White Sox must reconsider Eloy Jiménez's long-term future in outfield

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Vinnie Duber
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Sox must reconsider Eloy's long-term future in outfield originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

At the outset of spring training, Rick Hahn was definitive.

"Eloy's our left fielder. We view him as a left fielder," the White Sox general manager said during the "Sox Spring Break" series. "He's put in the work to earn that opportunity, and he's someone we foresee as being out there.

"He certainly has the bat to handle the DH position. But from a maximizing-the-effect-of-our-roster standpoint, we're probably better off with Eloy in left, assuming he continues to progress defensively the way we've seen and he continues to put in the work, and having a different bat in the DH spot."

RELATED: Vaughn and other Sox options for replacing Eloy

A month and a half later, that definitive approach has changed for obvious reasons.

Jiménez will miss months as he recovers from a torn pectoral tendon, suffered when he attempted to rob a home run in Wednesday's spring exhibition. It's not the first time he's been injured in left field. It is the most significant of those injuries, though, with a gaping hole being punched in the White Sox lineup on the eve of the team starting the 2021 campaign with championship aspirations.

Since arriving in the big leagues in 2019, Jiménez has been constantly scrutinized for his defense. He's now had four instances in which a play in left field ended with him missing time, as well as many other misadventures that while relatively forgivable, given the value he provides with his bat, haven't been without embarrassment.

The calls for the White Sox to pluck him out of left field and install him as a full-time designated hitter are sure to get louder now that Jiménez's injury makes the team's quest for a World Series title significantly more difficult. And the team will eventually have to think about what comes next.

"Let's just get him healthy right now," Hahn said Thursday, asked if the team still views Jiménez as a long-term left fielder. "This is one of our teammates, this is one of our brothers, who went down to a pretty significant injury yesterday. We want to get him healthy, we want to get him feeling good. Seeing him in pain yesterday was difficult for all of us.

"Right now, we've got the makings of a plan, assuming the surgery comes off in the next several days. We'll be able to build off that plan, get the player back healthy and right, and then we'll figure out moving forward the best way to fit him back in when the time comes."

That's much different than "we view him as a left fielder." And you can't excuse the White Sox for giving more thought to Jiménez's long-term future.

Jiménez does not want to be a DH. When presented with the possibility at SoxFest last year, he responded, "F--- that." He strives to prove himself an all-around player, and the team has repeatedly remarked on his improvement and his continued hard work to improve. It's all quite admirable.

But as the injuries have piled up, it becomes harder and harder to just allow Jiménez to keep trying. His sensational offensive contributions are too important to the White Sox — not just in 2021 but over the course of his long-term contract that keeps him on the South Side through the 2026 season — to risk losing him like they already have.

"He truly takes a great deal of pride in being a better defender than people give him credit for," Hahn said. "He works hard at it, he takes it seriously. Probably the most upset I have ever seen Eloy is when he's removed for defensive purposes. He wants to finish games.

"It's possible, asking me to read his mind, that when he sees a chance to make a spectacular play, he tries to do it to address those concerns. Yesterday, it was instinct taking over. He sees potential to make a play, and upon reflection, it probably wasn’t the smartest decision at that time.

"It's unfortunate because the kid has worked hard at the defense, and he was trying to make a play. You don’t want to take that out of him, that desire to make plays. At the same time, he understands he's far more valuable to us letting that ball fall in for a home run, or perhaps not making a play coming in or going to a corner, and staying on the field than he is on the IL. And that's something, going forward, he's going to have to be more cognizant of."

Plenty will put their hands on their head and shout, "Going forward? How can you send him back out there?" But if the White Sox want to make Jiménez a full-time DH at age 24, it might not be easy.

Prior to Wednesday, the DH role figured to belong to Andrew Vaughn, not just in 2021 but in 2022, as well, with his natural position, first base, occupied by American League MVP José Abreu for at least the next two seasons. That's how long Abreu's contract lasts. And while we can't see the future, winning an MVP at 33 might not rule out him playing past his age-35 season.

Then came Thursday, though, with Hahn and Tony La Russa laying out the idea that Vaughn might be able to be the replacement they need in left field. He's never played there as a pro, and he's never played any position in a game above A-ball. But the White Sox could put their faith in Vaughn to provide offensive production and learn a new position in his first taste of the majors. If that goes well, it makes it much easier for Jiménez to find a landing spot at DH.

But if that doesn't work out — not to mention that some players simply have trouble DH'ing — the White Sox might have no choice but to send Jiménez back out to the field.

"At some point in the much distant future, we'll talk to him and talk through a plan about perhaps making some better decisions or what we are expecting of him going forward from a defensive standpoint," Hahn said. "For now, and for the immediate future, it's going to be about getting him healthy again and getting him back contributing. For now, it's about health.

"We'll discuss keeping him on the field at a later date."

But you've noticed the change, right? From "we view him as a left fielder" to "we'll discuss keeping him on the field."

In this area, the White Sox have no choice. They have to have those conversations.