Edwin Encarnacion

Amid other questions, White Sox can count on Jose Abreu and Edwin Encarnacion in middle of lineup

Amid other questions, White Sox can count on Jose Abreu and Edwin Encarnacion in middle of lineup

For all the question marks surrounding the upcoming season, the White Sox two veteran sluggers are as close to sure things as you're going to get.

Thanks to the consistent production Jose Abreu and Edwin Encarnacion have put up over the course of their big league careers, the White Sox know what they’re going to get out of the middle of their suddenly more powerful lineup.

Obviously, everyone on the South Side knows what to expect from Abreu. Despite a couple freak injuries in 2018 that derailed his streak of 25-homer and 100-RBI seasons since coming to the majors, Abreu bounced right back in 2019 with some of the best production of his career, winning the American League RBI crown and coming just a few homers shy of matching his career high.

Throw in the consistent presence he provides in the clubhouse as a model for the team’s young players, and you’ve got the most reliable bat in the lineup and arguably the most important person on the roster.

“Everybody knows the kind of person that he is. Everybody knows he’s our leader. He’s our mentor,” Yoan Moncada said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “He’s been on this team, in the big leagues for a long time now and he’s always trying to lead by example. He’s always trying to take care of the young guys, but actually he’s always trying to take care of everybody around the team.

“Everybody follows him. I follow him. The other guys follow him because he’s an example for all of us. That’s something that really has stuck with us about Pito.”

Moncada’s evaluation of his countryman and locker buddy ought to explain plenty about why the White Sox handed Abreu a new three-year contract this winter. What he’s done with the bat in a White Sox uniform should be enough explanation, as well.

But some worrywarts out there point to Abreu’s advancing age and dips in certain statistical areas in recent seasons as causes for alarm. After reaching base at a .359 clip in his first four seasons, he did so at a .328 mark over the last two seasons. His 152 strikeouts in 2019 were a career high. His OPS-plus, where 100 is league average, went from 142 in his first four seasons (when he was 42 percent better than the average big league hitter) to 119 the last two years.

The 33-year-old Abreu, though, has no designs on this being some sort of three-year victory lap.

“My career is still on. I'm still playing. I haven't had any thoughts about retirement or anything,” he said, through Russo. “I still want to win. I still want to compete.

“I was talking about this with my mom, saying I still feel that love for the game. If for whatever reason I reach a moment in the future in my career when I don't feel that love, then OK, I will know that it's time for retirement. But if I don't get to that point, there's going to be plenty of me for you guys (the media) to cover.”

Need proof of production well after 30? Look no further than the White Sox new designated hitter. The 37-year-old Encarnacion has blasted 255 home runs since his 30th birthday, with at least 32 home runs in each of the last eight seasons. After the White Sox racked up one of the lowest home run totals in baseball last season, Encarnacion is a big part of the injection of thump into the 2020 batting order.

With 34 dingers in just 109 games last season with the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees, he ought to bring plenty in a full slate of games, health permitting, for the White Sox as they try to chase down their first playoff berth in more than a decade.

“Edwin Encarnacion, that's the missing piece,” Abreu said. “I think that's the piece in our lineup that we were missing. I'm just excited to start playing along with him. I'm just excited to have him here.

“We all know the kind of player he is. We all know what he's capable of doing on the field with his bat. That's a big addition for us.”

But much like Abreu has been the perfect blend of on-field production and off-field mentorship for these White Sox, Encarnacion will bring his veteran expertise to the South Side, too.

Like Dallas Keuchel and Yasmani Grandal, Encarnacion is a veteran of many a playoff run, and he’s part of the heaping dose of winning experience Rick Hahn’s front office added during the offseason.

He’s been to the last five postseasons, and he’s already seeing similarities.

“We have the talent on this team,” Encarnacion said. “This team makes me remember the team that we had in 2015 with the Blue Jays. A lot of young talents, a few veteran guys and we put everything together and this team is going to be right.

“If you're going to win, we've got to be together like a team. Pick up your teammates. That's why you have to stay together. If your teammate does something wrong, you're going to feel it and you're going to want to do something to help them out.

“This team has the talent to compete in the division and win.”

Certainly that’s the goal. With Encarnacion’s thunder accompanied by the power upgrades brought in with Grandal, Nomar Mazara and Luis Robert, that goal looks all the more realistic.

While all sorts of question marks swirl around the upcoming season — whether it’s Dylan Cease and Reynaldo Lopez being able to put their 2019 struggles behind them, Moncada and Tim Anderson being able to keep their good fortunes going or Robert and Nick Madrigal being able to make successful transitions to the big leagues — the middle of the lineup is no question.

Abreu and Encarnacion have shown they’ll produce. They’re consistent. And in a year where so many things have to go right to reach that ultimate goal, knowing these two guys will do their damage is a tremendous positive.

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Chicago White Sox know we haven't seen the best of Eloy Jimenez

Chicago White Sox know we haven't seen the best of Eloy Jimenez

Eloy Jimenez is always smiling and joking, and laughing, and waving, and saying hi to his mom on TV. You'd never know that not everything went his way during his rookie season.

Despite the 31 home runs and his white-hot month of September, the rookie year-struggles were there and definitely had an effect on the happy-go-lucky Jimenez.

 “At the beginning [of the season] I tried to do too much,” Jimenez said. “And the injuries didn’t help me a lot.

“At the end, I felt like everything was slowed down and was easy because I just tried to play the game and enjoy the game. At the beginning, I had too much pressure because I tried to do too much.”

Of course, Jimenez doesn’t go long without a joke.

“This year is going to be better because now that we’ve got Luis Robert, the attention is not going to be on me,” he said. “It’s going to be better.”

Whether or not it’s because there’s a new uber-prospect to soak up the attention, improvement in 2020 seems to be a consistent opinion when it comes to Jimenez, who was the prospect everyone was drooling over at this time last year. As he mentioned, out-of-the-gate adjustments to the big leagues and two trips to the injured list prevented his rookie season from being a runaway success.

Still, we saw more than a few glimpses of what got everyone so revved up in the first place. The night of his first major league home run, he hit two. At Yankee Stadium. Twice, he disturbed the foliage of the center-field batter’s eye, something that was overlooked thanks to the ball he sent all the way to the staircase on the left side of the fan deck.

And who could forget the game-winning, broken-bat homer to beat the team that traded him on that June night at Wrigley Field? It’s arguably the biggest on-field moment of the rebuild to date,  

And like everyone is saying, that’s just scratching the surface of what this guy can do.

“He's good already,” White Sox designated hitter and longtime friend, Edwin Encarnacion, said. “He's going to get better but he's good already. It's very impressive what he's done in his first year playing in the big leagues. I remember my first year. I wasn't even close to the way he is right now. It's going to be fun watching him play.”

Sorry, Eloy. Even though Robert is everyone’s new favorite youngster, the Jimenez hype train is ready to pull out of the station once more. In his first interview this spring, he was asked if he think he can hit 50 home runs in a season someday. He didn’t disappoint.

“Why not?” he replied. “Yeah, it’s a big number but my goal is every year to have better numbers than the past year. So I think, one day, I can hit 50 plus. But let’s see.”

RELATED: Is a Moncada extension coming?

Of course, hitting home runs is the thing we know Jimenez can do and do well. What the White Sox want to see from him in his sophomore season is improvement in other areas, particularly ones away from the plate. Jimenez has impressed with his bat but he did much the opposite with his glove, at least to those who winced when they saw him racing down fly balls in left field.

Defensive plays also led to both of his stays on the injured list. The first came when he attempted to rob an un-robbable home run and sprained his ankle planting his leg into the outfield wall. Later that summer, he crashed into Charlie Tilson in left-center in Kansas City and suffered an ulnar nerve contusion.

In general, he made many fans uneasy with other misadventures in the outfield.

“We really need him to step it up and continue to improve on his defensive end in left field. We’ve talked about that,” manager Rick Renteria said early on in spring training. “He started having some growth out there last year, in my opinion.

“I asked him, ‘do you want me to take you out in the seventh, eighth or ninth?’ He goes, ‘no.’ I asked him that today. You can ask him. He wants to stay in there.

“I want him to be the best left fielder that the Chicago White Sox can put out there. I don’t want to be timid about using him out there in the late innings in a ballgame.”

Jimenez agrees.

“I don’t want to come out in the ninth inning,” he said. “I want to be able to play nine innings. So that’s why this year, I’m putting more effort into the defense so I can play the whole game.”

That’s the more politically correct way of putting it. At SoxFest, he was asked if he would be better suited as a designated hitter. He responded: “F**k that.”

But whether we’re talking about his eye-popping skills at the plate or his work-in-progress style in left field, there’s a common theme: We have not seen the best of Eloy Jimenez. And how could we have? The guy is just 23 years old with only 122 big league games under his belt.

Encarnacion, for one, sees high-level greatness in Jimenez’s future, telling Chuck Garfien on a recent White Sox Talk Podcast that “he has the talent to hit over 500 homers in the major leagues. I know he can do it.”

Fifty homers? Five hundred homers? Does anyone want to bring some more conservative projections to this conversation?

“With the talent that they have,” Jose Abreu said, through team interpreter Billy Russo, of the White Sox crop of young hitters, “they can do whatever they want to do.”

All right, then. Fifty and 500 it is.

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Edwin Encarnacion believes Eloy Jimenez can hit over 500 home runs

Edwin Encarnacion believes Eloy Jimenez can hit over 500 home runs

If there’s someone inside the White Sox clubhouse who knows Eloy Jimenez best, it’s probably new designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion.

Their friendship dates back to 2012 when Jimenez was attending a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. One day, Encarnacion came by to watch his nephew play at the same facility but almost instantly, he was caught up in the wow factor of this young, skinny teenager who had an innate ability to crush baseballs.

“That was the first time I saw Eloy. He was 14, hitting bombs to the opposite field. I was very impressed when I saw him for the first time,“ Encarnacion said in a joint interview with Jimenez on the White Sox Talk Podcast.

Jump ahead eight years to this offseason. Encarnacion was a free agent looking for a place to play and a teammate to join him in punishing opposing pitchers.

“When the White Sox came to me, I started thinking about Eloy. We can play together. That’s the first thing that came to my mind because I know this kid for a long time,” Encarnacion said. “We are very close. Our families are very close. It’s going to be an exciting year, a very fun year for us. The talent this team has, everybody knows what this team has. The young talent, they want to win. Why not? Why not come here?”

RELATED: Is a Moncada extension coming?

Now, after seeing Jimenez belt 31 homers in 122 games in his rookie season, Encarnacion believes the young White Sox slugger is just getting started.   

A truly special career could be coming. The kind that winds up in the Hall of Fame.

“As a baseball player, he can be whatever he wants to be. He has the talent to hit over 500 homers in the major leagues. I know he can do it,” Encarnacion said. 

500 homers? That’s icon territory. We’re talking about a group that includes Frank Thomas, Mickey Mantle, David Ortiz, Ernie Banks and Ted Williams. Giant names. Generational players. Even a stud like Encarnacion probably won’t reach that milestone. He’s hit 414 home runs, which is no small feat. That’s more than Hall of Famers Al Kaline, Jim Rice, Tony Perez, Harold Baines and the newly inducted Larry Walker.

But 500?

Encarnacion sees an even greater career coming for the White Sox left fielder with the charismatic face and gargantuan home run potential.

What does Jimenez think about Encarnacion’s lofty prediction?

“That’s good. When a superstar tells you that, how are going to feel? Amazing,” Jimenez said. “I’m going to keep working to do that”

And that last line is precisely why Encarnacion believes Jimenez has a chance to become a member of the 500 club one day.

He’ll work and work and work--and will never let fame or money get to his head.

“Where he comes from with his family, they are very strong. They talk with him and his brother. He’s not going to change. No matter how much money he makes and what he does, he’s not going to change and he will do the team right. That’s why I believe a lot in this guy. I know that in the next 10 years, you guys are going to remember this,” Encarnacion said.

We’ll definitely save it for our records and maybe one day, for Cooperstown.

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