The White Sox’ biggest need during the offseason?
The team’s biggest problem area in the lineup through the season’s first two months?
If you would have asked me in the early days of June what Rick Hahn’s front office should target at the trade deadline, I would have said:
The free-agent signing of Josh Harrison did not go as planned for the season’s first two months. And though he was given a three-year contract to play all over the field, Leury García has struggled to produce, as a second baseman or otherwise.
Tim Anderson’s groin injury presented an opportunity for a different name, with Danny Mendick thriving as the team’s fill-in shortstop. The obvious choice for fans was to simply slide Mendick over to second when Anderson made his return from the injured list. But roster realities and the chemistry of the White Sox’ clubhouse culture made for a more nuanced decision than simply plugging in a guy on a hot streak.
But undeniably, if somewhat under the radar, the script has flipped a bit when it comes to second base. Harrison has quietly bounced back in a big way this month, highlighted by his walk-off hit to beat the Blue Jays in extra innings Tuesday night. Throw in Mendick’s ability to man numerous positions on the infield with his impressive bat, and there are suddenly more than zero options for Tony La Russa to turn to at second.
Heck, there might be multiple options.
“There’s still room for improvement,” Hahn said of his team’s second base situation Monday. “I think Josh has been swinging the bat a little better the last week or 10 days. With TA back, that gives us the opportunity to slide Danny over there and get him some regular activity there. Leury, his best role is to move him around in that utility type (position). That’s why we brought him back. He’ll probably still get a little activity there, too.
“We talked about (Yolbert) Sánchez and Lenyn Sosa as possibilities. We aren’t quite there yet, but it’s good to have some alternatives in the minor league system should we decide to make the move.”
Things have been so barren, offensively, at second base for the majority of the campaign that fans have been clamoring for Sánchez and Sosa to get opportunities since before Hahn brought their names up in recent weeks. For what it’s worth, the duo is thriving at Triple-A Charlotte, with Sánchez owning a .304 batting average and .391 on-base percentage in 56 minor league games and Sosa boasting a .329 average and .379 on-base percentage in 61 games.
But as Hahn mentioned, the straits aren’t that dire for the White Sox, not with what was a sputtering offense surging of late. And Harrison and Mendick have been part of that surge.
Harrison ended May batting .172, but he’s got 13 hits in 12 games this month, including a three-hit game last week in Detroit, a nice game in numerous facets Monday night against the Blue Jays – which included his first homer in a White Sox uniform – and the big game-winner Tuesday. Coming into Tuesday, he was batting .314 with a .349 on-base percentage in June. And that was before two more hits in the extra-inning victory.
Fans spent more than the first two months maligning the results – with plenty recently calling for him to be DFA’d as recently as this week – but Harrison is all about the process. And with Anderson returned from the IL, Harrison showed that process paying off.
“We show up every day, and you’ve got to take the good with the bad,” Harrison told CHGO on Tuesday. “If it was easy, everybody would be playing this game. And there’s a reason why there’s only a handful of us who get to play this game.
“Just because I had a good game last night doesn’t mean I’m going to have a good one tonight. But that doesn’t change my preparation. I’m going to prepare like I’m going to go out here and help the team any way I can.
“You don’t make it as far as I have by worrying about what you’ve done in the past. I’ve been through every emotion possible in this game. And the start to the season was not my first time dealing with adversity. I’ve dealt with adversity my whole life, my whole career. So for me to sit here and feel sorry for myself? The only way you get out of it is by playing. That’s what I’ve always done. And I know what I’m capable of.”
Indeed, Harrison has a track record of success, even if he didn’t strike as a slam-dunk solution to the White Sox’ second-base woes when he was added during the spring. He’s been to a couple All-Star Games and has turned in four seasons as an above-average major league hitter. That’s not to mention his defensive ability – which was very much on display in Monday’s win – and his positive clubhouse presence.
The latter was trumpeted since Day 1 with his new club earlier this year, and he continues to earn rave reviews for everything he does when the cameras aren’t on.
“He’s awesome, great dude, great energy,” Mendick told CHGO. “He’s very even, good or bad. He’s played in the big leagues for 10 years, so he understands the highs and the lows of it. If you get lost in the lows, that’s not good. And that’s what’s been great about him. You would never know (he’s struggled at the plate). He goes out there and keeps playing and grinding.”
“He’s the best of the best,” Anderson said. “You’re at the highest level. Ain’t no level higher than this. He’s still great. It’s just a matter of time that things start turning his way. And he just keeps working.”
We’ve heard the “same guy every day” line from so many players about so many players that it’s become pretty cliche. But it’s also an obviously effective approach, a compliment applied to the likes of Anderson and José Abreu.
Harrison’s obviously part of the same club when it comes to working hard every day and earning the respect of teammates. If that process has been consistent, there seems no reason why he can’t find some consistency in his results, too, right?
Recently, those results have come. And the mindset that’s allowed Harrison to played more than a decade of big league ball and emerge from early season doldrums this year also plays a role in letting any fan criticisms roll right off his back.
“I’ll be honest, I don’t care what anybody says,” he said after Tuesday’s win. “I don’t play for the motivation of people that don’t like me or that do like me. No disrespect. Everything I do on the field is how I’m wired: I play for me, I play for my teammates, I play for my family.
“If somebody is not for me, it doesn’t bother me. The greatest players in the world have people who don’t like them. I’m not going to waste any energy on anything negative. I focus on the positive, and that’s what I’ve got to bring. At the end of the day, those people are entitled to their own opinion. At the end of the day, godspeed.”
Then there’s Mendick, who was a bit of an afterthought in the preseason, a guy who could help this team in a pinch given his versatility but not much of a choice when it came to an everyday option. After all, he hit just .220 last season with an on-base percentage just barely above .300. But filling in for Anderson, Mendick showed he has the capability to do a lot more with the bat, and he went into Tuesday owning an OPS-plus of 116, making his statistical production 16 better than that of the average big leaguer. That was before two more hits Tuesday night.
There were moments good and bad during Anderson’s absence – Mendick ran into a costly out at second base in Toronto but made a game-saving defensive play at Tampa Bay – but overall, he was mighty impressive. And he went from organizational depth to the fan-favorite choice to be the team’s starting second sacker.
“Just a prime example of being ready for your opportunity,” Harrison said. “I was in a similar situation early in my career, just waiting for an opportunity. … You never wish anybody to be hurt, but I remember getting my first call-up due to somebody breaking their ankle. And Danny stepped right in with Tim and his groin (injury). A lot of the time, all it is is about getting an opportunity to show what you can do on a daily basis. The past couple weeks, he got a chance to do that, and he played really well.
“That’s always something that people are going to talk about, offense, hitting, this or that. But hitting is going to come and go. … The one thing that he really did well was man shortstop. And when you have your starting shortstop go down and have a guy that can step in and make the plays, that goes a big way, not only for your team, for your pitchers, everybody.”
While your opinion on Mendick is likely to hinge on his stat line, apparently impressing his bosses is nothing new.
“He’s been outstanding,” Hahn said. “It’s funny, back when he was in the minors, I’d go down and talk to the Birmingham staff, or later the Charlotte staff, at the end of the season, sort of talk through things. And at each stop I remember the manager saying, ‘By the way, you haven’t asked about the MVP.’ ‘Who’s the MVP?’ ‘Oh, that’s Danny Mendick.’
“We had some OK guys on those teams, Luis (Robert) and Eloy (Jiménez) and others running around there. And he’s a manager’s dream because of how versatile he is and how he plays the game the right way. It’s good he’s had the chance to show that.”
As it turns out, Mendick might not end up as much an immediate factor at second base as might have been imagined when Anderson returned. That activation was accompanied by Yoán Moncada hitting the IL. And while Jake Burger has hit well, his defense has left plenty to be desired at third base, perhaps opening the door for Mendick to see more time there, where he started Tuesday night – and made another stellar defensive play.
It’s possible second base might still be an area of focus for Hahn come the trade deadline in early August. As Harrison illustrated, things have a way of changing in a hurry during a baseball season, and the current positive stretches for both guys could be ancient history later this season. Looking around the diamond, so many guys are entrenched at their positions that second base provides one of the only areas for Hahn to upgrade.
But Harrison, now a walk-off hero on the South Side, could very well put these concerns behind the White Sox, too. Maybe this is the arrival, finally, of the guy Hahn believed Harrison could be when he made him the answer to the second-base question in the spring.
“It’s not how you start,” Harrison said after finishing off the Blue Jays, “it’s how you finish.”
Way to take that to the literal extreme, Josh.
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