At numerous points throughout the 2022 season, Andrew Vaughn was the White Sox’ best hitter.
But the same end-of-season results that wrapped his rookie season on a sour note in 2021 were present again this year, Vaughn posting his worst numbers of the year over the final month.
As a rookie, a hot summer that saw him put up a season-best .863 OPS in July eventually gave way to a brutal September in which he posted just a .251 OPS. Vaughn described that late-season fade as the result of running out of gas, a player in his first 162-game campaign finding out the hard way just how much of a physical toll that can take. An injury might have played a part, as well.
As a sophomore, though, the results were similar, even if Vaughn possessed the experience and knowledge of someone who had been through the demands of a major league season before. After posting an .811 OPS in August, he turned in a .580 OPS in September and October. Even if it wasn’t nearly as bad as his 2021 final-month numbers, it was still, by far, his worst month of the season.
“You always deal with ups and downs,” Vaughn told CHGO late last month, summing up his season. “Start of the year, feeling great, (then I) got hit in the hand, didn’t play for a while, had to find my stride. I learned a lot about myself and how I’ve got to go about my business every day.
“Obviously (in) September, everybody in here is tired, everybody’s got something going on, soreness and whatnot. But I definitely feel better than last year, and I’m glad I learned a little bit more.
“Being able to be on the field, show up and perform, that’s the most important thing. So being smart about the body, that’s half of it. You’ve got to be mentally into it. But the other half is physical, and you’ve got to be (able to be) on the field every day.”
Plenty have assumed that Vaughn, a first baseman by trade, spending so much time in the outfield for a second straight season played into his inability to stay consistent at the plate through the end of the season. Miguel Cairo dismissed that idea at season’s end, and in a year when practically no White Sox hitter had an easy time finding offensive consistency, it’s not difficult to guess that Vaughn’s month-long slump just came at the wrong time.
But after a season supposedly emergency-subbing for an injured Eloy Jiménez in the outfield, Vaughn was back at it in 2022, with nowhere near as acceptable results, defensively. He seemed ticketed for everyday DH duty, just like the year prior, especially after Rick Hahn’s front office acquired AJ Pollock in a trade. But once more, a significant injury to Jiménez ratcheted up Vaughn’s playing time in the outfield, and Vaughn played 84 games out there this season after 107 of them in 2021.
According to Fangraphs’ Defensive Runs Saved statistic, Vaughn was one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball. His minus-14 number in that category was better than those of only two players, Joc Pederson and Jesse Winker, and significantly worse than the minus-5 number he had a year prior.
None of that, though, has seemed to affect Vaughn’s outlook on playing in the outfield.
“Anything to get in the lineup. I’ve always said that and always will,” he said when asked if he’d be OK playing out there again, if need be, in 2023. “I’ve been out there for two years. I do my best every time I’m out there and just try to get better every day.”
The question, though, is whether Vaughn’s best is good enough for a White Sox team that needs to get better defensively. Or whether his best, good enough or not, will have to do, considering this White Sox team needs to improve a whole lot offensively, too.
Indeed, Vaughn will be a huge factor in 2023 and beyond, so perhaps it’s no surprise that USA Today’s Bob Nightengale listed him as one of two players the White Sox would prefer not to part with in his reporting on their offseason plans. But it’s not Vaughn’s bat, his No. 1 attribute since the day the White Sox drafted him with the No. 3 overall pick, that is the mystery. It’s his position.
José Abreu’s impending free agency has a lot to do with this, of course. Vaughn was seemingly acquired as the heir apparent to the franchise icon at first base. But Abreu remaining one of the game’s most productive hitters even as he’s aged into his mid 30s has thrown a bit of a wrench into that plan. According to Nightengale, the White Sox plan to move on from Abreu and let him find employment elsewhere this winter, though such a decision would see the front office willingly strip away the best hitter from a lineup that struggled to score runs all year.
If that’s the way things play out, Vaughn’s defense will no longer be the huge talking point it was in 2022. Playing his natural position, first base, would figure to prevent future winces any time the ball goes his way.
Then, though, the focus would increase dramatically on his bat. A White Sox lineup without Abreu would need to make up for an awful lot of production, and this is assuming that a group of players that failed dramatically to play up to their own potential can do so next season. Vaughn would figure to be among those who are expected to bear the most burden when it comes to making up for Abreu’s lost numbers.
That’s no easy task, as Abreu has produced at an All-Star level – and in some cases, an MVP level – for basically the entirety of his nearly decade-long career on the South Side. Good luck, Andrew.
Surely, the White Sox are confident in Vaughn’s ability to be a middle-of-the-order type bat, and pointing out his last-month struggles in each of his first two seasons was hardly a way of saying that he’s incapable of reaching the heights the team sees for him. But throwing him into the Abreu-deep end of the major league pool? That’s a big risk.
So too, though, might be making the supposed “safer” play and bringing Abreu back. In that case, the White Sox will still have a logjam on their hands, a glut of first-base/DH types who bring down the defense around the field. The idea, of course, was for all those players’ collective power to hide any defensive shortcomings. But that didn’t happen, and the team-wide power outage in 2022 saw Vaughn lead the team with a paltry 17 home runs.
If Abreu does return, the focus will stay on Vaughn’s outfield defense. Or it will force Jiménez to return to the field after he flourished as the everyday DH in the second half of the season, back to where he’s had trouble in the past, both defensively and when it came to staying healthy. With Cairo describing Jiménez as someone who can maybe play the outfield a couple days a week, perhaps there’d be a platoon on the horizon, with the defense not really improving.
And though Vaughn subbed in for Jiménez as the White Sox’ primary left fielder in 2021, and though he played almost the same number of times in left field as he did in right field in 2022, Pollock’s potential return on a $13 million player option would perhaps make for more playing time in right field for Vaughn. Though he figured to be the chief right fielder with Jiménez in left, Pollock ended up spending way more time in left than right this season.
It’s all up in the air right now, and none of the options seem terribly great.
But as Hahn said during his end-of-season press conference, there’s an acknowledgement from the front office that Vaughn and the White Sox could benefit from getting him out of a spot he never played before becoming a big leaguer.
“Andrew, we talked last year how much was put on his plate given his development path, the pandemic and the position change,” Hahn said. “Certainly finding (Vaughn and fellow first-baseman-turned-outfielder Gavin Sheets) roles more suited to their natural skill set is one way to potentially get this team better and more advanced in (certain) areas.”
Will it mean better offensive numbers for the guy who was expected to put up big offensive numbers? That would obviously remain to be seen.
Nightengale could be right, and Vaughn might not be going anywhere this winter.
This conversation surrounding Vaughn isn’t going anywhere, either.
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