Maybe Eloy Jiménez is improving defensively in left field.
But it’s undoubtedly tough to figure out whether that’s the case or not when he does the kind of thing that happened in the fifth inning Thursday night.
Christian Yelich lifted a fly ball to left field, near the foul line. He might have thought it was foul because he wasn’t moving very fast out of the batter’s box or down the first-base line. Jiménez came over to try to make a play and very much didn’t. The ball dropped past his outstretched arm, and unable to slow himself down, he went tumbling into the netting and into the seats while the ball rolled around in the outfield and Yelich motored around the bases for an inside-the-park home run.
“Was it a tough play for him? Yes,” White Sox manager Rick Renteria said after the game. “Could it have been made? Should it have been made? It’s possible, yes.”
That result, which tied the game at 2 and started a four-run inning for the Milwaukee Brewers en route to an 8-3 win over the White Sox, makes the play particularly more glaring than some of the other Jiménez misadventures in the outfield.
But there have been others, and those moments are sticking in the minds of fans and observers who are trying to figure out whether Jiménez should be out there at all.
Renteria stuck to the same line he’s used before when discussing Jiménez and outfield defense. And though certain fans will claim they’ve “seen enough,” the White Sox aren’t ready to dramatically alter their long-term outlook because one of their finest young hitters — who’s still just 23 years old, by the way — is still developing as a defender.
“The story is not finished at all in terms of where he’s at defensively or how he’s going to improve,” Renteria said. “My expectation is that he will still continue to improve. I’m going to state that this is probably a blip, and time will tell if I’m absolutely off my rocker and wrong.
“It was an inside-the-parker to tie the game. Everybody will clamor to that. Unfortunately for him, we weren’t able to turn the offense around to kind of quiet everything, so that’s the thing that stands out a lot. I don’t blame anybody for looking at it. It’s a legitimate perspective and a legitimate question to ask.
“This one is not going to take away my belief in that this young man is going to continue to work.”
That’s a very reasonable approach by the manager, and his long-term outlook could certainly wind up coming to fruition.
On the other hand, we just went through this a week ago.
Jiménez crashed into the outfield wall during the season’s third game, hitting his head and needing to leave not long after. He missed the following two contests while waiting for the league to give him the green light to return to action. The conversation about Jiménez needing to play smarter and whether he’s a good defender are two different ones. But it’s hard not to put it all under the same umbrella of left-fielding.
Jiménez has been adamant in his desire to improve out there, working daily with outfield coach Daryl Boston and reacting disgustingly when someone suggests he should think about DH’ing.
“F**k that,” he said in January.
While Jiménez swings a bat capable of doing big-time damage, the truth is he’s not yet a finished product as a defender. The questions zipping around social media, though, wonder if that finished product will ever roll off the assembly line.
If you're trying to figure else where else he could play, good luck. There’s already a logjam of sorts in the first base/designated hitter area on the White Sox roster, both this year and in the years to come. Renteria is already facing a juggling act when it comes to José Abreu, Edwin Encarnación, Yasmani Grandal and James McCann — not to mention Zack Collins, who started at DH on Thursday — and getting them at-bats. Even if both McCann, slated for free agency, and Encarnación, whose contract gives the White Sox a team option for 2021, aren’t part of that mix as soon as next season, one of baseball’s highest ranked prospects, Andrew Vaughn, figures not to be too far off from joining it.
Adding Jiménez to that mix creates a near impossibility when it comes to the number of bats that need to be in the daily lineup, plus then there’s a big hole in left field.
It’s not to say the White Sox are forced to keep Jiménez in left field for the entirety of his contract with no other courses of action. It’s to say that it’s a tough puzzle to solve — one that might have any overly desirable outcomes. Jiménez is too valuable to the lineup, and that might mean just dealing with some defensive misadventures every so often.
The question becomes, though, how much are the White Sox willing to trade off? Jiménez has both put his health in jeopardy and cost the team runs with his play in left field. It’s certainly possible that all goes away with time. After all, he doesn't need to win a Gold Glove, he just needs to avoid damage to his body and on the scoreboard.
But as the games get more and more meaningful on the South Side, be it in this most unusual season’s race to October or under normal circumstances in future seasons — when already high expectations only figure to get bigger — how much longer can they afford that risk?