White Sox

Fifty homers? Eloy Jimenez aims to be a centerpiece in a newly powerful White Sox lineup

Fifty homers? Eloy Jimenez aims to be a centerpiece in a newly powerful White Sox lineup

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Fifty. Fifty home runs.

That's a lot of home runs in a single season.

But Eloy Jimenez — like he does with just about everything — is greeting that number with a smile and a laugh.

"Why not?" he said, when asked Monday at Camelback Ranch if he believes he could hit 50-plus homers in a single campaign.

Jimenez does this quite often, asking his own questions of reporters who just asked him a question. Most of the time it's an opinion kind of thing. For example, earlier in the same media session, I asked him how the White Sox lineup looks after the team's many offseason additions. He turned it back on me: "What do you think?" I told him it looks significantly improved from last season. "OK, you have the answer." I guess I did.

But to his "Why not?" in the 50-homer discussion, there was no response from the assembled media. Because really, there isn't a reason why he can't hit 50 home runs in a single season.

It's becoming more of a rarity in baseball, especially since the homer-happy days of the steroid era. And it's never happened on the South Side. The team record for homers in a single season is 49, accomplished by Albert Belle in 1998. That mark was a tad overshadowed by what Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did that year.

But the point is that if Jimenez reached the 50-homer mark, it would be a new White Sox record.

Why can't he do it? Crickets.

Jimenez has the power to do such a thing, hitting 31 home runs in a rookie season that still featured plenty of growing pains. Put those behind him, and who knows how many balls he can launch to the fan deck in center field.

A lot of the focus this winter and this spring is on improving his defense, which looked nowhere near as ready for dominance as his bat did in 2019. But manager Rick Renteria constantly talks about how Jimenez and his fellow White Sox youngsters are just scratching the surface of what they'll be able to do in their careers. If that's the case, then White Sox fans better brace themselves for some spectacular feats on the South Side over the next decade. Jimenez hitting 50 homers might just be one of them.

That's a maybe for the time being, though. What's a certainty is that Jimenez and this revamped White Sox lineup look primed for a far more powerful 2020 campaign.

In 2019, the White Sox were one of just six teams to hit fewer than 200 home runs. Their team slugging percentage of .414 was the sixth worst in baseball. This while the division-rival Minnesota Twins set a new major league record with 307 home runs, using all that might to win 101 games and the AL Central crown.

That's the prize the White Sox have their sights on this season. To win it, they'll need a power boost. Well, that's what Rick Hahn's front office tried to provide this offseason, adding Edwin Encarnacion (34 homers in 2019) as the new DH, Yasmani Grandal (28 homers) as the new No. 1 catcher, Nomar Mazara (19 homers) as the new right fielder and Luis Robert (32 homers in the minor leagues) as the new center fielder. That's four new everyday bats in a lineup that already included Jose Abreu (33 homers in 2019), Jimenez (31 homers), Yoan Moncada (25 homers) and Tim Anderson (18 homers).

While the baseball that many believe led to the kinds of inflated homer numbers that teams like Twins put up in 2019 is slated for change in 2020, many of those White Sox haven't reached the crest of their power-hitting wave. Jimenez, Moncada, Anderson, Mazara and obviously Robert are still young, still developing and could still have a lot more power production in them.

In other words, yes, this is a powerful lineup. And it's expected to get even more powerful.

"Our lineup has now been stretched out a little bit more. It's a little deeper, which is huge for us," Renteria said. "Mazara and what we believe he might be able to bring to the table, and another year of growth for the guys that are here. The power potential in terms of just having guys with solid experience, obviously power. Now you've got some protection, a little bit more. And so we'll continue to try to see how we develop that lineup composition, but certainly have many options at hand and we'll do the best we can to make it work."

No matter how you want to stack them up, Renteria is right. Last season, the White Sox had the four long-term centerpieces of their order — Anderson, Moncada, Abreu and Jimenez — and a half season of All-Star caliber production from James McCann. This season, the lineup contains productive and powerful options all the way toward the bottom. That's a big change from what fans have watched on a nightly basis during these rebuilding years and is a big part of the reason there are realistic playoff expectations on the South Side.

None of the newcomers has a more powerful profile than Encarnacion. His 297 homers since 2012 are the most in the majors. He's hit at least 30 home runs in each of the last eight seasons. And despite playing in just 109 games with the New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners last season, he still ranked 12th in the American League in long balls.

He's also known Jimenez since the young White Sox star was 14 years old. Who knows if Encarnacion can take much credit for Jimenez becoming a dangerous hitter in his own right, but Jimenez is happy to give Encarnacion credit for the impact he's made in his life — and the impact he thinks he'll make in the White Sox clubhouse.

"Now, to play with Edwin, in the same lineup, for me is really exciting," Jimenez said. "After I found out he was going to sign with us, I said, 'Welcome home.' And he said, 'Yeah, now I’m on a really good team and we can change the game.' So now I think we have a really good lineup, and we’re going to change the game, too.

"He gave me a lot of advice before I signed. The first advice I’ll always have with me: Don’t get crazy and don’t change because you have money. That is one of the biggest advice I’ve ever had from him. Before I got to the majors, he said, 'Don’t try to do too much and just show what you do always.' And that was the other advice he gave me.

"I appreciate him because he’s always treated me as a kid he loves. For me, it’s good to have a veteran who takes care of me.

"He’s the veteran on the team. You can see, he hits with a lot of power. And he’s a good teammate. So I’m guessing he’s going to (have the same impact he’s had) on me on the other guys, too."

The fans in the bleachers are hoping Encarnacion has an impact on them, too.

Up and down the lineup, those fans should see a lot more activity this season. Maybe that even means catching some of the 50 or more balls Jimenez could send into the seats.

"Why not?" Jimenez repeated. "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."

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White Sox 2005 Rewind: How the Carlos Lee trade helped win the World Series

White Sox 2005 Rewind: How the Carlos Lee trade helped win the World Series

Carlos Lee was pretty good.

But as Hawk Harrelson laid out in the eighth inning of the White Sox win over the Texas Rangers on May 17, 2005, the trade that sent Lee to the Milwaukee Brewers in December 2004 was more like a 4-for-1 than the 2-for-1 swap it went down as in the transaction log.

The White Sox got Scott Podsednik and Luis Vizcaino from the Brew Crew in exchange for El Caballo. But they saved a good deal of money, too. Lee made $8 million in 2005. Podsednik and Vizcaino made $2 million combined. The $6 million in savings was spent on a pair of free agents. Orlando Hernandez and A.J. Pierzynski made a combined $5.75 million that season.

“When you can go out and get Podsednik, Vizcaino, El Duque and A.J. Pierzynski,” Harrelson said on that night's broadcast, “you’ve got to do it.”

It takes only a little more than a microsecond for White Sox fans to recall the postseason heroics Hernandez, Podsednik and Pierzynski turned in en route to the World Series championship in October. But the value went well beyond those few weeks. Those were seven-month additions for the 2005 season.

Obviously, Lee was a valuable hitter, and he kept on being one of those in Milwaukee, and later when he played for the Rangers and the Houston Astros. After leaving the White Sox, he played another eight seasons, made three All-Star teams and hit 206 home runs. In 2005 alone, he hit 32 home runs and drove in 114 runs for the Brewers, winning a Silver Slugger and finishing in the top 20 in NL MVP voting.

Keeping Lee in the middle of the White Sox order would have been nice. But they found their replacement power hitter four days earlier when they signed Jermaine Dye. With Dye set to take over Lee’s spot in the middle of the lineup, the White Sox had the luxury of addressing a need, acquiring Podsednik to be that stereotypical leadoff man and provide an incredible burst of speed. He stole 70 bases for the Brewers in 2004 and 59 more for the White Sox in 2005.

Vizcaino helped shore up the ‘pen. Hernandez gave the White Sox a fifth starter with playoff experience. They found their catcher for the better part of the next decade in Pierzynski.

Lee was a great player for the White Sox. But he couldn’t fill all those holes by himself.

Had it not resulted in a world championship, perhaps it wouldn’t have been considered the same kind of smart move it looks like 15 years later. Even Kenny Williams couldn’t have foreseen that Hernandez would turn in a relief performance for the ages against the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS. He couldn’t have foreseen that Pierzynski would almost single-handedly win Game 2 of the ALCS by running to first base on what was probably a strikeout. He couldn’t have foreseen Podsednik, of all people, hitting a walk-off homer in Game 2 of the World Series.

But he made it for the same reason any move is made: to put his team in a better position to win a championship. And because that’s what happened, trading Lee ended up a brilliant move.

What else?

— As discussed often during #SoxRewind, Jon Garland was sensational to start the season, and this game was no different. He went seven innings and gave up just two runs, bringing his ERA on the year to this point to 2.41. This was his eighth win in eight starts, a season-opening steak that ended in his next outing. But as good as Garland was in general, he was even better on the South Side. This was his fourth start at U.S. Cellular Field in 2005, and in those four starts, he allowed just six runs in 31 innings for a 1.74 ERA.

— Garland did his best work by getting out of what could have easily snowballed into a nasty top of the sixth inning. After walking the leadoff hitter and hitting the next guy, he gave up an RBI double to Mark Teixeira that not only brought the Rangers within a run but kept two runners in scoring position. How’d Garland dance out of it? With back-to-back strikeouts of Hank Blalock and Alfonso Soriano and getting Kevin Mench — who hit a game-winning homer the night before — to pop out to end the inning. I’ve talked about Garland pulling Houdinis before, but this was a pivotal one in a one-run game.

— I wrote last week about May 2005 being Pierzynski’s most powerful month in a White Sox uniform. He broke out of an early season slump and hit seven homers and put together a .557 slugging percentage with a .903 OPS in May. The sixth-inning bomb he hit into the visiting bullpen in this game sent a mildly tenuous one-run advantage to a far more comfortable three-run edge.

— Is it too late to join the Pod Squad?


Since you been gone

While #SoxRewind is extensive, it doesn’t include all 162 regular-season contests, meaning we’re going to be skipping over some games. So what’d we miss since last time?

May 14, 2005: The White Sox had a 5-2 lead on the Orioles, but the visitors from Maryland put up a three spot in the fourth and another crooked number with four runs in the seventh. Freddy Garcia was tagged for seven runs, the second most he gave up in a start in 2005. White Sox lose, 9-6, fall to 27-10.

May 15, 2005: The bats couldn’t do much damage against Erik Bedard, the White Sox only getting two runs and five hits against the Canadian lefty. White Sox lose, 6-2, fall to 27-11.

May 16, 2005: The White Sox went up 4-1 in the first, only for Hernandez to cough up five more runs over the next two innings. But the South Siders rallied, and Tadahito Iguchi homered to tie the game in the bottom of the eighth, only for Mench to hit a game-winning home run off Damaso Marte in the ninth. White Sox lose, 7-6, fall to 27-12.

Next up

#SoxRewind rolls on Friday, when you can catch the May 24, 2005, game against the Angels, starting at 4 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago. Mark Buehrle goes nine innings but doesn’t earn the complete game when things spiral into extras, where Iguchi comes through in the clutch.

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Governor Pritzker casts doubt on sports returning to Chicago anytime soon

Governor Pritzker casts doubt on sports returning to Chicago anytime soon

Governor J.B. Pritzker ​​​said Thursday that he does not see how large gatherings of people, like sporting events, can take place in Illinois before a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, which in his estimation is months away.

As the governor pointed out, that is tough for sports fans to hear, and it could point to games in empty stadiums being the only way for the Cubs and White Sox to play in Chicago this summer.

The agreement between Major League Baseball and the players' union outlined certain criteria that would need to happen for the 2020 season to resume, and those included no government edicts that would prevent teams from playing in their home ballparks, with a strong preference for games to happen with fans in the stands. Though there was a pretty important caveat that other options could be explored if that was impossible.

RELATED: How a shortened season could impact Cubs and Sox

Per reports from earlier this week, baseball is discussing a plan that would effectively quarantine the 30 teams in Arizona, and stage games at spring training stadiums and the regular season home of the Arizona Diamondbacks. That plan reportedly included a potential start date as early as next month.

While Governor Pritzker's comments might point to a poor chance that fans will get to watch games at Guaranteed Rate Field or Wrigley Field this summer, it remains uncertain whether conditions could improve enough to allow games to be played at those ballparks without fans present. Still, when taking into account the players, coaches, training staff, front office staff, stadium staff and those needed to broadcast the games on TV, even games without fans present would involve a lot of people in the same place, potentially creating health risks for those present.

Baseball's plan runs the risk of returning to action too soon, something that's already been seen in Japan, where multiple players tested positive for COVID-19 while playing practice games. The availability of widespread testing in the U.S. would seem to be a necessity, as to prevent baseball players from receiving frequent tests while the general public faced limited access. Baseball would need to make sure it was not taking much-needed resources away from treating the general population.

There are many hurdles to clear before a quarantined season in Arizona would make sense. But you can see why the league and the players are getting creative to find a return to action, as it might not be possible to do so in any way that resembles normalcy. Especially if other local, state and federal leaders share Governor Pritzker's outlook.

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