Some of the worst fears of White Sox fans have come true with the recent injury to Eloy Jiménez.
After the 24-year-old interim outfielder foolishly decided to impersonate prime Vince Carter, he ruptured of his pectoral muscle and will miss the bulk, or possibly all, of the 2021 season. Most projection models had the stellar run producer pegged for 30-plus homers and an OPS of better than .900. Jiménez has hit 45 home runs in 177 big league games, so the ramifications of his absence will be significant.
Despite a budget more in line with 2011 rather than 2021, the front office has built one of the five or six best teams in the sport in spite of some shortcomings with spending decisions and overall depth. Ken Williams and Rick Hahn have assembled a team with an immense ceiling that will be stewarded by a Hall of Fame manager and a skilled coaching staff. In the slightly-altered words of famed football coach Herman Boone, “You can’t replace an Eloy Jiménez,” but the organization will attempt to win games in a different manner.
The White Sox could choose to prioritize defense in the outfield and win games on the strength of a seemingly-underrated pitching staff. Andrew Vaughn is increasingly likely to defy the odds and land on the big league roster sans a contract extension, and he will likely receive some run in left field to start the season. This move would allow Zack Collins to receive well-deserved run against righties in the majors after slowly accumulating just 120 big league appearances to date. Adam Eaton has played well in the spring, Leury García is a valuable utility asset, and Adam Engel’s injury doesn’t appear to be very serious.
Improving the defense could further enhance a pitching staff that ran thin during the brief 2020 campaign. With a 26-man roster to start the season, the club will likely bring 13 pitchers to Los Angeles as 2021 camp breaks. Veteran righty Lance Lynn will join Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Dylan Cease and a healthy and rejuvenated Carlos Rodón in the White Sox rotation.
And it gets better, because the bullpen looks to be one of the best in the sport.
Aaron Bummer is healthy and will return as one of the best setup men in the league. The right-handed compliment to Bummer is veteran Evan Marshall, who’s had a career resurgence in Chicago. Youngsters Codi Heuer and Matt Foster will be joined by future starters Michael Kopech and Garrett Crochet in this embarrassment of riches.
Add to that mix 32-year-old Australian righty Liam Hendriks, who has been one of the best relievers in baseball over the past two seasons. The White Sox guaranteed him $54 million this offseason, and while he’s listed as the closer for the foreseeable future, he can be utilized as a multi-faceted weapon that serves a variety of roles, like a Josh Hader-style “stopper” used in high leverage earlier in games. The bridge to Hendriks has been assembled, and one thing’s for sure, starting pitchers won’t have to pitch deep into games on the South Side.
With such a strong pen, any weakness is found in just the final spot. Lefty Jace Fry will start the year on the injured list after undergoing back surgery, and rubber-armed Jimmy Cordero is out for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Reynaldo López was thought to be in the mix as a swing starter/long relief role, but the White Sox want the mercurial righty to remain a long-term starter, thus he was optioned to the alternate site to continue to get innings.
José Ruiz and Nik Turley are both still in major league camp, and both are out of minor league options.
Ruiz posted a 2.25 ERA during a small sample with the Sox in 2020, and the former catcher still possesses above-average, raw stuff.
The 31-year-old Turley has struggled in the big leagues, but his stuff has ticked up in recent seasons; the southpaw posted a 3.88 FIP for the Pittsburgh Pirates last season. The White Sox claimed the southpaw on waivers last week, and his history with Ethan Katz could give the former Harvard Westlake hurler the edge to start the year.
Zack Burdi, Tyler Johnson, Bernardo Flores Jr. and Jimmy Lambert are all homegrown options who will begin 2021 in Schaumburg, at the alternate site.
The pitching decisions aren’t as tenuous as the tough calls that need to be made on the positional side however.
Carrying 13 pitchers leaves room for the same amount of participants on the position player side: José Abreu, Nick Madrigal, Tim Anderson, Yoán Moncada, Yasmani Grandal, García, Adam Eaton and Luis Robert are roster locks at this stage. Engel would be as well, if he were healthy enough to break camp with the club.
Thus there are five spots available on the Opening Day roster. And if Engel begins the season the injured list, there is opportunity for a player who wouldn’t have broken with the team otherwise.
Vaughn is getting an extended look in left field, and he could play a role at first base or designated hitter as well. Vaughn shouldn’t be an assumed lock without a contract extension in hand due to the recent dealings by the club despite what Bob Nightengale of the USA Today has reported.
The #WhiteSox insist there will be no service-time manipulation games with prized prospect Andrew Vaughn, who has made quite the impression in spring training camp. https://t.co/STZhm1b6yr via @USATODAY— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) March 25, 2021
Collins has put on a show this spring, and he’s in line to make the team after impressing with mechanical tweaks and approach changes at the dish. Collins has also improved defensively, but his ability to drive the ball to all fields while displaying exceptional plate discipline has stood out. In addition to needing a 40-man roster spot for Vaughn, Billy Hamilton and Jonathan Lucroy are on minor league deals as well and would force other players to be designated if they make the White Sox.
Lucroy seems like the front-runner to land the backup catcher gig in spite of a shrinking role to round out spring training in Arizona. Hamilton may not be needed once Engel returns, but the organization can likely create a spot for the veteran speedster. Danny Mendick and Yermín Mercedes presently occupy spots on the 40-man roster, and former Phillies’ prospect Nick Williams is in the mix as well.
It seems unlikely that the franchise will go outside the organization to add another hitter prior to opening day. Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, Ryan Braun and Josh Reddick are all available but don’t appear to be viable additions at this point for myriad reasons.
Luis González, Blake Rutherford, Micker Adolfo, Gavin Sheets and the newly signed Yoelqui Céspedes are all expected to start the season in the minor leagues.
Final Roster Projection (26-man)
Infielders: José Abreu, Tim Anderson, Nick Madrigal, Danny Mendick, Yoán Moncada, Andrew Vaughn
Outfielders: Adam Eaton, Leury García, Billy Hamilton, Luis Robert
Catchers: Zack Collins, Yasmani Grandal, Jonathan Lucroy
Starting Pitchers: Dylan Cease, Lucas Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Lance Lynn, Carlos Rodón
Relief Pitchers: Aaron Bummer, Garrett Crochet, Matt Foster, Liam Hendriks, Codi Heuer, Michael Kopech, Evan Marshall, Nik Turley
Injured List: Adam Engel, Jace Fry
The White Sox have some roster moves coming and there will be some intrigue with a presently-full 40-man roster. Vaughn, Hamilton and Lucroy need to be added to the 40-man before becoming official members of the 2021 squad. The loser of the Ruiz/Turley battle will be out of the organization, freeing up a spot. Seby Zavala’s spot seems shaky as well. Fry and Jiménez could open up 40-man spots with a long-term injured list designation as well (this is certain to be the case with Eloy).
So really, it could come down to one hard DFA decision (with Zavala under the microscope). But if Fry is placed on the 60-day IL, DFA decisions on two players can be punted, resulting in no unanticipated player loss to the team.
Jiménez is a significant loss. The White Sox have enough to weather the storm, but the direction they decide to take will be telling. As likely deadline buyers, players such as Mitch Haniger, Gregory Polanco and Joey Gallo could become available, among others. The White Sox didn’t hire a 76-year-old manager to sit on their hands, however. The organization’s mentality of “next man up” will be the public notation — but reinforcements could be on the docket at some point.
Until the need arises and the market crystallizes, though, Vaughn will dust off his outfield mitt and Collins will need a supply of bats. The White Sox will improve on the margins with defense and pitching, but their first rounders from 2016 and 2019 are likely to benefit the most from the absence of the club’s star slugger at least initially. The organization is hoping that they’ve built enough internal depth to withstand the loss and championship expectations are still on the horizon.
Soon it will be time to play ball, and find out if the White Sox are right.