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One clunky dive that resulted in a bruised hip does not alone make the case for the White Sox to rush out and sign Michael Conforto.
But doing that wouldn’t hurt.
A certain segment of White Sox fandom was quick to lump Andrew Vaughn into the same defensive category as Eloy Jiménez following a diving catch in Sunday’s spring training game that ended with Vaughn getting carted off to the medical areas of Camelback Ranch. A day later, he was mostly fine, said the team, save the hip pointer that will keep him out of game action for a week or two.
It wasn’t a replay of the torn pectoral tendon that knocked Jiménez out for months last year and raised plenty of questions about the White Sox’ ability to compete for a spot in the postseason without him. Vaughn, among others, saved the day, making up for the dual absences of Jiménez and Luis Robert and helping to bring a division title to the South Side for the first time in more than a dozen years.
Vaughn was routinely praised, deservedly so, for playing a competent left field in his first year as a major leaguer, despite never playing the position before. His plaudits from the team dealt with his athleticism and his do-anything attitude. His attaboys from the fan base and other observers centered on him being the anti-Jiménez. He made the plays he needed to make, he didn’t do too much, he didn’t try to make plays he couldn’t, he didn’t try to rob home runs, and he didn’t go tumbling into any netting.
And yet nearly a year to the day of Jiménez’s injury, Vaughn is the one being questioned: Can the White Sox afford to have him play right field in a season with championship aspirations?
Of course, those questions are far from outlandish, as this is still a guy who was set for first-base and DH duty not that long ago. But they also tend to leave out what happened just last season.
“You don’t see a lot of guys make that quick of a transition from the infield to the outfield. And then, I’ve never seen anybody do it at the big league level the way that he did,” Vaughn’s fellow outfielder Adam Engel told CHGO earlier in the spring. “Normally guys take a little while to get through that learning curve, and it seemed like he got comfortable really quick and was able to make some really nice plays in the outfield for us. I don’t think anybody expected him to do that well.
“He’s a hard worker and a pretty athletic kid, so to say that we were surprised that he played that well would be off. But to do it as quickly as he did was impressive.”
One diving play in an exhibition game, however ill advised it might have been, does not erase that recent history or those positive characteristics in Vaughn. Wrapping him in bubble wrap, so to speak, by banishing him to the DH spot and the DH spot alone hardly seems necessary.
It’s important to note, too, that those suggestions don’t exist in a vacuum. The desire of so many White Sox fans to see the front office back a Streets and San truck full of money up to Conforto’s house might have more than a little to do with the sudden panic over Vaughn’s durability.
What doesn’t seem to be much of a debate is whether Conforto would make the White Sox better. He would. It’d be tough to make the counter argument, that a good player joining a good team would not boost the team’s chances at winning a championship, at the very least from a production standpoint.
What does seem to be a debate is whether the White Sox can win and win as big as they desire with their current cavalcade of right fielders. I think they can, as it seems only logical that Vaughn and Gavin Sheets would improve their already impressive offensive numbers on the heels of successful rookie seasons. Engel is a defensive standout with a quietly improved bat that can be plugged in as often as necessary, and there’s the unmatched versatility of Leury García.
Is any one of those guys going to get fans as excited as a big free-agent signing? No.
Could they, combined into some sort of right-field Megazord, do a winning job out there? It’s certainly possible.
Certainly one guy thinks so.
I don’t blame the South Side skipper for not scrolling through Twitter and seeing what so many White Sox fans are actually clamoring for. But it’s an obvious vote of confidence in the guys the team is currently planning to trot out there.
Again, bringing Conforto’s production aboard would be a plus. He’s a very good player who could provide the kind of lineup boost that you often see from teams participating in the offseason arms race with other contenders.
But Vaughn’s Sunday afternoon dive doesn’t mean the White Sox are heading into Opening Day with only eight guys on the field. Vaughn’s rapid acclimation to the outfield last season shows he’s certainly capable of learning a new position on the fly. And his developing bat figures to only improve as he gets more experience facing big league pitching. He’s a guy the White Sox are right to want in their lineup as much as possible.
While he’s sure to see plenty of time as the team’s DH, his versatility allows the White Sox to better that lineup from time to time, to have both Vaughn and Sheets in the same batting order, to allow for Yasmani Grandal to get some extra at-bats as the DH, to get their other regulars days off by mixing and matching who plays where.
Might some coaching be necessary? If you’ve seen Vaughn work on fly balls on a daily basis with outfield coach Daryl Boston, you know it’s already going on. Maybe La Russa needs to establish a similar dictate to the one he provided for Jiménez last September, when he (sort of) joked that his left fielder would be instructed to play with his back against the outfield wall to prevent any other injury-inducing shenanigans out there.
“We’re going to play him deeper,” the manager said. “And if some bloopers fall, they fall. But he ain’t going to fall.”
Vaughn’s coaching might not need to be so dramatic, especially with him earning constant praise from La Russa for what he does in the field.
“If you have a guy who is tough enough and willing to work – (to do one drill after another) – you will get an average defensive player,” La Russa said of Vaughn earlier this spring, a similar comment to the ones he made throughout the 2021 season. “In fact, when I saw him in the regular season, he got above-average jumps. We were all amazed at how quickly he read balls off the bat.”
So don’t be shocked when La Russa backs his guys by questioning the fandom of those who don’t. That’s regular ol’ managerial stuff. Just like hoping for your favorite team to sign a big-name free agent is regular ol’ fan stuff.
The White Sox don’t need Conforto because Vaughn is suddenly a liability in right field – he isn’t – and unless the front office makes that much hoped for splash in the few days before the season starts, the team’s right-field situation will remain Vaughn-heavy. That doesn’t seem to be a problem, especially considering it will be complemented with the other names discussed above.
That’s not a bad situation, even if you think it can be better. Sunday doesn’t change that.
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