The 2021 White Sox were one of the preseason favorites, and for good reason. GM Rick Hahn had built a solid roster, and the Sox made the playoffs in 2020 for the first time in 12 years. With the new additions, and the expected growth of the young players, all signs pointed to the Sox being serious contenders. Then just before the end of spring training, Silver Slugger winner Eloy Jimenez suffered a serious shoulder injury. And just like that, the Sox lost a premier hitter, likely for most of the season.
2021 White Sox: The Eloy Effect
So, just how would the loss of Jimenez affect the Sox as they attempt to reach their first World Series since 2005? How can a team replace their second-best run producer so late in the spring? Who would protect 2020 MVP Jose Abreu in the Sox lineup? These were just some of the many questions Sox fans were asking when the news of Jimenez’s injury came out. They had been counting on Jimenez to perhaps reach MVP contender levels in 2021. His loss created a huge void in the middle of the Sox lineup, a void that nobody can totally fill.
To make matters slightly worse, the Sox fourth outfielder, Adam Engel, also suffered an injury late in camp. He had been out with a severe hamstring injury until last weekend, and his absence made the loss of Jimenez even more significant. Engel would have been an excellent defensive left-fielder, and his hitting has improved over the years. So, if the 2021 White Sox were going to contend, they would have to be resourceful as they sought to somehow fill Jimenez’s position.
First Man Up: Andrew Vaughn, Come On Down
As the Sox scrambled to address their left-field dilemma, manager Tony LaRussa chose to try rookie Andrew Vaughn, a first baseman by nature. So far this season, Vaughn has played the majority of games in left-field. A highly valued hitting prospect, he has had his ups and downs, as most rookies do. He is hitting around .233, but has shown the potential many knew he had. Whether he can grow quickly enough this season to be a postseason contributor remains to be seen.
However, LaRussa seems to like what he has seen from Vaughn, and he is likely to continue to play for the foreseeable future. Vaughn also appears to have adapted well to his new position and provides more defense than Jimenez has in his young career. He has been a solid contributor to the 2021 White Sox.
Don’t Forget About Jake Lamb
The other player who has manned left-field for the 2021 White Sox is another converted infielder, Jake Lamb. He was primarily a third baseman when the Sox signed him in March. LaRussa was in the Diamondbacks’ front office when they drafted Lamb and while he did have a couple of solid years in Arizona, his career has not taken off as many had expected. Still, he has had his moments on the South Side, and, being one of Tony’s guys, don’t expect him to be gone anytime soon.
Yermin Mercedes: A Side Effect
Perhaps the most surprising impact of the absence of Eloy Jimenez is the emergence of 28-year-old rookie Yermin Mercedes. Until Jimenez got hurt, Mercedes was likely ticketed for Triple-A Charlotte. The 2021 White Sox were going to use Vaughn as their DH, leaving no room for Mercedes. So, when Jimenez went down, and Vaughn moved to left-field, all of a sudden, the DH spot was open. Mercedes made the most of his opportunity, having an unbelievable April. Since his hot start, he has cooled considerably, and questions linger about his staying power.
Eloy’s Return On The Horizon: The Impact
Earlier this week, it was reported that Eloy Jimenez had made significant progress in his rehabilitation. On Monday, CBS Sports reported that Jimenez had been cleared to resume baseball activities. In essence, according to reports, Jimenez will now enter the next phase of his rehabilitation. This phase will take at least four weeks, and there is no set timetable. After the next phase is complete, he would likely start a rehab assignment in the minors, which, again would have no timetable. So, how does this impact the 2021 White Sox?
Eloy’s Return: Short-Term Effects
In the short term, it will likely be business as usual for the 2021 White Sox. As of this writing, they own the best record in all of MLB. While their starting pitching has been dominant, there is no sign that the Sox are in a hurry to make any major moves. So, as they play the waiting game, unless the offense totally collapses, it seems likely that Vaughn and Lamb will continue to share left-field duties. There is always the possibility of a trade, albeit not likely in the near future.
This also means that it is likely that Mercedes will get most of the at-bats as the DH. Of course, if he continues to struggle, LaRussa may have to consider a change at that spot. Perhaps he would use a combination of Lamb and Yasmani Grandal. While Grandal normally catches, he could use a breather occasionally and allow Zack Collins to play behind the plate. This all depends on whether Mercedes can recover the magic he displayed in April.
Eloy’s Return: Long Term Effects
Assuming that Jimenez is able to return and contribute at some point, the question is what happens to the lineup? While it would be premature to speculate as to if and when he returns to full-time duty, it is instructive to ponder this question. How could he best help the 2021 White Sox? So, just how would his return affect the team on the field? Here are some possibilities.
Jimenez’s defense has been in question since his debut in 2019. He also has suffered several injuries playing left-field. So, one definite option would be to install him as the DH. Many fans would love that idea, and it does make sense for the remainder of the 2021 season. If this happens, Mercedes would likely be relegated to pinch-hitting duties. Even if Mercedes rediscovered his magic at the plate, a healthy Jimenez would be a no-brainer at the DH slot.
The other question then would be what happens in left field? That may well depend on who has the hot bat heading into October. At this point, it would appear to be a competition between Vaughn and Lamb. Of course, the Sox could always make a trade; however, that would seem less likely with the return of Jimenez. Another option might be switch-hitting Leury Garcia, but this seems like a longshot at this point. In any event, the 2021 White would have several candidates for left-field if they decide to put Jimenez at DH.
Then again, what if LaRussa opts to put Jimenez in left-field? While this seems highly unlikely, it is worth brief consideration. The obvious focus would shift to the DH spot. Here again, how is Mercedes hitting? Has he rallied, or is he still in a slump? If Mercedes is not the choice, we are back to Vaughn or Lamb. Maybe Vaughn will find a consistent swing as he adjusts to MLB pitching. Or maybe Lamb will find a way to be a solid contributor to the offense. Or, would the Sox consider a trade at the deadline to beef up a lineup that has struggled at times? The 2021 White Sox are built to win, so don’t rule anything out.
At this time, there are more questions than answers. The 2021 White Sox will need to address them as the season progresses. Perhaps Jimenez’s rehab will take longer than expected. Sox fans hope that is not the case, but time will tell. Maybe it will be a shorter process; after all, he is well ahead of schedule now. Either way, the news of his progress has Sox fans excited, and they are anxiously awaiting his return. One thing is certain: If a healthy Eloy Jimenez returns and finds his batting stroke, the rest of the AL is in for a battle.
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