Brent Morel begins his rehab assignment with Triple-A Charlotte tonight. He'll be eligible to come off the DL on Saturday. Theoretically, a rehab assignment for a position player can last up to 20 days; however, it's unlikely the White Sox would wait that long to make a decision on whether to bring him back to the major league club or option him to the minors.
If the White Sox do decide to bring Morel back, as is likely, obviously there would need to be a corresponding move to free up a spot on the active roster. Assuming no one makes this decision easier by getting injured, the likely candidates would be Brent Lillibridge, Kosuke Fukudome, Orlando Hudson and Eduardo Escobar. So does jettisoning any of these players in favor of Morel make sense?
Let's start with the easy case. While last season's power spike was cute, Lillibridge has returned to form on offense this season: .186/.250/.209 in 49 plate appearances. That line probably isn't going to stay that bad. But it also probably isn't going to get much above a .600 OPS. Lillibridge doesn't have much of a claim of bad luck, considering his BABIP is an above average .320. His problem is, and always has been, strikeouts. He's at 39% this season and that's untenable for any player. Lillibridge's value, though, is mostly on defense. He can play 7 positions, most of them adequate to well. He's effectively Alejandro De Aza's only back-up in centerfield. And, in addition to his versatility, he's the best pinch-runner option off the bench. He's not likely to give way.Fukudome also has a pretty putrid offensive line: .171/.280/.195 in 50 PA. Unlike Lillibridge, he can claim some bad luck with a .206 BABIP. And unlike Lillibridge, he's got a track record of decent success - however, that was mostly in a starting role. One can certainly question whether the 35 year old has much left and/or if he can succeed in a part-time role. But that question probably can't be answered at this still early date. Fukudome is effectively the only left-handed option off the bench and provides a platoon option in both corners. In theory, he also can play centerfield (though I don't recommend it in practice). He's also owed more guaranteed money than anyone in this group so the financial hit would be a bit more severe. He, too, is unlikely to give way.
Now we get into the guys with skill sets more similar to Morel's. Hudson is the new guy brought in to fill-in/replace Morel at third base. We're talking even smaller sample sizes than with anyone else but he has performed well enough so far with the White Sox. Adding in his numbers from the Padres still gives him better offensive results than anyone else. And, like Fukudome, he's got a track record of success. Hudson can play second and, apparently, third. While he's new to third base, he hasn't looked out of place defensively and there's reason to believe he can improve. He's also a switch-hitter. It's difficult at this point to see the White Sox giving up on him so quickly.
That leaves Escobar. As hard as it is to believe, his offense has been worse than Morel's: .140/.213/.209 in 48 PA. He's primarily an infielder with the ability to play third, second and shortstop, though he's also put in some practice time in the outfield this season. He's also a switch-hitter and can provide speed off the bench. But basically all of his skills are redundant to someone else's - except he can play a credible shortstop. I've discussed in the past, though, how this is not really important on the White Sox because Alexei Ramirez doesn't take days off. This season, Ramirez has played in 49 of 50 games at shortstop. Escobar played the remaining 9 innings.
Replacing him with Morel would reduce versatility some. But Morel, along with Beckham and Lillibridge, all have the minimal ability to play shortstop once every two months. Escobar has been second choice as a pinch runner, having done it just twice, and Morel is not much of a step down (if any) in that department. If Hudson is the one of the bench, it's a similar story. Plus, I've long maintained that Escobar could use more seasoning in Charlotte.
The White Sox have shown a commitment to Morel at third base the last couple years. It's unlikely they'd dump him back to Triple-A if they truly believe that his back injury was the main reason for his ineffectiveness. If that's the case, it's probably Escobar who will be spending some time in the Carolina heat this summer.
But with Hudson on the roster, the White Sox now have a competent alternative to Morel. He'll no longer be the de facto starter. He's going to need to win playing time by acting like a legitimate major league baseball player, something he hasn't done much of in a White Sox uniform. When he comes back, he'll probably have about a month to prove he belongs. Tick tock, Brent.