Prospect Hawkins coping with sharp learning curve
White Sox top pick in '12 Draft has support of club while enduring growing pains
CHICAGO -- Before Courtney Hawkins suffered a left rotator cuff strain diving for a fly ball with Class A Winston-Salem earlier this season, which sidelined him for much of May, the universally-recognized top White Sox prospect was struggling.
Not struggling, as in fighting through a five-game hitless streak, but more along the lines of 45 strikeouts in 77 April at-bats and a .182 average. That funk came on the heels of Hawkins' impressive debut, where the 13th overall pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft posted a .284 average with eight homers, 15 doubles, 11 stolen bases and 33 RBIs between abbreviated stops at rookie-level Bristol, Class A Kannapolis and Winston-Salem shortly after he was picked out of high school.
They are still the kind of current offensive issues that might infuse a few doubts where a can't-miss, five-tool prospect once stood. Those doubts never made their way to the White Sox organization.
In fact, facing struggles at the Minor League level hopefully ends up becoming a positive for these Major League-bound young players.
"That makes all the sense in the world," said White Sox hitting coach Jeff Manto, who previously served as the organization's Minor League hitting coordinator. "If you are as high of a pick as some of these guys were, expectations are high. And to learn, 'Hey, man, you are good, but guess what? There's another side to this too,' it's a good thing."
"As the guy develops on a straight arrow rocketing through the Minors to the big leagues and the first time he ever encounters failure going back to high school, Little League, is at the Major League level, that can be a lot harder to bounce out of," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. "It might sound a little silly, but we do think that there is something to this."
Players such as Hawkins and fellow top White Sox prospects Trayce Thompson and Jared Mitchell -- who have gone through their own set of '13 struggles -- joined the White Sox with very few blemishes in any sport they chose to play at any level of competition. Once reaching the professional level, the game of adjustments begins.
Adjustments include everything from handling better competition to the rigors of constant travel. Add on being away from home while the nascent stages of your career are laid open for everyone to see, and the struggles can be painful for a 19- or 20-year-old.
Painful, but a necessary evil.
"Watching anyone struggle is never a good thing, but you learn more in failure then you do in success," said White Sox pitcher Jake Peavy, who cruised through parts of four years in the Minors before reaching the Padres in 2002. "You find out what you got and what kind of person you got and if he'll be able to fight through adversity and become better, or if he's going to kind of mail it in and roll over."
"My experience is that these kids are homesick," Manto said. "You are 18 or 19 years old and you are away from home for the first time. And when you are struggling, you used to talk to your father or your athletic director or your coach. Now you are on a bus for six hours talking to a complete stranger. And he's struggling, too. He doesn't want to hear it. You have all this internal stuff you have to deal with. It's definitely going to break you down a little bit."
Gordon Beckham understands the process.
The White Sox took Beckham with the eighth pick overall in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft; he reached the Majors on June 4, 2009, as a third baseman and earned two Rookie of the Year awards as voted on by his peers. Lofty expectations were set, while comparisons to Michael Young began after just 378 at-bats, before high-profile struggles for a can't-miss prospect who already had arrived took over.
Beckham believes that first bout with failure is tough to deal with at any level. In the Minors, the pressure is to reach the Majors as quickly as possible. At the big league level, it's to help the team win a championship while playing in front of a home crowd not accepting of consistent failure. That latter pressure combination caused Beckham to lose confidence.
"I doubted if I had what it took to play up here," said Beckham, who enters Tuesday's series opener with the Mets hitting .307. "But it's something that I had get over with my faith and just mentally and physically get better. I feel like I've done that, even though I've been hurt. At the end of last year, I felt like I turned a corner.
"The more struggles they have down there, the more they will be understanding of how it's going to go sometimes. That was the hardest part for me. I never struggled, and I'm up here in the big leagues and everyone is like, 'Why isn't he hitting?' You got to at some point figure out how to get over it."
Hawkins has knocked out 13 homers in 153 at-bats, but he also has dipped into a recent 3-for-40 slump over his last 10 games for the Dash. There's plenty of time for the 19-year-old to fight his way through, and while nobody ever looks for failure, it ultimately might be a better teaching tool than uninterrupted greatness.
"Coaches tell you it's going to be OK, and they truly mean it," Manto said. "As a player, you hear this and you think, 'It's not going to be OK. I didn't get a hit.' I'm sure they will learn quick."
"Learning how to cope with the failure and how to recover and respond and come back even better, that's part of the Minor League development," Hahn said. "These are setbacks. They are unfortunate, but in some element, it's OK that this is happening at the Minor League level and part of ultimately making them better Major Leaguers."