What to make of an impending roster crunch in Sox outfield

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich

The Chicago White Sox outfield is about to get mighty crowded.

It might count as one of those good problems to have, sure. And certainly getting Luis Robert back is a very good thing for this team.

But while Robert and Eloy Jiménez were on the shelf, the guys who stepped in and stepped up did a more than admirable job helping to keep the White Sox championship hopes afloat. Now with Jiménez back — though with questions about how ready his legs were for the daily grind yielding to four straight missed games with groin tightness, he's not exactly the everyday left fielder quite yet — and Robert nearing the end of his rehab assignment, what happens to those bench players who provided invaluable substitution work?

RELATED: What Goodwin's walk-off homer says about Sox title pursuits

"There have been a lot of stories to get to this position," White Sox manager Tony La Russa said Sunday. "We knew we were going to play here without their buddies, and they've continued to be productive. The guys who were brought into the organization late, they stepped up."

Gavin Sheets and Brian Goodwin have provided the White Sox only two walk-off homers this season, delivering two of their most exciting victories.

Leury García's versatility will never stop being appealing, no matter what the fan reaction might be to his presence in the lineup.


Adam Engel has been quietly excellent, with six homers and a .927 OPS in just 25 games this season.

And Billy Hamilton, though currently on the injured list with a strained oblique, is the obvious possessor of game-changing speed, the guy who's made the team's most impressive defensive play of the season and someone La Russa constantly lauds for his timely hits.

And also: Remember Jake Lamb? He, too, is nearing the end of a rehab assignment at Triple-A Charlotte. How does he fit into all this?

It's quite the puzzle the White Sox will have to put together. And just like Danny Mendick and Jake Burger became victims of recent roster crunches, there could be more role-playing contributors squeezed out in the coming days.

"We're going to have a lot of difficult decisions to make on the roster," White Sox starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel said before Jiménez's return last month. "We've got some guys playing really, really, really good ball."

Indeed, Goodwin is fresh off his signature moment in a productive season, drilling a walk-off homer to beat the Cleveland Indians on Sunday. He's taken valuable at-bats and played valuable innings in the outfield while Jiménez and Robert have been on the shelf, and he's carved out a spot for himself on this team.

"Just grateful to be in position to get the opportunity. That's first and foremost. Without the opportunity, I don't have a chance to do any of this," Goodwin said after Sunday's game. "Much love to Tony and the guys up top here, and my teammates for rallying around me, supporting me and just showing me love. I'm just appreciative of everything that I've been getting. I try not to let the opportunity slip, take advantage of every single day."

Then there's Sheets, who has worked hard on adding right field to his defensive repertoire over the last couple years. He's taken advantage of opportunities in right field and at designated hitter and has produced to the tune of six homers and an .807 OPS in 26 games.

But asked how the outfield would fit together with Robert and Lamb back on the 26-man roster, La Russa's comments signaled, perhaps, that Sheets could find himself as the odd man out, just because it'll be difficult to find him at-bats with Jiménez and Andrew Vaughn sharing time between left field and DH and Robert soaking up starts in center, pushing all the available outfielders into right.

"(You) look at playing time," La Russa said Tuesday. "Brian is showing he can play all three outfield spots, that’s really important. Jake’s played some third base to go along with the outfield work. And Sheets has really been impressive.

"But can we give him enough at-bats to feel like he’s on the right track and not regressing? That’s really going to be the key. ... That’s really the thing with Sheets, if he’s here, can he play enough to help us and help himself."


While Robert's return figures to give him the everyday center-field job right away, and Engel doesn't figure to go anywhere as a sensational defender putting up great offensive numbers, someone who was ticketed for the important fourth-outfielder job before the season started, the other guys might find there aren't enough at-bats — or roster spots — to share. For what it's worth, Goodwin, Sheets and Lamb all bat left-handed.

So might Sheets, the youngster of the bunch who's shown plenty during his brief stint in the majors, be following his buddy Burger on the road back to the minors? It's a possibility. Of course, rosters will expand in September, providing an easy path to a return trip for Sheets. Others might not be able to be brought back so simply.

All this is before the White Sox would be forced to make more significant decisions when putting together a playoff roster.

Obviously, the big win is having Jiménez and Robert back in the everyday lineup, and no matter the contributions of those who have filled in, that's the most important thing for the White Sox moving forward. But they also wouldn't be where they are if not for the Goodwins and Hamiltons and Engels and Sheetses of the world, and they could benefit from the depth those players provide as they continue to chase a championship, making the puzzle an important — and difficult — one to put together.

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