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Yermín Mercedes hit so well last April that he got a burger named after him. His 1.113 OPS that month helped propel the White Sox to a 14-11 April record. It was well-timed, too, as Eloy Jiménez was hurt in spring training and Luis Robert would go down with a hip injury at the beginning of May.
A year later, the Sox find themselves in a similar position. Jiménez strained his right hamstring lunging to reach first base on Saturday and was taken off the field in a cart. He is set to be evaluated further in Chicago on Tuesday, but the team announced that its preliminary expectation is that Jiménez will be out at least 6-8 weeks.
Jiménez’s injury coming in the midst of a six-game losing streak threatens to dampen early-season enthusiasm. In 2021, the Sox sailed to the division title thanks to a strong first half. But given the injuries to the roster already, that might be tougher this year.
Like the Yerminator last April, it might have to be Jake Burger who steps up this time around.
After multiple years of working through rehabbing his own injuries, Burger has already been making the most of his chances through the first two-plus weeks of the season. Headed into Sunday’s action, Burger is still looking to find his groove at the plate, but regular playing time might help. His .200/.222/.314 slash line might not inspire excitement, but Burger is a 2017 first-rounder and is playing his first fully healthy season in several years.
He has stepped up and produced in some big moments already. Burger went 2-for-3 with two RBI and a home run in a 3-2 win against the Rays on April 15. His fifth-inning single drove in the decisive run.
“Getting this opportunity is awesome,” Burger said after that game. “Anywhere they need me, anytime they need me, I want to be a guy that can help. And being in a clubhouse like this and getting to learn from Tim Anderson and José Abreu, it’s incredible.”
Injuries might help ensure that Burger stays on the major league roster even after rosters shrink from 28 to 26 after May 1. But he’ll still have to perform. Along with a clutch hit or two, he is doing some things right at the plate, even if the results are not there yet. Burger’s strikeout rate is down about 8 percent from 2021 when he made 42 plate appearances for the Sox.
There are a few factors that will decide whether he stays with the big league club for good, but for now, Burger is focusing on his performance on the field. Roster changes are not always fair, but in some cases, a player’s performance can force a team’s hand and trump other roster considerations.
Fellow 2017 first-rounder Gavin Sheets knows what this is like. Sheets and Burger started their paths to the major leagues the same way, but Burger’s injuries in 2018 and 2019 kept him away from the field while Sheets rose through the Sox farm system. But the two of them are together in Chicago now.
“His story is awesome,” Sheets said of his teammate. “Obviously getting drafted together in 2017 and seeing how far he has come with injuries and everything. The way he’s come up this year, he’s done exactly what he has to do.”
Burger made the big league club for opening day because Yoán Moncada went on the IL with a strained oblique a few days before the season started. Whether Burger stays in Chicago will depend on a few other factors, even as the Sox are in need with Jiménez likely down for most of the rest of the first half of the season, and maybe more.
There is also the question of how soon Moncada is able to return from his injury. That date is still uncertain, but he is progressing.
“He’s getting better, but there’s still some discomfort when he makes certain moves,” La Russa said on April 16. “He’s going to have to be able to go full-bore with the swings, workouts and running before you can realistically say ‘Hey, how about X days from now.’ As long as he’s got discomfort, not even thinking about it.”
A week later, Moncada was getting reps at third base. Before Friday’s game against the Twins, he was doing infield work.
Another factor in Burger’s case will be the reduced roster sizes that come about a week from now after the last day of expanded rosters on May 1. Major League Baseball agreed to allow teams to carry an extra two players for the first month because of the shortened spring training schedule in March. But later this week, the Sox will lose those two spots, and Burger might be a part of an inevitable and perhaps unavoidable roster crunch.
AJ Pollock returned from the IL on Friday and Lucas Giolito on Sunday, but Luis Robert suffered a minor groin strain last week that might put him on the IL. Robert being shelved, even for a short time, might help create space for Burger to stick around longer.
With all of the other injury woes on his team, Burger’s opportunity with the Sox has felt like a culmination of the work he put in to get healthy enough to play again.
“Every day I’m blessed to be playing this sport,” Burger said. “And I take it every single day. Sitting on my couch rehabbing for two years and super thankful and blessed I get the opportunity that I get every day.”
Being a first-round draft pick, especially in the early days of the Sox rebuild, comes with a lot of expectations. Fans monitor a blue-chip player’s progress through the minor leagues more closely and anticipate his arrival at the major league level with more rapt attention. Burger stood out among the crop of top-tier minor leaguers the Sox had in their system in those early days because of his draft position. Being sidelined while his colleagues moved up through the ranks has given Burger a deeper satisfaction in what he has accomplished by being in Chicago now. Regardless of the circumstances that might have led to him making the opening day roster.
“I think it’s made him appreciate every day,” Sheets said. “Baseball he doesn’t take for granted anymore, health he doesn’t take for granted. Instead of putting a lot of pressure on himself, he’s just enjoying being out there. I think that’s the biggest change for him, being able to go out there and enjoy what he’s doing and not put so much pressure on and just be happy being out there and enjoying every second.”
Burger’s ability to withstand that pressure might be put to the test. It’s early, but the Sox are expected to reach the playoffs again this year. An 0-6 stretch and multiple injuries might mean it’s Burger’s time to carry the team through April.
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