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A Luis Robert Jr. encore and long-awaited Eloy Jiménez, Yoán Moncada breakouts? As always, health the key

Vinnie Duber Avatar
February 19, 2024
Luis Robert Jr. and Eloy Jimenez

PHOENIX – Yoán Moncada was taking swings during batting practice during the White Sox’ first full-squad workout of the spring Monday.

Batting left-handed, Moncada smashed a moonshot of a home run over the right-field fence, depositing the ball onto the netting that protects pitchers throwing bullpens from getting conked on the head with a round-tripper.

Eloy Jiménez let out a loud “Ooooooh!”

Moncada sent the next pitch in the other direction, clearing the fence in left field with another long ball.

Jiménez narrated this one thusly: “Oppo!? Noooo!”

This, of course, is what White Sox fans have long waited to see play out during the summer, Moncada, Jiménez and Luis Robert Jr. teaming to form as good of a middle of the batting order as you’d find around baseball. The trio, all handed lucrative long-term contracts years ago, was among the centerpieces of Rick Hahn’s rebuilding project.

But considering Hahn’s out of the job and few fans are holding their breath that this threesome will ever live up to the hype, it goes without saying that the long-held hopes never materialized.

All three, however, are still White Sox and still looking to capture the magic that most gave up on waiting for long ago, while the games missed due to injuries piled up and the number of souvenirs sent into the Guaranteed Rate Field seats stayed underwhelmingly low.

“We are in the middle of the lineup. And every time we are together, we can help more than we (can) being on the bench, watching the game,” Jiménez said Monday. “So for me, that’s the biggest challenge: being together day by day and playing 150-plus.

“That’s our goal.”

That’s a big number, obviously, considering Jiménez just last year played in 120 games for the first time since his rookie season. He was sidelined again, this time for the fluke occurrence of an appendectomy, but he went to the IL earlier in the season with a hamstring injury and seemed bothered by sore legs all summer. Fans, of course, are finding it impossible to forget the long stretches he missed in 2021 and 2022 and even the IL trips that helped define his rookie year in 2019.

Moncada, meanwhile, was stung by a springtime back injury and limited to just 92 games, dramatically hampered when he was able to get on the field until a last-month surge brought on by his back finally feeling better. He hasn’t come close to matching his breakout 2019, dealt one blow after another on the health front.

Robert broke out with an MVP-style campaign in 2023, avoiding the injury bug that bit him in 2021 and 2022. He was simply sensational after struggling to get going in April, finishing with 38 home runs and playing elite defense. His four remaining years of club control make him someone to build around rather than trade for a package that will kickstart a rebuild, and he’s expecting even higher highs in 2024.

“I can improve on little things that I didn’t do as well as I wanted,” Robert said through team interpreter Billy Russo on Monday. “I think I can improve on those little things, and if I do, it’s going to be a way better season.”

It’s hard to imagine a “way better season” than what Robert delivered last year. But considering the type of athlete and player he’s shown himself capable of being, no one in the White Sox’ employ is ready to set Robert’s ceiling.

“I’ve had a few players in my career that I would never even dream of setting goals for just because you just don’t know what their cap is,” Pedro Grifol said Monday. “I’m always hesitant to say, ‘OK, this is the goal,’ and kind of limit him to that when he’s got a heck of a lot more. And (Robert is) one of them.

“He hit 38 homers last year. He had a great year. I don’t know (the upper limit of) what he can do on a baseball field.”

Monday, Robert and Jiménez spent time swapping compliments, well aware of each other’s talents.

“He’s pretty much one of the best players in MLB,” Jiménez said of Robert. “He’s going to be healthy and put up the numbers he put up last year or better. … (He could do better with his batting) average, the strike zone. I know he has been working really hard. He’s going to get better.”

And Luis, what is Eloy capable of this season?

“Everything,” Robert said. “I think we both are going to be able to carry this team and do everything together for this team.”

Whether statements like that or videos of batting-practice homers launched into the Arizona sky, it was probably all enough to get fans’ imaginations going all over again. But with every comment about how this could be the year, there was another sarcastically predicting the same kind of miserable injury luck that kept Hahn’s rebuilding effort from ever reaching its intended destination of a deep playoff run.

These guys know the history they’re up against. While they might sit here in the 0-0 days of the spring and talk starry-eyed about big things that lie ahead, they know the main obstacle they need to overcome. Jiménez spent months on the mend from a ruptured pectoral muscle suffered in this very ballpark. This was the site of Moncada’s back injury a year ago. And Robert surely doesn’t need to be reminded of being helped off the field in 2021.

“That’s going to be one of the keys for us,” Robert said. “Unfortunately, that has hurt us the last couple of years. We haven’t been able to play with our full lineup. And if this year we are able to stay healthy and everybody manages to stay healthy and play as many games as they can, then the results are going to be good for this team.

“That’s definitely a big key for us.”

This isn’t the same roster that was built to win division titles and playoff series, of course. The injury bug bit Tim Anderson and Liam Hendriks so hard last year that they’re gone. The expectations are far different than what they were a year ago. Even if Robert, Jiménez and Moncada do what they hope, stay healthy and put up big numbers, will it be enough to make this White Sox team competitive? That remains to be seen.

But at least on an individual basis, the story is very much the same.

Will this be the year that Jiménez stays healthy? Will Moncada play enough to reemerge as the type of player he was in 2019? While these guys are certainly thinking about team success, there’s plenty riding on them doing so; the White Sox have club options on both of them – expensive ones, at that – meaning this could conceivably be their final seasons on the South Side.

Robert, meanwhile, is fresh off doing what those two have only tried to do. His future is more secure. But his addition to the ranks of Scott Boras clients this winter also had him answering questions Monday about what things could look like years down the road.

“You are always thinking about your future. But I still have four more years with this organization, and I don’t think way ahead of that,” he said. “I like to think of the present, and that’s today, because that’s what I can control.

“You can’t have a good future if you don’t have a good present. That’s why I don’t want to think too far away.”

For this group of White Sox hitters, it’s about everything: the past, the present and the future. The future that was planned never came true thanks to a past full of injuries. The present, much like that Arizona sky these guys were blasting homers into Monday, is sunny, in their minds. But they well know that the future can change in an instant.

For White Sox fans, they feel like they’ve seen this show before, with many of them considering IL trips and another season marred by injuries a foregone conclusion.

At this point, all these White Sox sluggers can do is show folks what they’ve been missing.

Health-dependent, of course.

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