The White Sox don't have an in-house answer to their DH question

Vinnie Duber
NBC Sports Chicago

The White Sox are looking for a new designated hitter this winter. That's not speculation, rather a stated objective from the mouth of the general manager, Rick Hahn listing DH alongside right fielder and starting pitching on the team's offseason to-do list.

And they need one, too. The production out of that spot was hideous in 2019. Yonder Alonso was DFA'd in June. Daniel Palka was sent to the minors in April. The parade of fill-in options that followed their departures was ineffective. All in all, it ended in a .208/.284/.362 slash line from a position that is designated to hit. The White Sox .647 OPS from their DHs was the worst in the American League by far, trailing the 114-loss Detroit Tigers by 34 points.

But there has been a suggestion from certain White Sox fans on social media that the team doesn't need to look past its own roster to plug its hole at DH.

Certainly the reasoning for such arguments is understandable, stemming from the offense-first, defense-second skill set of some of these White Sox. Eloy Jimenez, a favorite target of certain Twitter complainers, did not look graceful in left field during his rookie season, and he posted minus-11 Defensive Runs Saved, which as you might guess is not very good. Jose Abreu isn't getting any younger, and his minus-four DRS wasn't a particularly pleasing mark, either. Zack Collins has been dogged by questions about his defense since he was drafted and didn't really answer any of them during his two big league stints in 2019.

But as much as some might want to see defensive upgrades across the diamond as the White Sox try to make their transition from rebuilding to contending, none of those guys, right now, seems to be ticketed for a full-time DH-ing role anytime soon.

Abreu is, at present, a free agent, and the White Sox need to actually sign him to a new contract before we can officially ink him in anywhere in the projected 2020 lineup. But his return to the South Side has seemed so long like a foregone conclusion that talking about him as if he'll be back at first base on the South Side next season isn't exactly tempting fate. That's the thing, though, his return figures to be as the team's primary first baseman. Abreu has never been shy about expressing his distaste for DH-ing, and an advancing age and defensive metrics aren't likely to change his opinion.

Now, Abreu is a team player, and he's done plenty of DH-ing while with the White Sox, 146 games' worth to the tune of a .284/.340/.494 slash line. He played 34 games there in 2019. But even if Abreu were keen to move into a mainly DH role - unlikely, given his past comments - that opens another hole, at first base, and the free-agent options there are even less appealing than the ones at DH (the latter market upended with J.D. Martinez deciding to stay with the Boston Red Sox). Howie Kendrick, fresh off a postseason's worth of heroics with the world-champion Washington Nationals, is perhaps the only player worth a look, and he's only been a part-time player in recent seasons.

The bottom line with Abreu is no matter what you think of his defense, he's probably coming back as a first baseman first and a sometimes DH second.

So what about Jimenez? Fans rolled their eyes when Hahn said in late 2018 that Jimenez, who tore up the minor leagues with his bat, still had to work on his defense. But Hahn's comments were proven accurate once Jimenez started playing left field at the major league level. Now, Jimenez was just a rookie, and he did improve as time went on, but he frequently had onlookers wincing and holding their breath with his play out there. His two injured-list stints were tied to less-than-stellar defensive performances. The first came when he attempted to rob a surefire home run and sprained his ankle by planting his foot into the left-field wall at Guaranteed Rate Field. A couple months later, a communication issue with center fielder Charlie Tilson ended with Jimenez suffering a ulnar nerve contusion when he crashed into Tilson in the outfield in Kansas City.

We talked about Jimenez's long-term defensive future a lot during his rookie campaign, and those questions will linger, at the very least, into 2020. Might he be a full-time DH one day? Sure. But the White Sox don't seem intent on moving the young slugger to another position anytime soon, hoping that more experience will be the main thing that helps him cut down on the questionable plays he made during his first taste of the major leagues.

"He's too young for me to view him as a DH, to be honest," manager Rick Renteria said in late July when Jimenez returned from that second stay on the injured list. "And I think he's shown so much improvement in the outfield that it would be, I think, derelict on my part and on our part as an organization to limit the ability for him to play on both sides of the baseball.

"He's an extremely hard worker, he's very conscientious, he's been going through a lot of the things that we need him to go through. He sincerely has improved out there a lot. And so we want to see if we can maximize his ability to do everything he can as a Major League Baseball player.

"And then time will tell us. If that ends up ultimately being his lot - I don't foresee that. But if that ultimately becomes his lot, that becomes his lot. But I think right now we're going to continue to use him on both sides of the baseball, for sure."

So it doesn't look like Jimenez, who that same day confirmed he doesn't like DH-ing, either, will be anywhere besides left field in the White Sox plans for the immediate future.

Collins, meanwhile, remains too much of an unknown at this point to create expectations of him shouldering the load at designated hitter in 2020. While the sample size was small, his .186/.307/.349 slash line in 102 plate appearances shouldn't have anyone confident enough to give him an everyday role, even though the White Sox remain dedicated to his long-term future and getting him at-bats at the big league level.

So the White Sox do not already have three DHs on their roster. They have a 22-year-old left fielder who's still learning his craft, a 24-year-old backup catcher with 27 games of major league experience and a 32-year-old first baseman (assuming he re-signs with the White Sox) who doesn't like to DH.

Given the frequent talk of how difficult DH-ing is for players - they say it takes a special skill to sit around for an hour, go bat, sit around for another hour, go bat, and do it all effectively - simply assigning players to the position because of their sub-optimal defensive performance elsewhere is perhaps not the best approach.

Ask Alonso, who had seven games' worth of DH-ing experience before joining the White Sox ahead of the 2019 season. Or Adam Dunn, who had 18 games' worth of DH-ing experience before joining the White Sox ahead of the 2011 season. Or Adam LaRoche, who had seven games' worth of DH-ing experience before joining the White Sox ahead of the 2015 season. Dunn, LaRoche and Alonso hit .200, .187 and .170, respectively, as DHs in their careers.

Obviously, the opportunity to find a professional DH needs to exist, and Martinez taking himself off the free-agent market this winter severely limits Hahn's ability to simultaneously find a capable, comfortable DH and make a big splash. But simply dragging and dropping current White Sox into that spot doesn't seem like a realistic alternative. Things can change, of course, but expect Abreu at first base, Jimenez in left field and Collins joining James McCann behind the plate for Opening Day 2020 - and a new face as the everyday designated hitter.

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The White Sox don't have an in-house answer to their DH question originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

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