Editor’s Note: New Trier High School graduate Charlie Tilson currently is starting in left field for the Chicago White Sox. He was called up to the American League club on May 24 after starting his season with Triple A Charlotte. The 25-year-old, who was drafted in the second round by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011, was traded to the White Sox in exchange for left-handed reliever Zach Duke on July 31, 2016. Here’s a story on Tilson, which appeared in The North Shore Weekend on March 2, 2013.
Upon entering the hitting facility, the first sound you invariably hear is the crack of the bat — that perfect acoustic of lumber smashing into cowhide.
In the batting cage, you find Charlie Tilson, the young phenom.
On a Tuesday afternoon in early January, the New Trier High School grad, flashing boyish good looks and a fit stature, was turning on one pitch after another on his way to emptying another bucket of baseballs — his umpteenth of the offseason.
As a hot prospect for a winning organization — drafted in the second round (79th pick overall) of the 2011 draft by the St. Louis Cardinals — the left-handed hitter spent the offseason studying his hitting chart and charting his future course.
He’s been hyped. The expectations are sky high for Tilson. Scout.com rated the 20-year center fielder as the No. 21 prospect in the Cardinals’ farm system. MLB.com ranked him No. 16, while Baseball Prospect Nation placed him on the organization’s top 10 list. Which is not bad, considering that the Cardinals were ranked the No. 1 farm system by Baseball America.
The talented, yet humble Tilson wears the precious prospect tag well.
“It makes you want to succeed,” said Tilson, who was among a select group of minor leaguers that reported to the Cardinals Spring Training facility in Jupiter, Fla., on Feb. 22. “It’s an honor (to make those lists). I’ve worked my whole life to be in a position like this. I still have to get in the batting cage every day. I still have to work — as if I was rated last.”
Despite being a lifelong Chicago White Sox fan — “As a kid, my brother (Steve) and I fell asleep listening to White Sox baseball,” he said — the 5-foot-11, 175-pound Tilson is thrilled to be donning the bright red Birds on the Bat uniform of the Cardinals.
“It’s an organization that develops its players,” said Tilson. “And that’s good for me. If you’re doing well, they’re going to find a spot for you.”
Tilson will never forget his first professional at-bat. It’s telling.
“We were playing a Houston affiliate (in Kissimmee, Fla.), and I hit about six foul balls and worked the count full,” he said. “And all I’m thinking is, ‘I can’t strike out.’ I wound up grounding the ball to second base. I was thrown out — but I ran my heart out.”
Tilson, who signed for first-round money with the Cardinals on Aug. 13, 2011, after turning down a scholarship offer from the University of Illinois, has yet to tear it up at the pro level.
Instead, while chasing down a long fly ball during an extended Spring Training game on May 12, 2012, the fleet-footed Tilson crashed to the ground and sustained a torn labrum on his non-throwing shoulder.
“A huge downer,” said Tilson, one of five siblings.
He especially felt bad for Joe Tilson, his dad.
“He was in town for the game,” the outfielder said. “It was the first time he was seeing me play (as a pro).
“I was trying to be aggressive,” he added. “And sometimes that can backfire on you. I’m looking at the bright side. The rehab went great.”
A member of the Cardinal Nation/Scout.com staff has given him an interesting nickname: “Cracker Jack.”
He wrote: “I can’t wait to open the box and see what is inside.”
This offseason, Rich Synek got to see his star pupil up close — batting-cage close — and personal. Tilson trained twice a week and sometimes more with Synek, his former Highwood Braves travel team coach, at the Glenview Sports Academy in Northbrook.
“(The Cardinals) haven’t been able to see what they’ve got,” said Synek, referring to the injury. “But now, he’s in a much better spot to have a good showing in spring training. I’m extremely confident that the Cardinals will see what they saw when they drafted him.”
In fact, St. Louis just might get a bonus.
Tilson, who has played in only eight professional games, wants to be more than just a speedy, slap-hitting outfielder. He went into the offseason looking to add power. Five-tool outfielders have a way of standing out.
“My chart says that I hit the ball the other way,” said Tilson. “So my focus this offseason has been to develop power. Pull the ball. Hit it hard to right field.”
Synek, who uses the rotational hitting method (stay back, rotate the hips and drive the ball), has seen a transformation in Tilson.
“His power has not been hacked into,” said Synek. “He was hitting pitches on the outer third and taking them to the opposite field, while he would just fight off pitches on the inner third. I want him to take advantage of the whole zone. Master the entire plate. Pitchers at his level will exploit weaknesses because that’s what they are paid to do.
“Obviously, by being picked in the second round, he’s done a lot of things right,” Synek added. “But with that being said, I want him to fulfill those expectations. A lot of second-round picks don’t pan out.”
Interestingly, it was a show of power that paved the way for Tilson.
Rewind to the summer of 2010. That’s when Tilson took part in the prestigious weeklong, wood bat Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif.
And that’s where baseball people fell head over spikes for Tilson.
He stole bases. He bunted for a hit. He chased down a fly ball and threw out a guy at third.
And, most importantly, he went yard.
“That one home run opened up eyes,” said Synek. “It vaulted him on the draft boards.”
“He hammered it against a kid who was throwing 95 mph,” recounted New Trier High School head coach Mike Napoleon. “People were there to watch the pitcher. But then, Charlie hits the home run and everyone is asking, ‘Who is this kid?’ ”
“That’s where it really got rolling for him,” said lifelong friend and long-time teammate Charlie McGuire. “He blew it up. After that, he started getting offers from all kinds of Division I schools.”
Making the most of an opportunity didn’t surprise Napoleon.
“Charlie always has been able to shine when he needed to shine most,” the New Trier coach offered.
Napoleon also is not surprised that Tilson is trying to add power to his offensive repertoire.
Re-enter The Chart.
“Someone looked him in the eye and told him what he needed to do (Pull the ball, hit for more power), and he’s trying to do it,” said Napoleon. “When you’re a pro, you need to be able to pull the ball. And it will come for him with more (pitch) recognition and as he gains more strength.”
Speed, on the other hand, never has been a question with Tilson, a wide receiver/kick returner for the Trevians football team. He immediately caught the attention of the Napoleon and his staff during the “Incoming Freshman Camp.”
“He was a little small back then, but he had the speed factor,” said Napoleon. “He ran a 7-flat 60. Freshmen usually don’t run like that.”
Despite attending a high school, which enrolls more than 4,000 students, Tilson was a fast mover at New Trier. He hit .405, .408 and .420 during his three varsity seasons with the Trevians.
As a sophomore, he hit No. 3 in the batting order and led NT to a Class 4A state title in 2009.
In 2011, he was named the Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year.
“What makes him special?” said Napoleon. “It’s his work ethic and competitive spirit.”
You get no argument from McGuire, who vividly remembers one of Tilson’s big moments.
“Senior year, we’re down two runs in the last inning to Glenbrook North, and he hits a two-run homer to tie it the game,” said McGuire. “He wasn’t a home run hitter. But there he was … hitting a homer in front of about 25 scouts.”
Being Tilson’s teammate wasn’t always easy.
“I remember tossing him batting practice in the cage before a game during our senior year,” said McGuire. “I felt the pressure of trying to throw him a strike, especially after all of the scouts ran over to watch him hit. He always wanted me to throw it right down the pipe.”
McGuire likes his chances with St. Louis.
“He’s got the great work ethic, and I think that’s what’s going to get him to the majors,” said McGuire. “I think the Cardinals see that.”
Current teammates also see it.
“We’ve talked about playing in St. Louis some day,” said shortstop Kenny Peoples-Walls, who roomed with Tilson last season. “That’s what we’re working towards.
“And we have pretty similar work ethics,” added the Los Angeles native, a fourth-round pick in 2011 draft. “We don’t get distracted.”
What jumps out with Tilson?
“He’s a great outfielder,” said Peoples-Walls, also a speedster. “He’s got the speed to get to any ball. And he’s got an accurate arm. On cutoffs, he’s always put the ball where I needed it.”
And what about his power?
“He’s got a lot of tools,” the teammate said. “He’ll develop the power.”