The Jose Abreu/Yonder Alonso timeshare at first base and designated hitter is no more.
The White Sox designated Alonso for assignment Friday, bringing an end to his unproductive tenure with the club, during which he slashed a woeful .178/.275/.301. When the team acquired him in December, general manager Rick Hahn instantly committed to Alonso and Abreu splitting time at both first base and DH, a plan that would give Abreu a greater amount of rest, perhaps helping to extend the career of an over-30 player the White Sox seem to want to keep around past the end of his current contract at the end of this season.
Well, Alonso’s offensive struggles sank that idea. But other things have changed around just those two players. Daniel Palka was sent down quickly after he started the season 1-for-35, opening up a hole in right field. Leury Garcia has hit well enough to warrant the job as the everyday center fielder. Jon Jay missed the first two and a half months of the season. James McCann usurped Welington Castillo's spot at the top of the catching depth chart. And Zack Collins arrived from the minor leagues.
So now manager Rick Renteria finds himself with a much different puzzle to put together on a daily basis than he thought he was going to have three months ago. That’s baseball, of course, but it warrants a look at the new calculus as the White Sox approach the All-Star break.
First, what becomes of that first base/designated hitter timeshare? Well, it sounds like Abreu is back to being the team’s everyday first baseman, for the most part. Collins has been practicing there, as has Palka (who was called up Friday), both players far better hitters than they are defenders anywhere on the field. Collins, though, has the caveat of being a catcher, primarily, while Palka has long seemed best suited as a DH. And that’s where those two players will likely spend most of their time moving forward. They are options at first base — and were out early practicing the position with infield coach Joe McEwing ahead of Saturday’s game — but perhaps only in situations where Abreu really needs a day off.
“Probably not,” Renteria said Saturday, asked if Abreu would still be in a timeshare at first base, or at least one split in the way it was between Abreu and Alonso. “That would be inaccurate for me to say. But I do think that with Zack and Palky, they're out here working extremely hard with Joe. They're still going to be able to give him an opportunity to be spelled.
“We'll use the schedule to our advantage to see when we can get Pito off his feet a little bit. To be honest, he fights me all the time about days off, but we know that when we do give them to him he's refreshed. We'll try to take advantage of continuing to exploit the opportunities we'll be able to give Zack and Palky over at first base.”
Fans have pondered why Collins hasn’t gotten a heftier chunk of playing time since his promotion last week. He got the start at DH on Saturday, his fourth start in the 10 games the White Sox have played since he was called up. Unlike Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech and Eloy Jimenez, though, Collins arrived as a backup. It’s a bizarre situation for one of the organization's highly touted prospects, perhaps, but McCann has been so excellent this season, that Collins will not be stealing time away from him. But the nature of the catcher position means that McCann can’t and won’t start everyday.
So for those clamoring for Collins to be in the lineup on a daily basis, don’t expect it.
“Zack’s going to get opportunities behind the plate, which I think is important,” Hahn said Friday. “I like the fact that he’s working with James McCann on pregame, even on games he’s not catching, and working along with James in games to understand adjustments and what goes on to get through nine innings in a big league game. So there’s benefits even when he’s not necessarily in the starting lineup.
“That said, he’s going to get at-bats from behind the plate, he’s going to get at-bats at DH, and he’s probably going to get a few at-bats at first base here over the coming weeks, too.
“You guys have always heard me say, we don’t want guys to come here until they’re ready to have success. I should have, all along, put a little bit of a caveat on that for catchers because there’s a lot that goes on in learning how to be an everyday big league catcher, and a lot of it you can’t replicate at the minor league level.
“So from Zack’s standpoint, yes, we want him to learn as much as he can offensively, we want him to play as much as possible, but at the same time there’s a ton that he can take away from the defensive-preparation standpoint to in-game adjustments, scouting-report usage, interaction with pitchers and the coaching staff, that you can’t really get in the minors.
“So even if it’s not an extended stay or if it’s not necessarily extended play, there’s a lot of benefit to the kid from having him here now. That said, especially with the move with Yonder, there’s going to be more opportunity for him to get at-bats.”
Jay’s return gives the White Sox a tad more permanence in right field, though Renteria has said since spring training that Jay might not be an everyday player and he might play multiple different positions in the outfield.
The injury to Tim Anderson further complicates matters. Renteria’s preference seems to be shifting Garcia from center field to shortstop while Anderson’s on the injured list, which should be roughly four to six weeks as he battles back from a high ankle sprain. That means more playing time for Ryan Cordell and Charlie Tilson in the outfield alongside Jay and Eloy Jimenez. It might mean more opportunity for Palka in right field, too. Once Anderson returns, a regular outfield of Jimenez, Garcia and Jay seems a good bet.
A 162-game season features an awful lot of lineup permutations, so this type of discussion is much of a surprise. But the rebuilding White Sox finally have a situation where they have to fit pieces together who could all be part of the team’s long-term plans. Collins has been long assumed to be a part of that core along with the Jimenezes and Moncadas and Andersons. Well, McCann’s only 29 years old and easy to bring back for at least the 2020 season. Hahn has been pretty clear about the team’s desire to keep Abreu in the fold. And we’re not too far removed from speculating about Palka’s future value as a lefty DH or a power bat off the bench.
So how Renteria proceeds is not only of interest to fans hoping for wins on a daily basis but to anyone observing the development of these players and the construction of the roster moving forward.