The White Sox’ season-long power outage that helped doom their 2022 campaign has trickled into 2023, if not completely carried over.
Through their 14 games, they hit just 14 home runs, a number only a little below league average but not what was hoped for from a team that was undoubtedly rebuilt to bash the ball over the fence. Even swapping Jose Abreu for Andrew Benintendi — whose five homers last season were the subject of much offseason conversation after the White Sox made him their highest paid free agent ever — this is still a lineup featuring the likes of Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert Jr., Andrew Vaughn, Yasmani Grandal and Yoán Moncada.
A new manager and a new coaching staff were supposed to return this collection of players to their old home-run-hitting ways, but the results have been mixed. Robert, for one, is off to the races with five home runs. Jiménez and Vaughn are still searching for their first round trippers of the year.
But one guy who has brought the thunder, even in limited action, has been Jake Burger, who came through in the clutch with his third homer of the season in just his seventh game Saturday, tying the game with a sixth-inning blast and stinging some other balls in what ended up a 7-6 extra-inning, walk-off win.
As the ball exploded off his bat — as many of them have; his first five hits of the season all went for extra bases and all came with exit velocities north of 103 miles an hour — the thought came to mind: How can the White Sox possibly kick Burger out of the lineup?
See, Burger isn’t just providing a sorely needed dose of pop. The White Sox’ offense as a whole has been glaringly inconsistent to start the campaign, seeming like world-beaters out of the gate, with 10-plus hits in eight of their first nine games, only to fall silent over a five-game stretch coming into Saturday’s game against the Orioles. Over their first nine games, the White Sox averaged 5.8 runs on 11 hits a night. Over the next five, 2.2 runs on six hits.
Burger alone will obviously not produce the offensive results the White Sox were hoping for when the season began. But he’s providing consistency most of the rest of the lineup can’t claim. The sample size is admittedly small, but Burger has six hits in 18 trips to the plate, including three homers, two doubles. He’s driven in six and has scored three runs.
Saturday, he singled during the 10th-inning rally, the second of three straight White Sox hits with a runner in scoring position after they started the game 0-for-9 in that department. And the talk postgame was not so much about his home run, rather about a ball he creamed to right field in the eighth that was kept from being a double by a nice running catch.
“Jake’s a big part of this lineup right now,” Pedro Grifol said. “He can hit the ball out of the park. He had some good ABs. … He hit that one (that was caught in right field) well, too, and that was headed for a double. He had good at-bats all day long. He saw the ball very well. He’s not a really emotional guy. He lets the game come to him, and he slowed it down. He did a nice job for us.”
So with all that going right, why would Burger have to be removed at all? Well, he’s only getting playing time at the moment thanks to early injuries to those aforementioned middle-of-the-lineup bats. He came up when Jiménez went on the injured list to form a fill-in platoon with Gavin Sheets. When Moncada started his own injury absence at the beginning of the week — he sat out three games in Minnesota before being formally placed on the IL on Friday — Burger started seeing more time at third base, and his hot bat could make him an everyday presence there until Moncada returns.
But Moncada will return, the White Sox optimistic it won’t be a long-term absence, and when he does, what happens to Burger? The team obviously won’t remove Jiménez or Burger from the lineup. But can it afford to send one of their only consistent producers at the moment back to Triple-A?
That question doesn’t need to be answered immediately, of course, with Moncada still out. And the time it takes for Moncada to recover from a sore back could see Burger cool down, perhaps not making the decision all that tough.
But Burger’s bat has long been able to play at the big league level. He’s just been a man without a position, and he failed to make the White Sox’ Opening Day roster not because he couldn’t contribute offensively but because there was nowhere to put him. He hasn’t made any glaring mistakes at third base yet, though there’s a history of defensive woes there. He spent the offseason and spring readying for work as a first baseman, but that’s Vaughn’s position. Plenty will clamor for him to man second base, but that would put the White Sox in the same place they were a year ago, with their defense significantly hindered by players playing out of position.
The most logical spot to put him is designated hitter, but that finally became the full-time spot for Jiménez, whose history of misadventures in left field combined with the arrival of Benintendi and Oscar Colás forced him to take up a job he loathes. Grifol has alluded to a plan to put Jiménez in right field from time to time, though that might require a little waiting after Jiménez just returned from a hamstring injury. Still, is right field the key to keeping Burger’s bat in the lineup? Could there be more time for Jiménez in right field — a scary proposition for plenty of fans who remember the injuries Jiménez suffered playing left field — so Burger can swing it as the DH?
But then what of Colás, who was essentially crowned as the team’s 2023 right fielder way back in November? Colás has been impressive, if not excellent, in his short time as a major leaguer, and the biggest highlight of his young career came Saturday, when he delivered the final blow with a laser line drive to the right-field wall that scored the winning run in the walk-off victory.
Colás has been a dramatic defensive upgrade in right field and has even played some center on off days for Robert, not to mention he’s come with a welcome infusion of energy in the early going. Robbing him of a job he won during the spring and the opportunity to continue his development at the big league level doesn’t seem like a logical move for the White Sox.
And that’s why this is such an interesting question.
It might be one without a good answer, too, and maybe Burger continues to be a man without a spot, even while his bat continues to power the White Sox’ lineup whenever he does get in there. Bringing his bat off the bench would be nice, certainly, and his particularly strong numbers against left-handed pitching could provide plenty of pinch-hit opportunities, times when Grifol can look to his matchups and see Burger as a perfect in-game maneuver.
The White Sox can be thankful they have some time for this all to play out before Moncada returns from his stay on the injured list. And certainly Rick Hahn would call this one of those good problems to have that he’s long described in media sessions. As Tony La Russia kept putting it in 2021 and 2022: “Too many good players.”
Right now, it’s business as usual for Burger, who’s no stranger to the Triple-A shuttle and no stranger to trying to figure out how he fits into the White Sox’ puzzle.
“Like I’ve always said, wherever they need me, that’s what I’m going to do,” Burger said. “I’m going to work as hard as I can and prepare myself as best as I can for every game, go out there and let the results do the talking.”
The White Sox, though, will want to make sure they make the right choice on Burger, or else it could lead to business as usual for them, too. At least the kind of business that was all too usual in 2022, an inconsistent and power-sapped offense leading to a disappointing .500 finish.