Adam Engel

White Sox send Adam Engel to Triple-A with goal of getting his offense to more closely match his defense

White Sox send Adam Engel to Triple-A with goal of getting his offense to more closely match his defense

Adam Engel's hitting has to improve.

That's not news to White Sox fans. Or to Engel, or to the White Sox, it should be noted. But the White Sox finally took the step of sending Engel to Triple-A Charlotte to work on his offense, optioning him there along with reliever Caleb Frare after Sunday's loss to the visiting Boston Red Sox.

Engel has struggled to find much offensive success at the major league level, the owner of a career .207 batting average in 226 big league games. But this is the first time he'll move down a level since coming up to the majors in June of 2017. All but the first eight games of his career have been played since he was called up on June 20, 2017, and while his numbers were certainly better in 2018 than they were in 2017, it's generally been a struggle.

Engel's defense, of course, is elite. He was a Gold Glove finalist last year and has made a habit of robbing would-be home-run balls off the bats of opponents. He's a tremendous center fielder, no one's doubting that.

But a career .262 on-base percentage just isn't going to fly at the major league level, and though this might be another season of waiting for the young stars of the future to develop, the White Sox opted to move Engel off the active roster Sunday.

"He's got to hit. He's got to go play. Bottom line. He's got to go get some more at-bats," manager Rick Renteria said after Sunday's game. "He hasn't started with us. We've had (Leury Garcia) going out there, and Ryan (Cordell)'s getting his shot in right. We're making this move to get him the at-bats.

"I'll tell you what I told him: I want his dynamic defense to be parallel with some offense. Simple as that. He needs to get on at a .330 clip, he needs to hit maybe .250 so that he can help you both offensively and defensively."

Some frustrated White Sox fans might scream "it's about time" at their screens upon reading the news, and that's not surprising after they watched Engel do what he's done at the plate over the last two years. This is a guy who hit .166 in 2017. To his credit, those numbers were better last season, when he finished with a .235 average. He's off to a .212 start this season, not showing many signs of making another jump to a more respectable level, but also, as Renteria mentioned, not exactly getting a ton of opportunity to do so.

As things stand right this second, Engel doesn't look like someone who will be a big part of the White Sox long-term plans, at least not without some things dramatically changing. Outfield is probably the deepest part of the farm system, and the hope is that of a large group of young players containing Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, Micker Adolfo, Luis Basabe, Blake Rutherford, Luis Gonzalez, Steele Walker and Joel Booker, at least three or four of those guys will be able to hit better at the big league level than Engel has to this point.

If that happens — and obviously the White Sox would like to have the "good problem" of having too many good outfielders — where's the room for Engel? If the White Sox become a contending team, he would perhaps have good value as a defensive replacement. But the White Sox aren't there yet.

Maybe Engel discovers some magic in this trip to Charlotte. Given the churn involving the outfield and the pitching staff so far this season, it wouldn't exactly be surprising to see Engel make another appearance on the South Side before the campaign's over, and Renteria said that he fully expects Engel to play in the big leagues again after Sunday.

But in order to make himself a desirable addition, he's going to need to improve what he can do with the bat. That's not news. But it's the decision the White Sox made Sunday.

"Do I think he's a big league player? Absolutely. Do I think Engel will be back in the big leagues? Absolutely," Renteria said. "Because he believes it and we believe that he has the skill to do it. We're trying to make sure that both sides of the game are running a little more parallel."

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If Eloy Jimenez is on the White Sox roster on Opening Day, who's off it?

If Eloy Jimenez is on the White Sox roster on Opening Day, who's off it?

The reported deal nearing completion between the White Sox and Eloy Jimenez is much more about having him in a White Sox uniform for the better part of the next decade than it is about having him in a White Sox uniform next week.

But the reported six-year contract that could last eight years, thanks to a couple of team options, would throw the whole service-time issue out the window. There would be no need to delay Jimenez's debut in order to guarantee an extra year of club control. That control is built into the contract. So Jimenez can now appear on the Opening Day roster with no ill effects.

Whether that's what will happen or not seems to be unclear at the moment. But if Jimenez is part of the 25 on Opening Day next week in Kansas City, then who won't be?

The outfield has been a tough puzzle to piece together all spring. Even if Jimenez were to start the season at Triple-A Charlotte, there would've been too many guys for the four assumed outfield spots on the roster: Jon Jay, Adam Engel, Daniel Palka, Leury Garcia and Nicky Delmonico. Jay isn't going anywhere, obviously, but if Jimenez is there on Opening Day, that eats up two of those spots, leaving four guys fighting it out for two jobs.

Jimenez likely becomes the everyday left fielder, but while Jay is a lock to make the team, he's not a lock to play just one outfield position (his versatility and ability to play in all three spots was part of the allure of his signing) and he's not a lock to play every day. So constructing an outfield with the idea that Jay would be either the everyday center fielder or everyday right fielder is perhaps misguided. He might end up playing both positions a decent amount.

Each of the other four players brings entirely different strong suits.

Palka has the left-handed power that led to 27 home runs in 2018, but his defensive ability is a pretty big question mark — not to mention a bigger piece of this puzzle now that Yonder Alonso and Jose Abreu figure to take up the majority of the at-bats at designated hitter, the position Palka looked best suited for.

Engel has the defensive mastery in center field that made him a Gold Glove finalist last season, but his offensive struggles are well documented: He has a career .207/.260/.314 slash line.

Garcia has the versatility that Rick Renteria loves, the ability to play three infield positions and three outfield positions, but with Jose Rondon adding outfield to his repertoire this spring and boasting significantly more power than Garcia, does Garcia's versatility become superfluous?

Delmonico has the offensive potential he flashed at the end of the 2017 season, when he hit nine homers and had an .856 OPS in just 43 games, but injuries and poor results cratered his numbers in 2018, when he slashed .215/.296/.373 with just eight homers and 80 strikeouts in 88 games.

It comes down to which attribute Renteria and Rick Hahn value most. Engel's bat receives plenty of scorn from the fan base, but his glove could be even more valuable in an outfield featuring Jimenez and Palka, two players not known for their work with the glove. But Palka provides more pop, while Garcia gives Renteria more options when it comes to resting guys throughout the course of the 162-game season.

It's important to note that whenever this rebuild transitions into contention mode, it's possible none of these players — aside from Jimenez, of course — is a part of the White Sox outfield equation. Prospects like Luis Robert, Micker Adolfo, Luis Basabe and Blake Rutherford might eventually have better claims to these spots than anyone in the current mix. But there's a team to field in 2019.

Truthfully, it's near impossible to pick which of these guys is going to get the short end of the stick. It seemed Delmonico was going to have a challenging time making the team even if Jimenez had started the season at Triple-A, so perhaps it's slightly easier to box him out. But as for the other three, they each boast an attribute the others don't, and the limits of modern technology mean we can't peer inside the minds of White Sox brass and find out which attribute they value more.

After Thursday cuts that sent Ryan Cordell and Thyago Vieira, among others, out of big league camp, the roster is down to 37 (not including Jimenez, who was optioned to Charlotte earlier this month and whose reported contract is not yet official). So there are 12 more cuts to come. But the outfield is where the most intrigue lies.

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Adam Engel's goal for 2019? To add success at the plate to his Gold Glove caliber defense

Adam Engel's goal for 2019? To add success at the plate to his Gold Glove caliber defense

Can Adam Engel hit well enough to be an everyday major leaguer?

It’s not just a question, it’s the question surrounding the guy who is going to be the White Sox center fielder on Opening Day.

Fans might wonder why a guy who has amassed just a .207 career batting average and a .260 career on-base percentage keeps getting opportunities to take so many at-bats for this team. The obvious answer is the Gold Glove caliber defense, and you don’t need to look any further than that one week last summer when he made three spectacular home-run robberies at Guaranteed Rate Field. Engel was a Gold Glove finalist last year, and while generating runs is perhaps the most important thing a baseball player can do, preventing them ranks decently high on that list, as well.

But Engel knows the reality. He knows that if he’s ever going to be the White Sox center fielder of the future, he’s going to have to start doing something about offensive numbers that have been just plain offensive.

“I think that’s kind of been a question mark that’s followed me throughout my career is: ‘Can this guy hit well enough to play in the big leagues?’” Engel told our NBC Sports Chicago cameras last month during the early weeks of spring training. “Last year, as a full season, I had, compared to league standard, a below-average year offensively. But there were stretches in there where I felt like I was really playing at a high level on the offensive side of the ball, and that was encouraging to me.

“I always knew I could do it, but it was just a matter of doing it. And there were stretches last year where I did it, so now this year my goal is to take those positives and just make them bigger and try to have those stretches that are even longer. That’s the goal for this year. That’s something I’ve learned about myself, I can do it, now I’ve just got to do it more often.”

Remember that everything’s relative when you hear Engel talk about the “good stretches” from the 2018 season, a campaign that saw him finish with a .235 batting average and a .279 on-base percentage. Those numbers aren’t going to land you on any All-Star teams. The White Sox are hoping they aren't the kind that come close to fending off Luis Robert, who’s penciled into that “center fielder of the future” role for this rebuilding franchise.

But they were undoubtedly an improvement for Engel, who in 336 plate appearances in 2017 slashed just .166/.235/.282. He raised those numbers significantly in 2018, with his best on-base month coming in May (a .321 on-base percentage) and his best hitting month coming in August (a .276 batting average).

So after raising those numbers from 2017 to 2018, Engel’s goal is unsurprisingly to produce another jump in 2019.

“This offseason, I was able to kind of look back with some people around me who always are trying to help me offensively,” Engel said. “Just looking back with everybody who’s willing to help, kind of pointing out, ‘At this point in the season you were doing this well, at this point in the season you were doing that well. Why were you successful in those stretches?’ Just try and replicate that. That was kind of my goal this offseason was to figure out why I was able to do some of the things I did well at certain points and let’s figure that out and let’s work on that and carry that on into the spring all the way through the rest of the season.

“As far as the actual adjustments go, it’s nothing crazy. Just trying to use my legs more was a huge thing in my swing. Just getting to a place where I feel like I can use my athleticism. I try to take good care of my body, so to be able to use my strengths in that regard to maximize what I worked so hard on in the offseason.”

Engel’s got a new stance. He’s also got a couple new resources he mentioned in Jon Jay and Yonder Alonso, two of the White Sox offseason additions brought in to provide leadership in the clubhouse and teach these guys a thing or two about getting on base. The White Sox ranked 26th out of 30 major league teams with a .302 on-base percentage last season. Jay had a .330 on-base percentage last year and owns a .352 one for his big league career. Alonso reached base at a .317 clip last season and has done so at a .336 clip for his career.

Whether all this new stuff will help Engel remains to be seen. What the White Sox can count on is Engel’s defense, and that’ll likely keep him in the playing-time mix until someone like Robert arrives to force him out. But if he can figure out a way to add some offensive accomplishments to his defensive ones, then he could work his way into that conversation about the future.

Engel will get that opportunity. It’s time to find out if he takes advantage of it.

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