It bothers Eloy Jiménez that his defense has been repeatedly called into question.
Thankfully for him, he was busy playing last night and not scrolling through White Sox Twitter.
Without question, his latest misadventure in left field was a glaring one. He thought Christian Yelich’s fifth-inning fly ball Thursday night was heading to the warning track, he said Friday. Instead, it wound up near the foul line. The ball dropped past Jiménez’s outstretched arm, and he tumbled into the netting and into the seats as Yelich rounded the bases for an inside-the-park home run.
The highlight-reel nature of the play didn’t help. The fact that it tied the game and kicked off a four-run fifth inning in an eventual Brewers win over the White Sox was worse.
One embarrassing play in one game in one sophomore season can be forgiven. It’s the piling up of such misplays that is sticking in the minds of fans and observers, sparking questions about whether Jiménez can stick in left field long term.
Those questions are valid and those critiques are certainly allowed, manager Rick Renteria acknowledged after Thursday’s game and again before Friday’s.
But Jiménez admitted to being bothered by them and stuck to his pledge of defensive improvement he offered up back in January, when he greeted the idea of moving to designated hitter with a “f**k that.”
“It bothers me a little bit. But it’s part of this,” Jiménez said Friday. “People don’t think I can play defense. For me, it’s a challenge, and I know I can play.
“I’ve made a lot of progress because I work hard every single day. I try to be one of the best outfielders, not just one of the best hitters. I want to be a complete player and a nine-inning player.”
Certain fans will jump to the conclusion that they’ve seen enough, that improvement just isn’t happening. But it’s important to remember that improvement can take time. After all, Jiménez is just 23, with not a full season’s worth of major league games under his belt.
Just look elsewhere on the White Sox roster and see guys who overhauled their own games and corrected seemingly enormous issues. Lucas Giolito walked more batters than any pitcher in the American League in 2018. He was an All Star in 2019. Yoán Moncada struck out 217 times in 2018. He’s the best all-around player on the team right now.
Why can’t Jiménez make a similar jump if he keeps doing the kind of work he’s vowed to do?
“Sometimes we make decisions a little prematurely on individuals,” Renteria said. “I could be wrong. I'm not perfect. For anyone in the arena that thinks I'm that egotistical, I'm not really. I'm not really. I'm more of an optimist as opposed to a pessimist, and I believe my optimism is what drives me to try to help these guys excel.
“I'm expecting that, over time, Eloy will fall into a good category on the defensive side. And if it doesn't, we'll find ways to continue to augment his playing time out there.
“We're going to continue to do what we can and try to help him become the best outfielder he possibly can be. He always walks by and I always tell him, ‘Nine innings,’ because he doesn't like coming out (of the game for a defensive replacement).
“He wants to prove to everybody that he can play that outfield position very, very well. He's a driven kid. Time will tell us, and hopefully we make the right decision with him.”
Jiménez is so important to the White Sox lineup and to their long-term goal of contending for championships on an annual basis, that there’s plenty of validity to the argument that continued misadventures in left field could threaten his ability to stick in that lineup. Already, he’s been hurt on misplays three times, costing him games each time.
But not only does Jiménez’s youth provide ample evidence that he’s not yet a finished product — even while he blasts balls out to center field with his thunderous bat — but there are simply not many other places to put him. First base is spoken for with José Abreu under contract for at least three more years, and designated hitter would figure to be claimed, for the long term, once Andrew Vaughn arrives from the minor leagues. Plus, if you move Jiménez, you’re looking at a hole in left field without an easy internal fix.
And so the White Sox will lean on Renteria’s optimism and the great strides they’ve seen from some of their other young stars as Jiménez continues to gain experience playing left field at the major league level.
And Jiménez will keep working.
“Great players have bad days,” he said, “so for me, I’m just learning from that and just forget about it and keep moving forward.”