Lee May was a two-time All-Star for the Cincinnati Reds in the 1960s and ’70s, and while he was out of Cincinnati by the time the Big Red Machine really took over, he had a major impact on those Reds teams that won back-to-back World Series championships in 1975-76. After averaging 37 home runs and 101 RBIs with a 126 OPS+ from 1969-71, May was traded by the Reds to the Houston Astros for a package highlighted by 28-year-old future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, who would go on to win two Most Valuable Player Awards and make the All-Star team in each of his eight seasons in Cincinnati. May played 11 more seasons with the Astros, Baltimore Orioles, and Kansas City Royals, finishing his outstanding career with 2,031 hits, 354 home runs, and 1,244 RBIs.
Lee May wasn’t the only ballplayer in his family. His brother, Carlos May, spent 10 seasons in the big leagues with the Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees, and California Angels, winning a World Series with the Yankees in 1976. Lee May, Jr., was a first-round pick of the New York Mets in 1986 and made it as high as Triple-A in his eight-year minor-league career. Lee Jr. was never the power hitter that his father was, but he had speed — he stole 52 bases in 1990, 13 more than his father stole in his entire 18-year big-league career.
That speed has carried over to another generation of Mays. In the third round of the 2013 draft, the White Sox drafted Jacob May, the son of Lee Jr., out of Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina. In four minor-league seasons, the switch-hitting May has put up a .332 on-base percentage and stolen 118 bases. He also plays outstanding defense in center field, improving each year as he has learned to combine his natural speed with good routes to the ball. Scouts rate his hit tool as average or slightly below, but above-average defense and what they call “plus-plus” speed (which translates to “really, really fast”) in a premium defensive position makes that basically irrelevant. Center field is a defense-first position, and any offense you can get it almost a bonus. A good defensive center fielder who can steal a bunch of bases is a very valuable commodity — just look at Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton. May is probably not quite as fast as Hamilton, but he has a good chance to be a better hitter and defender.
This offseason is a crucial one for May, as he just finished his fourth minor-league season. Because he was drafted out of college (or, more specifically, because he was at least 19 when he was drafted), he is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft that will take place during baseball’s Winter Meetings in a few weeks. The Rule 5 Draft is designed to keep teams from stockpiling minor-league talent for too long, so any player who is four seasons out from when he was drafted (or five seasons, if he was 18 or younger when drafted) and is not on the major-league team’s 40-man roster is eligible to be drafted by another team. The caveat is that the drafting team has to keep the player on the big-league roster (or disabled list) for the entirety of the ensuing season or lose him back to his original team.
We are about a week away from the deadline for teams to lock down their 40-man rosters leading up to the Rule 5, and it seems likely that the White Sox will add May to avoid losing him. After spending the entire 2016 season in Triple-A, May would probably draw interest from at least a dozen teams who would love to add him to their system. He missed time in 2016 with two different DL stints due to an oblique injury, and he missed time in 2015 after a suffering a concussion in a scary collision with teammate Tim Anderson. Those two injuries have probably delayed his ascent to the majors — he spent all of spring training with the big-league club in 2016, and there was talk of calling him up this past summer to replace the struggling J.B. Shuck before May’s oblique injury — but they are unrelated to each other and don’t throw any red flags for the future.
The Rule 5 Draft is always hard to predict, partly because no one knows until a couple weeks beforehand which players are even eligible, and partly because there is a lot more involved in the decision to draft a player than his actual skill level. But if May were to be eligible, it seems almost a lock that he would be taken pretty early in the draft. For that reason alone, the White Sox seem likely to take him off the board by adding him to their 40-man roster.
May is currently the 11th-best prospect in the White Sox system, according to MLB.com. Joining him on the list are fellow speedy outfielders Charlie Tilson, who is already on the 40-man roster and spent time in the big leagues this past season, and Adam Engel, who has a similar profile to May but is not quite as far along in his development. Other than Tilson, May is probably the team’s closest prospect to the majors.
The White Sox have center fielder Adam Eaton signed for three more seasons. Eaton was outstanding defensively in 2016, but it remains to be seen whether it was a one-year blip or an actual improvement. With left fielder Melky Cabrera entering the final year of his contract with Chicago, the future looks bright for the young outfield stars in the minor-league system. And given Cabrera’s age, defense, and injury history, the future has a very good chance of arriving in 2017, with Jacob May leading the way.