White Sox

Edwin Encarnacion officially joins win-now White Sox

Edwin Encarnacion officially joins win-now White Sox

Edwin Encarnacion is officially a South Sider.

The White Sox announced a one-year, $12 million free-agent deal for the 37-year-old slugger Thursday, making official a move that was reported weeks ago. The contract contains a $12 million team option for the 2021 season, as well.

Encarnacion is just the latest in a series of splashes Rick Hahn's front office has made this winter, joining fellow big-name free-agent additions Yasmani Grandal and Dallas Keuchel. But unlike the long-term deals for those two All Stars, a short-term contract for the aging Encarnacion signals better than anything the team's win-now expectations. Even if Hahn remains hesitant to announce postseason intentions, it's difficult to read the addition of Encarnacion as an affirmation of anything but a mission to get the White Sox to October for the first time in more than a decade.

Certainly Encarnacion figures to be helpful in such a quest, bringing some much needed pop to the middle of the White Sox lineup. Though he played in just 109 games between the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees last season, he still launched 34 home runs, his eighth straight season of at least 32 dingers. That total would have led the 2019 White Sox, with Jose Abreu's 33 bombs the team high last season.

With Encarnacion, the White Sox hope they can find success similar to what the division-rival Minnesota Twins got from Nelson Cruz last season. Turning 39 in the middle of the season, Cruz smacked 41 homers to lead the 100-win Twins.

Encarnacion figures to take over as the White Sox primary designated hitter, a necessary upgrade after South Side DHs combined for an AL-worst .648 OPS in 2019. While Hahn laid out a scenario in which Grandal, Abreu, James McCann and Zack Collins could have teamed for a rotation of sorts at catcher, first base and designated hitter, Encarnacion as a more reliable, everyday-type DH makes much more sense, while also adding plenty of heft to the middle of the batting order. His ability to play first base, too, will allow the White Sox to get Abreu off his feet when necessary.

Encarnacion is obviously just one aspect of a transformative offseason for the White Sox, who in addition to Encarnacion as the new everyday designated hitter have added two new pitchers to the starting rotation (Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez), a new No. 1 catcher (Grandal), a new everyday right fielder (Nomar Mazara) and a new back-of-the-bullpen reliever (Steve Cishek, reportedly). They've also locked up their first baseman (Abreu) for the next three years and given out a record contract extension that clears the way for their new everyday center fielder to make the Opening Day roster (Luis Robert). A new everyday second baseman, Nick Madrigal, figures to make his major league debut at some point in 2020, as well.

That's an incredible amount of positive change for a team that experienced so many bright spots from their young core in 2019. All that adds up to those realistic playoff expectations, and Encarnacion is a part of it.

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Offensively and defensively, White Sox know we haven't seen the best of Eloy Jimenez

Offensively and defensively, 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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White Sox Talk Podcast: The Yermin Mercedes Appreciation Podcast!

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USA TODAY

White Sox Talk Podcast: The Yermin Mercedes Appreciation Podcast!

The man the fans are clamoring for, Yermin Mercedes sits down with host Chuck Garfien to discuss why Sox fans love him, and his goals as a player. Chuck also gets some inside information on Yermin from teammates Carson Fulmer and Danny Mendick, and White Sox director of player development Chris Getz. You wanted Yermin, we got you Yermin.

(2:05) - Who the heck is Yermin Mercedes?

(6:41) - Interview with Yermin Mercedes

(16:07) - How did the Sox acquire Yermin with Chris Getz

(19:09) - Carson Fulmer on Yermin Mercedes's improvement as a baseball player

(22:03) - Danny Mendick on the uniqueness of Yermin Mercedes

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below: