Let’s begin by stating the obvious: Jon Jay is not Manny Machado. If the White Sox hadn’t tried to sign the 26-year-old All Star this offseason, maybe Jay wouldn’t even be at Camelback Ranch prepping for the 2019 season as a member of the White Sox.
But now that Machado has signed with the San Diego Padres, leaving the White Sox with the rest of his Miami crew of Jay and Yonder Alonso, what do the White Sox have?
Of course, not Machado. He was the key to all of this. He alone would have helped to jumpstart the rebuild, given White Sox fans even greater hope for the future and ended the narrative that the franchise won’t spend top dollar on premium free agents. A quarter of a billion dollars was big money, but not big enough.
But on the day that the White Sox faced the Cubs in Mesa, players on the North Side recognized someone the South Siders did add this offseason not named Machado, and they are Cubbie blue with envy.
“I still wish he was on our side in Chicago,” Kyle Schwarber said about Jay. “But it’s going to be great to have him on the South Side.”
Jay was a Cub in 2017. Just one season. But two years later, Cubs players are still talking about what the veteran outfielder meant, not just to a team that won the NL Central and lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS, but to young players like Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ, who recognized the value that Jay brings to the field and the clubhouse.
"He's the best person of all time,” Happ said about Jay. “He's just the ultimate dude. No one has ever played with him that was like, ‘I don't like him.’ Everybody loves him.”
The respect for Jay isn’t limited to him just being “a great guy” and “the ultimate teammate.” Schwarber credits Jay with helping him recover from his season-long slump in 2017, when Schwarber hit just .211 and was sent back down to the minors in June.
“I think he made me a better baseball player, especially going through 2017 where I was having the worst year of my career,” Schwarber said. “Being able to just take me out to dinner, sit down, talk to me. He was the person who was there to just vent to and ask questions. He definitely helped me out in the outfield. He was one of those people who you’re never going to forget what they brought to you when you’re in this game.”
When Jay signed with the Cubs, he said what really appealed to him was being able to mentor Almora, another product of South Florida who had trained with Jay in the offseason. Carlos Beltran mentored Jay when he broke in with the Cardinals. Jay did the same with Almora as they split center-field duties that season.
“Wow. He brought a lot. On a personal level, he kind of put me under his wing and showed me routines,” Almora explained about Jay. “Giving me advice on what to do when I wasn’t playing and when I was playing. He made me grow as a player, so those are the kind of things I’ll never forget. He’s a great overall player. We were super fortunate to have him here and learn from him, and have him be a voice in our clubhouse. The White Sox got a good guy there.”
Leadership can be an overrated virtue in baseball. Can he play or not? That’s really what it comes down to in the end. Last season with the Kansas City Royals and Arizona Diamondbacks, Jay hit .268/.330/.347 and was a top-three finalist for a Gold Glove in the National League. His stats might not jump off the page, but the void left by Jay on last year’s Cubs team was bigger than most people think.
“We definitely missed him, Schwarber said. "I’m not saying that’s why we didn’t win the division. I think he was a kind of person that would make sure he’s going to get the best out of someone, and bring out a lot of positives in people. That goes a long way in this game. I would say that he’s a very much needed clubhouse presence. I think that’s something that people don’t see. How much that’s needed in a clubhouse. He brings that X-factor. I think his play on the field speaks for itself. He always puts in a quality at-bat. He’s as solid as it gets in the outfield. I’ve got a lot of respect for the guy.”
With the White Sox, Jay has an army of young players he can work with, especially in spring training with outfielders like Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, Blake Rutherford, Micker Adolfo, etc.
He’s also a player who can be the glue in a clubhouse that brings everyone together.
“He's a chameleon," Happ said. "A Cuban dude who speaks Spanish. He talked to all the Latin guys, he'd bring them together. He'd hang out with the white dudes, but that kind of clubhouse mesh, he was the best at."
Before Jay signed with the Cubs, Schwarber said that Jason Heyward and John Lackey were raving about their former St. Louis Cardinals teammate.
“When he came into the clubhouse, I was expecting that this guy was going to be an impact in the clubhouse and I think he exceeded my expectations on that part where you just don’t realize how good of a person he is until you actually meet him face to face and play a season with him," Schwarber said. "I think the White Sox are definitely going to be lucky to have that guy on their side and in the clubhouse.”
For White Sox fans, Jay and Alonso seem like the Machado consolation prize. Instead of getting the whole Miami crew, it’s like settling for Ft. Lauderdale. No offense to Ft. Lauderdale, or even Jay and Alonso, who are legitimate players in their own right. Alonso was an All Star in 2017. Jay has been to the playoffs six times and won a World Series with the Cardinals in 2011. They just aren’t the big attraction that many South Siders were dreaming about all winter. That was Machado.
“Even if they weren’t trying to go after Manny or not, (Jay and Alonso) are two acquisitions that are great for that ballclub,” Almora said about his fellow Floridians joining the White Sox. “They’re going to be great. They’re going to be a great team. Jay and Alonso with the passion that they bring to games, and their work ethic is awesome. I’m excited for them.”
Of course, the two new White Sox veterans need to produce on the field as well. If Jay bats .200 and Alonso doesn’t hit for power, what they add to the clubhouse will be tough to measure in the win column.
Machado would have provided a whole other level of excitement for the White Sox, but that ship has sailed for the California coast. In Machado’s wake remain his longtime friend and his brother-in-law, who can’t give you Manny but can still make the White Sox better in 2019.
Jon Jay probably won’t sell tickets, but if you look at what he can bring to a White Sox team close to coming out of their rebuild, that’s something worth buying for now and the future.