White Sox

State of the White Sox: Designated hitter

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By White Sox Insiders
White Sox

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The 2019 season is over, and the White Sox — who have been focusing on the future for quite some time now — are faced with an important offseason, one that could set up a 2020 campaign with hopes of playoff contention.

With the postseason in swing and some time still before the hot stove starts cooking, let’s take a position-by-position look at where the White Sox stand, what they’re looking to accomplish this winter and what we expect to see in 2020 and beyond.

We’re moving on to designated hitter.

What happened in 2019

White Sox DHs were woefully ineffective in 2019, with Yonder Alonso’s midseason departure leaving few reliable options to turn to.

Alonso was scheduled to split time at both DH and first base with Jose Abreu, keeping both their productive bats in the middle of the lineup on a regular basis and allowing Abreu to rest a bit by playing in the field less. Things, of course, didn’t turn out that way when Alonso scuffled hard. Just two years removed from an All-Star appearance, Alonso batted .178/.275/.301 in his 67 games with the White Sox, contributing seven home runs and 27 RBIs before being released at the beginning of July.

Daniel Palka hit 27 home runs as a rookie in 2018, and though he was ticketed for the outfield when the season started, he always seemed best suited as a DH. But he couldn’t provide any help there, either, in 2019, sent to the minors far earlier than Alonso departed after a miserable 1-for-35 start to the season. He was dispatched to Triple-A and stayed there, with the exception of a handful of games in the middle of the summer, until September.

Without either of those guys making much of an impact, the DH spot was stocked with fill-ins for much of the season’s second half. Alonso still ended with the most games played at the position, with 42, and Abreu spent 34 games there, much to his chagrin as he doesn’t like DH’ing. Catchers Welington Castillo, Zack Collins and James McCann were third, fourth and fifth on the list at 21, 14 and 13 games, respectively. Matt Skole and A.J. Reed got their opportunities but were unimpressive in their production.

All in all, the offensive numbers from the DH spot were hideous in 2019: a collective .205/.285/.356 slash line from a position designed to add offensive damage to the lineup.

What will happen this offseason

And in digesting that rapid-fire history, it should come as no surprise that Rick Hahn has DH on his shopping list this winter.

In the long term, the best option might be Andrew Vaughn, the slugging first baseman who the White Sox took with the No. 3 overall pick in June’s draft. With questions about his defense accompanying that selection, perhaps his long-term spot is DH. But he’s not going to be ready for the 2020 team after finishing his first taste of pro baseball with five home runs between Class A affiliates in Kannapolis and Winston-Salem. Still, a rapid rise through the farm system, a la Nick Madrigal, wouldn't be out of the question for 2020.

And so the DH fix will have to come from outside the organization. And, as has been discussed here many times before, the most realistic route appears to be free agency. A rash of injuries and under-performances significantly impacted the White Sox minor league depth, and past the top-ranked prospects in the organization, it’s difficult to envision the kind of package that could bring an impact player to the South Side via trade.

Looking at the free-agent market, then, there’s one superstar bat that figures to be available in J.D. Martinez, the Boston Red Sox designated hitter who’s been one of the most productive guys in the game in recent seasons. He finished fourth in the AL MVP vote after a sensational 2018 season for the world champs, slashing .330/.402/.629 with 43 homers and a baseball-best 130 RBIs. He won not one but two Silver Sluggers for his efforts. This season, his numbers weren’t quite as out-of-this-world: a .304/.383/.557 line with 36 homers and 105 RBIs. But that’s still some high-level production that would look really good added to the middle of the White Sox lineup.

Martinez is also much more than his “Just Dingers” nickname suggests — despite the 184 home runs he’s launched since the start of the 2015 season — apparently a terrific clubhouse influence who helped turn Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts into stars in Boston.

Of course, Martinez figures to be an expensive addition. The White Sox have the financial flexibility to afford him, but even Hahn has acknowledged that fans will remain skeptical about the team’s ability to land a big-name free agent until his front office proves them wrong. One thing working in the White Sox favor could be a limited market, with few other teams out looking for a DH. But the markets were shockingly small for Manny Machado and Bryce Harper last winter, too.

If Martinez isn’t the guy come 2020, there are other options, though few with as much potential impact or experience DH’ing. Other hitters on the market this winter include Josh Donaldson, Mike Moustakas, Eric Thames, Hunter Pence and Brian Dozier.

We don’t know who it will be yet, but the White Sox will have a new DH in 2020.

What to expect for 2020 and beyond

As mentioned, there will be a new name supposed to take up the majority of the at-bats at DH, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see that person entrenched there for multiple seasons to come, especially if the White Sox are after a hitter the caliber of Martinez.

But this is a team that, like many others, values versatility, and it wouldn’t be a shock either to see other players rotated into DH’ing on a regular basis. Abreu is expected to be back, and surely the White Sox still have the same wish to keep him off his feet they did when they trumpeted the pending timeshare with Alonso before the 2019 season.

Similarly, Hahn continues to talk of the team’s desire to get Collins’ bat in the lineup more often. With defensive questions still dogging him as a catcher and McCann seemingly locked in as the No. 1 backstop for now, Collins making appearances as a DH would be a way to accomplish that goal.

But ideally the White Sox would add a bat of some sizable significance this winter, someone that would slot into the middle of the lineup on a daily basis. If they can do that, there’ll be a brand new “State of the Sox: DH” come Opening Day.

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