The White Sox Can’t Easily Replace Eloy Jiménez by Jay Jaffe March 31, 2021 Tuesday was a busy day in the world of the White Sox. Slugger Eloy Jiménez underwent surgery to repair a ruptured left pectoral tendon, an injury that could sideline him for most of the season and alter the balance of power in the AL Central along the way. In an attempt to help offset the loss of Jiménez and to allow for some potential lineup flexibility in the near term, the team signed free agent infielder Jake Lamb to a major league deal. What’s more, general manager Rick Hahn announced that top prospect Andrew Vaughn has made the Opening Day roster, and could open the season in left field. The 24-year-old Jiménez, who last year bopped 14 homers while batting .296/.332/.559 (140 wRC+), was injured on March 24 when he caught his left arm on the outfield wall while trying to rob the A’s Sean Murphy of a home run: Jiménez is expected to miss five or six months following surgery, a devastating blow considering that he was projected to clout 36 homers and provide 3.0 WAR as the team’s left fielder. Alas, it’s not even his first significant absence due to an injury suffered while playing defense. In his 2019 rookie season, he missed over three weeks due to a high right ankle sprain suffered while crashing into an outfield wall in an attempt to prevent a home run, and then another 10 days after colliding with center fielder Charles Tilson and suffering a right ulnar nerve contusion. Jiménez’s injury has exposed the team’s lack of depth in the outfield corners. Adam Engel, who spent 2018 and part of ’19 as the team’s regular center fielder, is expected to serve as the team’s fourth outfielder, but he’s out past Opening Day due to a right hamstring strain. Engel’s track record suggests he’s not much of a hitter; even with a 122 wRC+ in 93 PA last season, his career wRC+ is just 67. Non-roster invitee Billy Hamilton, who was picked up off the scrap heap after being let go by Cleveland mid-month and is expected to fill Engel’s roster spot, owns a career 67 wRC+ himself, while super-utilityman Leury García isn’t much better, having hit for a career 75 wRC+. Nick Williams, whom Hamilton beat out for the last bench spot, owns a 94 wRC+, but didn’t play in the majors last year and is absolutely brutal defensively (-11.4 UZR/150 for all of his outfield play thus far, and worse than that via DRS). Enter Vaughn, the number three pick of the 2019 draft out of the University of California-Berkeley, and the 14th-ranked prospect on our Top 100 Prospects list. The soon-to-be-23-year-old righty swinger profiles as an All-Star caliber first baseman on the strength of his bat, at least eventually, though he has yet to play competitively above High-A. He came to camp battling for the primary designated hitter job; in the DH Positional Power Ranking, Meg Rowley noted his that his meager offensive projection (.226/.296/.365) stems from the rather severe translation of his college stats and his 2019 minor league stats from a season in which he slugged just .411 at two levels of A-ball, but that he’s a good bet to outdo that given his tools and his approach. The apparent plan is to try Vaughn in left field, a position that he believes he last played in a youth tournament seven years ago according to The Athletic’s James Fegan. Vaughn had done a bit of work in left in batting practice and at the alternate site last season, “but if left field was originally planned to be in his toolkit over the course of the 2021 season, his first in-game innings there would have come before March 26,” wrote Fegan. Between Vaughn’s 30-grade running, and 40-grade fielding and throwing — those are Eric Longenhagen’s grades, but other prospect hounds have him a half or full notch higher on the fielding and throwing — it’s difficult to imagine him being an effective defender in left. With Gold Glove winner Luis Robert in center field, Vaughn’s trying to keep things as simple as possible: “If the ball gets hit to my left, I kind of know [Robert’s] got it. I know I have to cover the line and just catch it. That was the main goal — just to catch it if it’s in the air and throw it to the right base if it’s on the ground. “Just keep it basic and simple and be ready for every pitch. Get the best jump you can and go for the ball.” La Russa may have elicited some snarky responses when he said of Vaughn, “I’m certain that the worst he’ll be is a little above average” based on his experience in the infield, but to be fair, he’s not exactly replacing Alex Gordon. In 168 career games in left field, Jiménez is 7.4 runs below average according to UZR, and 14 below average according to DRS – numbers that strongly suggest he should have been DHing in the first place even though he wants no part of that. The loss of Jiménez is a high-impact one. In our Left Field Positional Power Rankings, published prior to the announcement of the slugger’s prognosis, the White Sox ranked third at 3.1 WAR. With Vaughn projected to get about 20% of the playing time in left field behind Engel and Garcia, and just a minimal contribution from Jiménez, they dropped to 28th at 0.1 WAR. The net loss of three wins is enough to tilt the AL Central race in favor of the Twins according to our Playoff Odds, which at this writing project the White Sox to reach 86 wins, two fewer than Minnesota. As for the 30-year-old Lamb, who inked a major league deal of unspecified value with the White Sox, it’s not clear how much he can actually help given that he’s hit a combined .205/.309/.351 with 15 homers and a 78 wRC+ in 563 PA over the past three seasons. Last year, he batted .193/.283/.352 with three homers in 99 PA for the Diamondbacks — with whom he’d spent the previous six seasons — and A’s, who needed somebody to man the hot corner after Matt Chapman suffered a season-ending hip injury. Prior to that, Lamb was much better, hitting .248/.345/.498 with 59 homers and a 112 wRC+ in 1,229 PA in 2016-17 for Arizona. He compiled 4.9 WAR in those two seasons and helped the team claim an NL Wild Card berth in the latter year. La Russa was the Diamondbacks’ chief baseball officer during Lamb’s heyday, which might help to explain how he turned up here. Lamb’s decline likely owes a lot to a injuries, particularly an early-2018 left shoulder sprain suffered while diving for a foul ball and exacerbated by a slide into home plate and then another dive later that year, which led to season-ending surgery to repair a frayed rotator cuff. In 2019, he lost a big chunk of playing time to a Grade 2 sprain of his left quad. His offense hasn’t been the same even as he’s taken just 18% of his plate appearances against lefties, who have eaten his lunch to the tune of a 57 wRC+ in his career, compared to a 108 wRC+ against righties. Lamb was recently cut by the Braves after signing a one-year, $1 million major league deal last month. Hoping to carve out some playing time in an unsettled situation, he lost out to Austin Riley, who will get the bulk of the reps at the hot corner, and Pablo Sandoval, who was in camp on a minor league deal after finishing the 2020 season with the team. Lamb isn’t likely to see a ton of time at third base given the presence of Yoán Moncada, even if he is coming off a disappointing .225/.320/.385 showing in 2020. He has some experience at first base, and so playing there occasionally could give José Abreu time at DH while Vaughn plays left field, but that’s a rather convoluted arrangement. It appears as if the primary beneficiary for playing time if and when Vaughn is in left field will be lefty-swinging backup catcher Zack Collins, a 26-year-old 2016 first-round pick who has hit just .167/.286/.314 in 120 PA thus far but who has impressed the White Sox in spring training. For all of these moving parts, what would make more sense, and what will probably end up happening at some point, is for the White Sox to scare up a bona fide left fielder and let Vaughn acclimate to major league pitching — which is going to be hard enough given the jump he’s making — without the added pressure of learning a new position. Of course, finding one is easier said than done. Josh Reddick is just about the only unsigned free agent who saw significant playing time last year, but he’s 34 years old and hit for just a 96 wRC+ over the past three seasons; last year, he slipped to -0.6 WAR as his defense eroded. Other unsigned free agents such as Melky Cabrera, Carlos González, and Yasiel Puig, didn’t play at all in the majors last year, while Yoenis Céspedes played only briefly before opting out. Signing any of them and getting them into fighting shape could take a month. Picking up a player recently released by another team, such as Cameron Maybin (cast off by the Cubs) or Derek Dietrich (let go by the Yankees) would be quicker, but those players were cut for a reason. A trade may be more appealing, but the most obvious one, involving a deal for the loser of the Yankees’ fifth outfielder derby — either Mike Tauchman or Jay Bruce — is on hold because both made the team with Luke Voit requiring surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus in his left knee. Barring a last-minute move along these lines, Vaughn will either open the season in left field or at DH with García in left. It’s not an ideal situation for a team from whom so much is expected in 2021, but if things go according to plan, they’ll at least have Jiménez back in time to help their playoff push.