The White Sox outfield is a region of mystery.
If ancient cartographers were charting the green expanse at Guaranteed Rate Field, they might put a scary sea monster in there, just to put off the question of what the future could possibly hold.
The White Sox have plenty of options when it comes to discussing how their outfield will look in 2019 and beyond. But the question remains of whether any of them are reliable ones.
Last season, only one player logged more than 100 games in the outfield. That was Adam Engel, who despite a continued flashing of elite defensive prowess, managed just a .235/.279/.336 slash line. It was an upgrade from his 2017 season, sure, but was it enough of one to inspire much confidence moving toward the point where the White Sox shift from rebuilding to contending?
After Engel, the outfield was marred by injuries, with Avisail Garcia, Nicky Delmonico and even Leury Garcia limited due to significant stays on the disabled list. Because of various ailments, Avisail Garcia and Delmonico weren't able to prove much of anything after their positive 2017 campaigns, making their long-term value a question. In-season call-ups Charlie Tilson and Ryan Cordell weren't able to make the kind of quick impact Delmonico did a season before, and one wonders if they're part of the 2019 plan.
One of the brightest spots on the team was Daniel Palka, who played outfield in 68 games. His 27 home runs as a rookie made him a lock for the 2019 lineup, but his defensive skills, which he worked on constantly throughout the season, might make him more of a mainstay at designated hitter than a big piece of the outfield puzzle.
Of course, the long-term future of the White Sox outfield figures to be very bright, and the brightest of that future should arrive very quickly in 2019. Eloy Jimenez figures to be up a few weeks into the season after mashing at the Double-A and Triple-A levels in 2018, and he'll be a primary focus if not the primary focus next year on the South Side. Luis Robert, Micker Adolfo, Luis Basabe, Blake Rutherford and Luis Gonzalez aren't likely to join him next season, but that incredible outfield depth gives the White Sox one of those good problems to have down the road, when it comes time to find a spot for all of their talented young outfielders.
But 2019 isn't expected to be that time.
So how does the outfield puzzle get put together next season? Jimenez, once he arrives, figures to get a majority of the playing time in one of the corner outfield spots, probably left field, as that's where he spent much of his time in the minors last season (71 games in left compared to 19 in right). If the White Sox hang on to Avisail Garcia, he'd be the no-doubt starter in right field. But his future is murky, too. With just one year of team control remaining on his contract, the White Sox could opt to trade him either during the offseason or in the middle of next season. They could even choose to not tender him a contract at all, clearing room for some of those younger guys, but that's merely an option. As things stand, Engel would again figure to be the starting center fielder while the waiting game continues for the players in the minor leagues.
However, could offseason additions change things up?
The White Sox are obviously not in win-now mode, and while no one is hoping for a repeat of 2018's 100-loss campaign, it wouldn't be a surprise to see a similar kind of outcome in 2019 as those prospects continue to develop throughout the system. But there are free-agent options out there that could provide value beyond what they would put on a stat sheet in 2019. Veterans could be brought in to help the team win but to more importantly help the young players learn to win. They could fill short-term holes, leave behind some long-term lessons and maybe perform well enough to generate midseason trade interest that could fetch a future piece or two.
Our Chuck Garfien listed veteran outfielders Adam Jones and Curtis Granderson, both free agents, as potential additions who could accomplish those goals, and the names make sense. Jones is coming off a .281/.313/.419 season with the Baltimore Orioles (that slugging percentage was his lowest since 2008) and might not have the same kinds of suitors he would have during his stretch of four consecutive All-Star appearances. Meanwhile, Granderson — a South Side native — has bounced around a lot lately, though he always seems to find himself in the playoffs, making him a potential midseason trade candidate. Both guys would be low-risk additions that could serve as placeholders until the prospects are ready.
There's another route the White Sox could go, too, and that's the route of adding a bit bigger name, someone who not only could keep the outfield grass warm while the young guys develop but who could factor into future contenders. What about Marwin Gonzalez, the utility man extraordinaire of the Houston Astros? He's hitting the free-agent market, too, and he's likely to draw plenty of interest considering he played everywhere besides pitcher and catcher in 2018. Gonzalez only put up a 247/.324/.409 slash line, 16 homers and 68 RBIs in an expanded role for the Astros in the follow-up to their championship season. But a good way to plan for future unknowns is to have a guy you can plug in just about anywhere, and that's what Gonzalez is. In addition to helping solve the outfield puzzle in the immediate, Gonzalez could be a regular option at third base, where Yolmer Sanchez hit under .200 against left-handed pitchers in 2018, and anywhere else on the field he'd be needed.
The White Sox haven't publicly said they want to retool their outfield in such a drastic fashion, and they could be perfectly content to go into another season of waiting with the guys they have, letting Jimenez be that huge addition when he arrives in the majors.
Like with everything, the rebuilding White Sox have plenty of flexibility. It will be interesting to see which way they navigate with their outfield this offseason.