No major league team reasonably expects to get through a full season without getting dinged by injuries. Competent teams account for the inevitability of injuries in their roster construction.
But even the best planning can only go so far when a lineup centerpiece projected as one of the 25-odd best bats in the league gets sidelined for nearly the entire season, as appears to be the case with White Sox outfielder Eloy Jiménez, who will reportedly miss five to six months after undergoing surgery for a torn pectoral muscle.
Losing a slugger like Jiménez, who ZiPS had projected for 34 home runs and 106 RBI prior to his ill-fated attempt to rob a home run on Wednesday, would be a difficult blow even for a team that had planned appropriately, much less a team that hadn’t.
Entering yesterday, FanGraphs’ Depth Charts had White Sox left fielders projected for the third-most WAR in MLB, nearly a half-win ahead of fourth-place Houston. Now, they sit 27th, nestled in between Pittsburgh and Seattle, projected for just .3 WAR over 700 plate appearances. Bleak!
In an AL Central division race likely as not to be decided by just a handful of games, this is not a small deal. The White Sox lack of activity in addressing position player depth this offseason has left their cupboard sparse in adequate options for replacing what was likely All-Star level offensive production.
Between the players already on the roster, the bubble guys still in camp, and a number of free agents and players on the fringes of other teams’ rosters, we can pull together a reasonably comprehensive shortlist of who might feasibly take these at-bats for a team that likely can’t afford to punt on the position until Jiménez is ready to return.
This is where the buzz is at; this is why we’re here. The White Sox are scrambling to get Vaughn in-game reps in left field as Spring Training winds down, and he made a relatively uneventful start there yesterday. That’s good! You always love to hear the left fielder talk about all the balls he explicitly won’t be going after this year:
Vaughn told La Russa everything that breaks to the left field line he goes and gets in LF. Everything that breaks toward left-center, Luis Robert can get. La Russa sounds confident in Vaughn’s chances for success there.
— Scott Merkin (@scottmerkin) March 26, 2021
So, we’re good, right? We’ve all had to learn a new position a week before opening day having not played a game in high minors. Obviously.
Tangentially, acquiring the best reliever in the game is never a bad thing, in a vacuum. But when a team has to take the above steps to compensate for the loss of a notoriously fragile star, however, spending all the (supposedly) available money on a relief pitcher comes off as curious.
It’s been noted than in spite of slow foot speed, Vaughn’s swing is quite athletic, and having made twelve appearances on the mound at Cal, the arm strength is there. The team had him taking reps at third base in camp last summer; from my own recollection, they were pretty rough. Perhaps the best thing that can be said is that even if Vaughn is no Bellinger or Evan White—or even remotely close—he’s probably not Paul Konerko either.
The natural comparison is Philadelphia’s attempt to hide Rhys Hoskins in left field to make room for Carlos Santana at first base. Hoskins proceeded to check in at just 1.0 rWAR despite an outstanding 128 wRC+ that ranked fourth among qualified left fielders. How does that happen? This is how that happens:
On the whole, the experiment went so well that they traded Santana less than twelve months after signing him and moved Hoskins back to first. Unrelatedly, Matt Klentak is no longer the GM of the Phillies.
Of course, the situation in Chicago isn’t quite so cut and dry. Hoskins was forced to the outfield to make way for Santana; Vaughn’s attempt at the outfield is largely prompted by the fact that starting Zack Collins at DH may be the only feasible way to avoid a catastrophic drop-off in overall offensive output.
Collins’ two miserable big-league cameos have put him out of favor for many, but he’s been a solidly above-average hitter at every level of the minor leagues, and is just a season removed from a smoking-hot .282/.403/.548 line in 2019 that was good for a 140 wRC+ even in the high-octane Triple-A run environment.
His case has been bolstered by a .956 OPS through 42 spring plate appearances, though that’s come against roughly Double-A quality competition, according to Baseball-Reference. If one sticks their head in the sand and pretends that an unwillingness to spend isn’t the prevailing factor, a belief in Collins’ bat is the most plausible justification for earnestly attempting to make Vaughn in the outfield an acceptable outcome.
The defensive bar set by Jiménez is in the basement, and the already-elite Luis Robert covers as much ground as any outfielder in baseball. He’s already used to taking left field responsibilities as it is:
Eloy’s distance needed: 39 feet
Robert’s distance needed: 103 feet pic.twitter.com/qxCCAcUQGd
— David Adler (@_dadler) August 18, 2020
So as ugly as Vaughn’s fielding in the grass might be, it’s very possible that the (theoretical) offensive chasm between Collins and Leury García, Billy Hamilton, or Nick Williams is a more disastrous bridge to gap than whatever’s being lost in exchanging Jiménez for Vaughn in the field.
Regardless, it’s likely near the bottom of the list of conversations the Chicago front office wanted to be having less than a week removed from opening day. Whether it stems from parsimoniousness, poor planning, or some combination thereof, the fact that these tradeoffs are currently the most plausible outcomes is quite the indictment of an organization that appears to have a gap to cover between their roster construction and their self-stylization as World Series contenders.
Wondering why I just spent nearly a thousand words explaining why Andrew Vaughn playing left field isn’t the worst possible outcome? Here are some of the other potential replacements currently in camp or on the roster:
Quite the selection of replacements for a bat that was supposed to challenge for a home run title. Were he not out for several weeks with a hamstring strain, Adam Engel would have been the most likely candidate to start in left field on April 1st. An acrobatic fielder and elite runner, Engel’s inability to hit right-handed pitching (career 59 wRC+) has relegated him to a weak-side platoon and defensive replacement role, though it’s a role at which he excelled in 2020, posting a surprising 122 wRC+ in scattered playing time.
He’s shown offensive flashes before, winning Arizona Fall League MVP way back in 2015, and absent further moves, he’ll likely continue to soak up a good chunk of those left field innings. Most are in agreement that a repeat of last year’s batting line is wishful thinking, but if he can even be in the vicinity of average with the stick, it will go a long way toward ensuring Jiménez’s absence doesn’t completely incapacitate their lineup.
Also in line to pick up more playing time is Swiss army knife Leury García, who enters 2021 as the longest-tenured member of the roster having been acquired for Alex Ríos in August 2013. García’s baserunning and ability to bring an acceptable glove to just about every position on the field make him a useful member of any roster despite a dearth of power (career .103 ISO).
If he’s in the lineup every day, though, you’ve probably got some problems with your team. Barring a substantial transaction, the most likely immediate outcome may simply be García splitting time with Vaughn in the outfield until Engel’s return. Needless to say, this is a somewhat grim proposition for a team whose lineup already has an optimized version of García’s skillset in Nick Madrigal.
But wait! There’s more! Brought into camp on minor league deals, Hamilton and Williams are former top prospects who have seen extensive playing time this spring, with Hamilton particularly getting an extended audition after his release from Cleveland several weeks ago. In the wake of Engel’s injury, Hamilton’s speed and defensive prowess have him in pole position for a roster spot.
However, given his status as quite literally one of the worst-hitting non-pitchers of the 21st century, it’s equally likely that his role still remains in the situational-speed-and-defense sphere. One would hope, at least—it would be difficult to conceive of a more precipitous decline in offensive fearsomeness than giving Eloy Jiménez’s at-bats to Billy Hamilton.
Originally one of the centerpieces of the trade sending Cole Hamels from Philadelphia to Texas, Nick Williams‘ bat showed some promised with a 106 wRC+ in 791 PAs between 2017 and 18 before flaming out spectacularly in 2019, which combined with brutal right field defense to earn him a free ticket to the waiver wire and free agency.
Williams has a respectable 10 hits (five for extra bases) in 39 spring plate appearances, and there is a universe in which more experience and a slight shift down the defensive spectrum makes him a palatable placeholder until Jiménez’s return. Unfortunately, that universe probably isn’t this one. Then again, we’re in the universe that sent a dove straight into the path of a Randy Johnson fastball, so who knows!
Ranked 10th and 16th respectively on Pitcher List’s most recent White Sox prospects list, Yermín Mercedes and Luis González are the minor league options most likely to get a shot at eating some of those plate appearances.
Some might note that Mercedes is a catcher. They would be correct. But he mashes, he’s fun, and if they’re going to throw Vaughn out there for the first time his life, I see no issue with giving some DH starts to a guy who spent 2019 hitting .317/.388/.581 with nearly as many walks as strikeouts. Especially if he does things like this:
Selected in the third round of the 2017 draft out of New Mexico, González saw a couple of MLB games as a defensive replacement last summer. The 25-year old has enough speed, pop, and contact ability to potentially be an acceptable fourth outfielder, but he probably doesn’t have enough of any of them to be much more than that, and his skillset and current developmental arc probably won’t be useful for solving the Eloy problem.
That being said, González will likely be one of the early internal names promoted in the event of further injuries and inconveniences, especially if fellow outfield prospects Micker Adolfo or Blake Rutherford start pressing for Triple-A playing time sooner rather than later. González did post a wRC+ above 140 in more than 500 PAs between A and Advanced-A in 2018, but expecting a rebound to similar production in the upper minors is probably fool’s gold.
If, for some inconceivable reason, none of the above options are particularly appealing, there are still some other places a GM might look for replacement at-bats.
Some of these names, as well as the ones in the subsequent section, have already been brought up by reporters and analysts in speculation, and some I’m pulling out of thin air because they make sense in my head. Again, this is the universe where Randy Johnson hit a bird, and two players traded for each other cross paths in an airport bathroom. It’s fun to cover all the bases! Let’s start with the group of actual free agents that may still vaguely resemble a starting-caliber MLB outfielder.
I said what I said:
The answer is Yoenis Céspedes, no I will not be taking further questions.
— Zach (@pinetarkeyboard) March 25, 2021
Jokes aside, Céspedes would perhaps be the ideal replacement-signing for anyone who closes their eyes and pretends he hasn’t played in just nine games over the last three calendar years. It’s helpful that his most recent missed time was due to an opt-out and not injury, making it just a touch more reasonable to believe the 35-year old might have something left in the tank.
There’s something magical about Céspedes that always makes him a compelling option, as RJ McDaniel beautifully captured in the wake of his lone home run last summer. It’s probably also worth mentioning that the White Sox gave $2 million to his younger brother Yoelqui just barely two months ago. We’ll see if there are any dots to be connected there.
Reddick hasn’t been an above-average offensive contributor since he swung with the benefit of some added noise in 2017, if you catch my drift. Wink wink. The Astros cheated. Anyway, in spite of his forgetful production since then, he’s probably been more consistently in the vicinity of average than you remember:
(Source: Baseball Savant)
That would be fine if his defense was still elite, as it was early in his career, but advanced metrics have been confused by his glovework recently, posting numbers both elite and bottom-of-the-barrel across the UZR, DRS, and OAA spectrum.
All that being the case, anticipating a somewhat easier time in left field than right, a team looking to replace a star could do a whole lot better than Reddick, but they could probably do a lot worse, too. Especially when they have, uh, budget constraints, imaginary or not.
He’s still a free agent and he’s still not retiring, as of last fall, at least. Kemp has not let fleeting and lacking interest from MLB teams deter him in the past, taking less than three weeks to sign anew after being released mid-summer in 2019 and 2020.
The main reason for that is because he hasn’t been a positive offensive contributor since a resurgent 2018 campaign, and at this point, it’s not a sure thing he’d be much better than Vaughn in left field. Coming off a .236/.329/.419 mark in the thin-aired confines of Coors Field, interest from the White Sox would both be extremely on brand (for Chicago) and likely Kemp’s last chance at the majors.
Puig has been connected to the White Sox on a more or less yearly basis dating to the Obama administration, and his inconsistent but sometimes-electrifying bat and big personality have long made him a fit for the team’s perpetual outfield hole, particularly given the team’s history as a haven for Cuban ballplayers.
For the moment, however, an on-the-field fit takes a distant backseat to the disturbing sexual assault allegations brought against him in California last fall. Recent reports suggest that the resulting civil suit is the primary reason behind Puig’s extended free agency; per these reports, the victim’s (reasonable) lack of interest in facilitating a surface-level MLB investigation has led teams and management to essentially stand by. No matter how dire the on-field need, discussion of signing Puig ought to be a non-starter until this issue reaches a resolution.
Looking at the remains of spring training rosters across the league, there’s a fair share of MLB-caliber depth outfielders with minor league contracts and/or rapidly approaching opt-out dates. Most of them are on the outside looking in at roster spots, and as Billy Hamilton‘s recent movement demonstrates, they aren’t being involved in any high-stakes transactions at this point in time. Most of them are pretty blah, but they’d be the path of least resistance, as far as recruiting outside help goes.
By most accounts out of New York, Tauchman and Bruce are duking it out for the same corner-outfield roster spot on the Yankees bench. Tauchman is out of options and would almost certainly be claimed on waivers, so if the Yankees decide to roster Bruce instead, the Chicagoland native will find himself traded to whoever comes up with the most appealing offer.
Though he produced at replacement level in 2020, Tauchman’s power, speed, and highly productive 2019 fill-in job (3.8 rWAR in just 296 plate appearances) make him a tantalizing low-risk, high-reward flyer, perhaps enough so that the Yankees will keep him in spite of his struggles and their glut of outfield options.
If that winds up being the case, it’s a virtual certainty that Bruce will opt out for another opportunity elsewhere—perhaps on the South Side. Bruce is what he is at this stage of his career: a three true outcome slugger who won’t give you much in the way of batting average, but can play a serviceable corner outfield (OAA is not a fan, but he’s graded out as positive by UZR and DRS in the past two seasons), draw a walk, and put a ball in the seats now and then.
Update: With minor knee surgery set to keep Luke Voit on the IL to begin the season, it appears both Tauchman and Bruce are set start the season in the Bronx, delaying a decision (and subsequent movement) on the pair likely until late-April at least.
Cameron Maybin (CHC)
Maybin is currently in camp on a minor-league deal with the crosstown Cubs, but with Jake Marisnick on the roster with a $1.5 million guarantee and Kris Bryant and David Bote both capable of filling in on the outfield grass, Maybin appears to be an odd man out for the moment.
Statcast tells us that his speed, while no longer elite, is still solidly intact at age 34, and while his glovework has been inconsistent in the past, it feels probably he’d be able to play a competent left field next to Luis Robert. Maybin flopped badly in 2020—that’s why he’s currently the Cubs’ sixth outfielder—but coming off a career-best 127 wRC+ in part-time 2019 duty, there may still be something there worth checking out.
Both of these left-handed corner-outfield swingers are in camp for a new team on minor league deals, and may be a more palatable bet for respectability than the unproven prospects and washed-up prospects currently in Chicago’s orbit.
Goodwin posted a more-than-acceptable 109 wRC+ in 567 plate appearances as the Angels’ primary left fielder in 2019 and early 2020, but struggled badly after a midseason trade to Cincinnati, and now somewhat surprisingly finds himself competing for the Pirates’ fourth outfielder job.
Speaking of Cincinnati, that’s where Naquin is at after a five-year run farther up I-71 as Cleveland’s resident righty-masher. Cincinnati had too many outfielders even before recruiting Naquin and former White Sox legend Nicky Delmonico, so while he’s thoroughly uninteresting and even more thoroughly not Eloy Jiménez, he plays a decent outfield, knows the AL Central, and swung a productive stick as recently as 2019, and is, therefore, the kind of player the White Sox will need to comb through in the absence of a bigger splash.
There’s never a shortage of plausible candidates when dreaming up trades. Since we were just talking about Cincinnati, it’s worth noting that Aristides Aquino is officially out of options, and the Reds still have too many outfielders. David Peralta has an affordable contract and a team that has no use for a slightly-above-average 34-year old corner outfielder.
Tampa Bay would love to avail themselves of Kevin Kiermaier‘s contract, and I would love to see Kiermaier and Robert cover an entire outfield by themselves. With an $11 million salary this year and forthcoming free agency, it might not take much to convince the Pirates to part with the enigmatic Gregory Polanco, whose prospect shine has long lost its luster.
Charlie Blackmon has $33 million in player options over the next two seasons, but the White Sox need an outfielder for next year, too. There’s certainly no shortage of pipe-dream fits if we want to get imaginative.
There’s also a reason those ideas are tacked on to the end as pure speculation, though. Spending more than the bare minimum typically isn’t Jerry Reinsdorf’s modus operandi, and if history is any indication, they’ll likely pluck one of the previous names off of the scrap heap in an attempt to tread water until Jiménez is healthy enough to safely return.
Chicago’s damaged World Series odds would behove a bold (and potentially expensive) move, but if that were something team management were prepared to do, they might have come up with a better contingency plan than the one I just laid out for you.
All in all, if there’s a lesson to be learned, it may be to remember that the outfield doesn’t care if profits were reduced thanks to a global pandemic, and that “depth” is therefore an unaffordable luxury. Spend the money, plan ahead.
Photos by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire, Max Bender/Unsplash | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter)