The White Sox Can’t Easily Replace Eloy Jiménez

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.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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3 years ago

I don’t know, they have two left fielders on their 40-man already–Luis Gonzalez and Blake Rutherford. Just throw one of them out there. Problem solved! It won’t be great offensive production, and might even be really bad, but it’s got to be better than letting Vaughn learn a new position while he’s busy adjusting to MLB pitching. If you really believe anyone can play left field, then you could throw Zack Collins out there.

Otherwise, you’re looking to find a veteran or an out-of-options guy who has played baseball at some point in the last couple of years. Like if the Brewers are willing to trade Avisail Garcia to Chicago (ah, homecoming), or Billy McKinney / Derek Fisher. Or if the Marlins have decided they don’t want Corey Dickerson anymore. But ideally they would have a slightly longer-term solution since Eloy and Vaughn are destined to be 1B and DH the moment Abreu hangs them up.

John Wickmember
3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

The Brewers came to mind for me too (I think it would be one of the backups), and if not them I agree there should be a trade partner out there with usable OF depth, and that seems like a better solution than this Vaughn gambit.

3 years ago
Reply to  John Wick

I’m pretty puzzled about the lack of interest in trying Gonzalez out in left field, but if Chicago doesn’t believe in him anymore and does believe in one of the Brewers’ outfielders it seems like there’s an obvious swap to be made. Gonzalez is only a year younger than Billy McKinney and two years younger than Fisher and hasn’t reached the majors yet so the bat is a much bigger question mark. But he is also a better candidate for a 4th outfielder role because he has experience in CF and has minor league options. But then again, who knows what the White Sox think about Billy McKinney or Derek Fisher or Avisail Garcia; they could think all of them are busted.
ZiPs thinks McKinney is roughly a 1-win guy, which doesn’t seem that exciting but is potentially better than Gonzalez this year if you need a guy to handle LF every day but the White Sox might be loathe to trade any player of value for a guy who is part of the Brewers’ collection of “guys who bat left-handed, are limited defensively, and were DFA’d by the Blue Jays.”

There are other FV40 guys in the White Sox’s system that the Brewers probably would be fine with, too, it’s just that Gonzalez not getting a shot here makes me think he’s probably valued lower internally than others.

3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I think they have a few backup plans. Right now, they really want to get Vaughn’s bat in the lineup. They could accomplish that at DH, but I think they kind of want Collins to DH because he is a lefty in a righty heavy lineup and, as I have said before, it doesn’t make any sense for Collins to be on the team if he isn’t going to be playing a lot. So Vaughn in LF is probably more for Collins than Vaughn and they probably feel Vaughn is going to be a little less bad than Collins in LF.

When Engel comes back, he can replace Vaughn in LF late in games and they can expand his role a little. All this means more playing time for Eaton. None of that is ideal because Engel’s bat is going to play best if you can pick his starts and I think Engel may be headed in that direction. Engel/Eaton looked like a pretty good platoon, but I think both those guys are at risk to get exposed if you have to play them too much.

They aren’t terribly worried about defense. Eaton is likely to be at least adequate in RF, Engel and Robert are great, and Jimenez was obviously statistically awful and is clearly a danger to himself and others out there. By the end of 2021, he will have missed roughly half of his three year career due to injuries while playing the field and the only silver lining is that he never ran into anybody better than Charlie Tilson. at the risk of tempting fate, I’ll say that whoever they put out there almost literally can’t be worse and only has to cover half of LF anyway since the other OF will cover the rest.

You bring up good backup plans in Gonzalez and Rutherford. Micker Adolfo and Gavin Sheets are other guys on the 40 man roster. All have the same questions – are these guys real Major League ballplayers? I think if Vaughn or Collins fails badly enough, they go down and one of those other guys comes up and gets a shot in left, with Collins or Vaughn DH’ing. There are enough prospects they would be willing to try that I think Puig, Cespedes, or someone similar on the downslope of a career is unlikely.

So, overall, the defense can be covered by Robert, Engel, Eaton, and other guys in house and the offense, while worse, still profiles as pretty good because of the rest of the lineup. It’s not like 2019 when the line up had 3 or 4 guys in it every day who should not have been in the major leagues. back then, when any of Anderson, Moncada, Jimenez, or Abreu was out it was pretty unwatchable.

Long term, they still need a left fielder. It probably isn’t Vaughn or Jimenez. If none of the above are working out, they are in contention but not running away with things, and LF production is really dragging them down, maybe they trade some real assets for a long term solution in June or July? I think that’s unlikely but I wouldn’t rule it out. I’m not even sure who it would be.

3 years ago
Reply to  MikeS

The problem is that aside from Jared Kelley they don’t have anyone in the minor leagues who isn’t projected to be a contributor right away. In theory, the guys to trade would either be Andrew Vaughn or Eloy Jimenez since they’re the ones causing the logjam and Yeremin Mercedes and Micker Adolfo and Zack Collins have very little trade value. But there is probably a 0% chance of either one happening, and you’re probably not getting Kyle Tucker back anyway. Maybe Mike Yastrzemski but he’s something like 30 already.

My out of the box solution is that they should sign Carlos Correa to a nice big contract, move Tim Anderson to the outfield, and let him and Robert function as dual center fielders and not let Eloy do anything. Not sure if that’s better or worse than Eddie Rosario.