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How Eloy could be Sox' most important 2022 addition

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
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Nick Castellanos, Kris Bryant, Trevor Story and a host of potential trade candidates are still out there, waiting for the end of baseball's lockout to find a new team.

But the player that could be the one to push the Chicago White Sox from mere division champions to a place among the 2022 World Series favorites is already on the roster.

What's Eloy Jiménez's goal for next season?

RELATED: Behind the numbers: How Luis Robert dominated in 2021

"Go back to being Eloy."

Jiménez's use of the third person was just one leg of his successful press-conference hat trick when he spoke on Zoom just before the start of baseball's lockout. He also reveled in the sight of this writer's mustache and wished all reporters in attendance a Merry Christmas in his trademark ebullient style.

So really, he never stopped being Eloy.

But with so much focus on to-be-acquired stars at this time of year, a return to form for the power-hitting left fielder is flying under the radar as one of the biggest possible changes for the South Siders as they chase a world championship next year.

Jiménez won a Silver Slugger for his efforts in the shortened 2020 campaign, delivering on the hype that he generated as a top ranked prospect in the minor leagues during the franchise's rebuilding years. But a tear of his pectoral tendon at the end of spring training wiped away most of his 2021 season, the expected middle-of-the-order producer making minimal contributions in the 55 regular-season games he did play.

 

Though he was far from the only White Sox hitter to be silenced during a brief playoff stay, he continued to look lost in the American League Division Series, mustering nothing more than a handful of singles.

"Last year, I didn't know who I was," Jiménez said. "(For) next season, I'm working hard, really hard right now to get back to where I used to be.

"This season, I feel like I was there but I wasn't, at the same time. So that's why I take so much pride right now in working hard to get better, for me and for my team."

Just think of what kind of difference a revitalized Jiménez could make for a team that managed to rack up plenty of wins and secure an AL Central crown while missing him as he went through a months-long injury recovery in 2021. If you were dreaming of adding Marcus Semien's bat to the order, have designs on slotting in Castellanos or Bryant, or even hope for the power Kyle Schwarber could bring, well that's the kind of production Jiménez alone could infuse.

And should the White Sox get one of those still-available guys to go along with Jiménez, the impact becomes even bigger.

Extrapolate Jiménez's 55-game output in 2020 to a full 162-game season, and the Silver Slugger would have finished with 41 homers and 121 RBIs, MVP-type production.

That would be game-changing for a White Sox team that slipped down the rankings in the power department in 2021. They finished sixth out of 15 AL teams in slugging percentage and 11th in home runs, two categories they led the Junior Circuit in during the 2020 campaign.

Of course, though, we've been here before.

It looked like Jiménez and the also-injured Luis Robert — along with Yasmani Grandal, who missed less time than those two, but still a sizable chunk of the season — could have provided the White Sox with an unparalleled spark last summer, a deadline haul for the ages.

Jiménez provided evidence of just how big a deal his return might have been when he smacked a dramatic game-winning homer to beat the Kansas City Royals in his second game back. But it was only Robert and Grandal who followed through on that potential as Jiménez slipped into a funk that lasted the rest of the season.

While Robert was providing his own MVP-caliber flashes, Jiménez finished with a .249/.303/.437 slash line that was a far cry from the .296/.332/.559 he posted the year prior.

"It actually crossed my mind when I was asked about Luis and how remarkable it was how he seemingly didn't miss a beat when he came back," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said during the GM meetings last month in Southern California. "That's the exception. What we saw with Eloy was more the norm.

 

"You miss the bulk of spring-training at-bats, you rehab by yourself away from big league pitching from a catastrophic injury, it makes all the sense in the world it's going to take you a little time to get your legs back under you, to get your swing back, get your timing back, get your strength back. And I think we saw all that down the stretch.

"The good news is, long term, there really should be no problem getting him back to where he was with a more normal schedule."

As Hahn alluded to, any excitement over Jiménez returning to form is as much about the long term as it is about the 2022 season. Jiménez is a franchise cornerstone, signed to that contract extension before he made his big league debut in 2019, one that keeps him in a White Sox uniform through the 2026 season. It keeps Jiménez in the middle of that order throughout what's expected to be a lengthy contention window.

But as much as the White Sox remain focused on the long term — with plans to further the developments of players like Michael Kopech and Andrew Vaughn at the major league level during the 2022 season — it's undoubtedly win-now time on the South Side. Something that Jiménez cannot just be a help with but a featured player, as important a piece of the championship puzzle as anyone.

Arguably, that means being an even bigger piece than anyone the White Sox could still add to that puzzle when Hahn's offseason work resumes.

There will be plenty of reasons to envision big-time success for the White Sox in 2022. Among the biggest?

"Go back to being Eloy."

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