The White Sox are expected to be without Yoán Moncada a bit longer.
The third baseman, on the injured list with back soreness, isn’t anticipated to play in this weekend’s series against the Rays. Most likely requiring a minor league rehab assignment to get his timing back both at the plate and in the field, the earliest he’d be back is next week’s series against the Blue Jays, but that rehab assignment would obviously need to start soon.
With uncertainty when Moncada — who started the season in red-hot fashion, the owner of a .308/.325/.564 slash line in nine games — will be back, at least the White Sox stumbled into a worthy replacement in Jake Burger, who’s done nothing but mash since being called up from the minor leagues.
Burger’s defense at third base has long left something to be desired — why he hasn’t locked down a big league job to this point, even left off the team’s Opening Day roster this season — but there’s been little doubt that his bat plays. He’s shown that in eye-popping fashion in limited action this year, with seven extra-base hits in 29 at-bats, including five home runs that have him tied for the team lead. His most recent was blistered, with an exit velocity north of 118 miles an hour, the hardest hit home run by a White Sox batter since they started tracking such things in 2015.
Burger’s power and consistent hitting have been welcome sights for a White Sox lineup that’s struggled to find either over their last 10 games. Racking up double-digit hit totals with ease at the start of the campaign, the offense has gone quiet over its last three series, one of many problem areas amid a sluggish start for the South Siders.
Burger, then, would figure to be a lock to remain in the lineup as one of its most (and only) productive bats. But Moncada’s impending return, whenever it might come, could throw a wrench into those plans.
Burger’s lone defensive positions of third base and first base are well spoken for by key members of the White Sox’ core in Moncada and Andrew Vaughn, respectively. Those two players aren’t going to see their playing time shrink at their respective positions, nor should they.
It leaves only one place to put Burger, designated hitter, though that comes with its own challenge, considering Eloy Jiménez — long maligned by fans for his defensive misadventures in the outfield — just received full-time assignment there. Making room for Burger would involve more time for Jiménez in the outfield, perhaps at the expense of rookie Oscar Colás, who was all but crowned the team’s new everyday right fielder way back in November.
Some have advocated for Burger to take over second-base duties, with Elvis Andrus already playing out of position there and off to a very slow start offensively, as well. But Burger’s glove is enough of a concern at his natural position of third base. On the last home stand, a critical error in a game against the Orioles set up a two-run triple off Dylan Cease that helped erase an early 4-0 lead.
While his time manning the hot corner on a daily basis won’t last much longer thanks to Moncada’s return from the IL, Burger is doing extra work every day with infield coach Eddie Rodríguez to improve his glove work. He’s unlikely to blossom into Moncada, who’s become a Gold Glove candidate for his ability at third, but he’s working to get better and give himself a better chance of sticking in the majors.
“He’s working to improve,” Pedro Grifol said earlier this week. “He knows the things he has to improve on. He’s got a chance to be a good third baseman, especially with his work ethic. Anytime you take pride in your work, any time you have that kind of work ethic, you’re going to continue to get better. That’s what he does. They have a nice little program set up for him daily, and he cares about it, he’s diligent about it. He’s going to continue to improve.
“He’s a big guy, but he has athletic ability. He runs well, he throws well. It’s all going to depend on the work he puts in. Him and Eddie have a nice program going. I’m looking forward to him continuing to get better as the season goes along.”
Grifol wasn’t around a couple years ago when the White Sox worked Burger out as a second baseman in the minor leagues. That never led to any playing time at the position at the major league level, of course, even as the White Sox struggled to get offensive production there.
It seems an unlikely route this time around, too, with Grifol not sounding too keen on the idea, given the rule changes that prevent how much defensive help a team can provide around someone learning a new position on the fly. Presented with a past example of a third baseman making the move to second — in this case Grifol’s former charge with the Royals, Mike Moustakas — the new South Side skipper didn’t sound eager to try it out with Burger.
“There was also the shift, when you could put three guys on that side of the field. And now there is no shifting. So it becomes a little harder to have those kinds of experiments during the season,” Grifol said. “We’ll look at it when the time comes and see what we have to do.”
A final suggestion from all the social-media managers out there has been to send Moncada back to second base, where he played when he first came up with the White Sox. Moncada spent the entirety of his woeful 2018 season there and committed a whopping 21 errors. His move to third base saw him turn into a defensive whiz and was also credited at the time for helping him focus offensively, as well. He had a breakout season at the plate, too, in 2019.
Asked about the potential for a return to second for Moncada in the years since, Rick Hahn has mostly brushed the idea aside, pointing to just how good Moncada has become as a third baseman and how happy the White Sox are with him there. Of course, Hahn & Co. have also made a habit of taking no considerations off the table.
All of this is without mentioning, though, that the White Sox set improving defensively as one of their goals this offseason after they were one of baseball’s worst defensive teams during the massively disappointing 2022 campaign. Adding Andrew Benintendi and Colás to the outfield and moving Vaughn back to his natural position of first base helped do that. Hahn specifically pointed to a desire to have fewer players playing out of position after Vaughn struggled in the outfield last season. Moving Burger to second base would seem to be a step backward on the defensive front.
And so the “what to do with Burger” question still seems to have no answer, no good one, at least. The White Sox will have time to figure it out as they wait for Moncada to come back. But if Burger’s home-run barrage continues during the road trip through Florida and Canada over the next week, it’s an answer they’ll have to come up with if they want any shot at keeping their offense afloat.