Eloy Jiménez doesn’t like talking about this.
The typically bubbly slugger mugs for every camera, shouts “HI MOM!” at every opportunity, pretends his bat is a microphone when crashing media sessions and transformed his voice – Chipmunks style – every time he walked by Tony La Russa for a high-pitched “¡Hola, Tony!”
But ask the fun-loving 25-year-old about playing the outfield versus serving as a designated hitter, and things get serious.
Of course, these questions aren’t going anywhere, or rather they haven’t gone anywhere since he became a major leaguer. He’s landed on the injured list for multiple defensive mishaps in left field and created a lowlight reel with dozens more. Even if his significant injury in 2022 came while running the bases, the aftereffects of in-season surgery had their impact on this conversation, forcing him to DH in 50 of the 84 games he played in.
Plenty of fans determined long ago that Jiménez should be relegated to DH to prevent further injury, a sensible argument considering his importance to this White Sox team. But now, the White Sox might finally be forced to take a firmer stance as they attempt to fix things after a 2022 season that went so horribly sideways.
Jiménez is still plenty forthcoming about his distaste for DH’ing, and prior to this past season, his argument, that concentrating on each and every play defensively helped him concentrate on each and every pitch he saw offensively, seemed reasonable enough. After all, even a hitter as accomplished as José Abreu spent years describing his own dislike for DH’ing.
“I still don’t like it,” Jiménez said in September.
But then he returned from his most recent injury layoff and mashed, doing so mainly as the White Sox’ designated hitter, and suddenly the idea that the team was stuck risking Jiménez’s health to reap the ample offensive rewards flew out the window.
Jiménez was one of the best hitters in baseball after the All-Star break, his 169 wRC+ ranking fifth in the game among qualified hitters behind only the likes of Aaron Judge and Yordan Alvarez and ahead of guys like Paul Goldschmidt, Shohei Ohtani, Alex Bregman and Manny Machado. He hit 14 homers in the second half, only three shy of Andrew Vaughn’s full-season total of 17, which led a power-sapped White Sox lineup.
So problem solved?
Not everyone’s fully on board that wagon just yet, chiefly Jiménez, who said at season’s end that he’ll spend the offseason working to make sure his legs are well enough to allow him more time in the outfield in 2023.
But truth be told, Jiménez’s preferences will likely be secondary to how the rest of Hahn’s offseason puzzle comes together. Abreu might wind up the key, and if the White Sox decide to not pursue a reunion with their franchise icon, as has been reported, that would seemingly free up Vaughn to be the team’s everyday first baseman and allow Jiménez to basically be the team’s everyday DH.
It might not be quite that simple, as the White Sox would still probably prefer to find some time for Yasmani Grandal at DH. Vaughn, too, spent 2022 dealing with his own legs being less than 100 percent, and the DH spot would be a way for the White Sox to lighten the physical load for him. Though you’d think that taking outfield play off Vaughn’s plate would go a long way in that department.
Jiménez, who has described Abreu as a father figure, unsurprisingly would like to see the White Sox’ best hitter return. In that scenario, Jiménez could wind up back in left field.
“Yeah, why not?” Jiménez said when asked if the White Sox need Abreu back next season. “He’s been fantastic this year, all the years that he’s played here. Why not? He’s been one of the most motivated players that we have. Day in, day out, no matter how he feels, he’s out there. So why not?”
Why not? As ridiculous as it seems to allow an offense-starved lineup to lose its best bat, maybe it has something to do with the defensive alignment, Eloy, and specifically your place in it.
But the more interesting question, perhaps, is what Jiménez is capable of doing, both from an ability standpoint and from a physical one. Hahn described that Jiménez needed to get used to the new feeling in his legs following the surgery, and watching him hobble around the bases for much of the summer, it seemed that was a challenge that was never completely conquered.
“(In the future), he can play (the outfield) maybe one or two times a week, three times a week, and mix with DH,” Miguel Cairo said at the end of September. “But he’s been doing such a good job as a DH.
“You want to keep him healthy for the whole season, that’s the best way to put it.”
Abreu or no Abreu, there is maybe a universe in which Jiménez shows up to spring training as the everyday left fielder, depending on what other offseason improvements Hahn is able to make. Vaughn was among the worst defensive outfielders in baseball in 2022. He wasn’t supposed to be there, Jiménez was. A full healthy season of Jiménez would likely be a defensive improvement, however slight.
But no longer is there the unknown of whether Jiménez can handle DH duty. Despite sticking to his guns as no fan of the job, he did it quite well in 2022 and showed the White Sox they won’t be forced to wince through a season of potential left-field mishaps if they don’t want to, allowing them to run down some potential additions to play the outfield and help the team in multiple facets.
“I need to keep working hard to stay on the field,” Jiménez said. “I don’t blame luck. I need to work harder to play at least 150 games.
“If I don’t play in the outfield, I need to find a way to be there for my team. Whatever it takes to keep my focus on what I need to do, and try to do my job.”