy. I want to be my own player and go out and do my best and do whatever I can to help the Sox win.”
Vaughn won’t simply he handed the job, although he led the White Sox last season with 17 home runs and 76 RBIs. Gavin Sheets, who hit 15 home runs in his first full season with the Sox last summer, will likely share time at first base with Vaughn. Both also will get time at DH and, perhaps, the outfield.
Vaughn, who never played in the outfield, was forced into it two seasons when left fielder Eloy Jimenez suffered a ruptured pectoral muscle during spring training. Vaughn was surprisingly competent in the outfield and was routinely penciled in at either of the corner outfield positions the past two seasons.
On a severely underperforming ’22 White Sox team, Vaughn made clear improvements from his rookie season. Besides his home runs and RBIs, Vaughn hit 28 doubles, scored 60 runs and assembled a .271/.321/.429 slash line. As a rookie, Vaughn hit 15 home runs, drove in 48 and slashed .235/.309/.396.
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He also reduced his strikeout percentage and improved his rate of balls hit in play with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph.
The White Sox are pleased with the early arc of Vaughn’s career. “We expect Andrew is going to continue to progress,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn told MLB.com at the Winter Meetings. “That’s going to improve not just his production, but the rest of the club.”
Taking over for Abreu involves more than trying to duplicate his numbers, Vaughn said. Abreu was a team leader and an example, especially to the younger players.
“He was the face of the team, basically. Him and Tim (Anderson) were the two top guys, and losing Pito [Abreu], it stings a little bit,” Vaughn said. “He kept that clubhouse kind of under his wing. He was the guy everyone looked up to. He’s a grinder. He loves baseball and he puts in the work and I’m just glad I got to learn during that short time I got to play with him.
“It’s the work ethic. Watching what that guy does every single day, day in and day out, is impressive. And you want to be like that. That’s why he’s one of the best mentors, just because you see him doing that and you’re like, ‘I want to do that. I want to be like that guy.’ “
The biggest aspect of his game Vaughn would like to improve is his finish to the season. His production faded late in the season in both 2021 and ’22. After batting .263 through Aug.15, 2021, Vaughn hit just 0.99 in his final 20 games. A year ago, he was at .288 through Sept. 3, then slumped to .184 the final 25 games.
Vaughn dismisses the theory that he was worn down by his time in the outfield.
“Everybody wants to play the full season and not miss a game,” Vaughn said. “162 is a grind, no matter where you are playing. It’s building that routine. It’s being mentally focused to tackle the whole 162 and taking it day by day.”
Cover photo of Andrew Vaughn by David Banks, USA Today
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo