Daniel Palka came out of nowhere in 2018 and inserted himself into the conversation about the White Sox long-term future. In 2019, he’ll have work to do to stay in it.
Palka led the team with 27 home runs last season, a franchise record for a rookie lefty, in addition to earning fan-favorite status among South Side baseball supporters. But he knows as much as anyone that he’s got more to do to be an everyday player in the big leagues.
He batted just .240 with an on-base percentage under .300 in 2018, and his numbers against left-handed pitchers were poor enough that he had just 83 plate appearances versus southpaws. His defense made it seem like he was best suited to be a designated hitter, though to his credit he worked very hard to change that, and that was the focus of his offseason.
And so being able to play the outfield on a regular if not daily basis will be the thing that determines whether or not Palka can stay in that conversation about what this team looks like when the contention window opens. The White Sox greatly limited the number of opportunities Palka will have to swing the bat as a DH this season when they acquired Yonder Alonso in an offseason trade with the Cleveland Indians. Alonso and Jose Abreu are set to platoon at first base and designated hitter, pretty much speaking for all the at-bats at those two positions. And so Palka's lone road to playing time lies in the outfield.
However, the outfield is also going to be one of the more competitive spots on the roster in 2019. Eloy Jimenez is expected to be the team's everyday left fielder, and veteran Jon jay, another offseason acquisition, isn't going anywhere, though he might not be an everyday player or play exclusively one position. That leaves just a couple spots for additional outfielders. Palka, Adam Engel and Leury Garcia are all expected to be on the Opening Day roster, but one might get squeezed out come April 17, the earliest date the White Sox would need a fifth starting pitcher. We'll see how that roster crunch plays itself out.
For Palka, though, the formula for sticking around is simple: the glove. Palka's power bat is an attractive attribute that neither Engel nor Garcia can claim. If Palka's offseason work on his defense pays off, his bat will likely keep him around.
And it's a valuable thing to have, that power. The White Sox came one Avisail Garcia homer away from having five players in the 20-homer club, but Palka was the team leader and five ahead of Abreu, the second-place finisher in that department with 22 long balls. Keeping that power in the lineup — and adding that of Jimenez and Alonso — would make for a drastically different, in a good way, White Sox offense.
In the long term, that left-handed power would be extremely valuable coming off the bench in a pivotal moment. Palka proved himself clutch in 2018. If he can improve the other elements of his game, Palka could go from future situational power bat to everyday player.
So that's what is on the line for him in 2019. It's an important year for him to establish himself as a part of those long-term plans. He worked his way into the conversation, out of nowhere, last year. This year, it's about claiming a spot in that lineup of the future.