If not for all the speculation about Manny Machado, the man of the hour standing front and center at 6 feet, 4 inches tall at SoxFest would be Eloy Jimenez.
Everybody loves the next-best thing, and while Machado could be the best, shiniest, most expensive new thing to come along in a White Sox uniform in your lifetime, the actual next-best player is Jimenez, the No. 2-ranked prospect in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline. His hitting prowess, personality and poise beyond his 22 years make him a can’t-miss prospect if ever there was one.
And here’s something Jimenez offers that Machado — who seems none too eager to be part of the Sox’ rebuild — can’t: He’s here, he’s the real deal and he’s going to be wearing a Sox uniform for many years.
“We think the world of his future,’’ general manager Rick Hahn said. “Obviously, he’s still extremely young and is going to have to take that next step at the big-league level . . . but in terms of a guy who has a very strong likelihood of being a premium talent on a championship-caliber team for a long time, Eloy is on that list for sure.’’
Jimenez is for sure on the list of American League Rookie of the Year candidates, and he told a TV audience his goal in 2019 is to win that award.
“I want to be one of the best players in the league,” Jimenez said. “That’s my expectation.’’
Hahn, like everyone else, has great expectations for Jimenez but said he won’t be surprised if he’s talking the same way about center fielder Luis Robert at SoxFest 2020. And he emphasized, while acknowledging the very real possibility Machado signs elsewhere, that the guts of the rebuild is about the core of young talent and its depth. That’s what matters most.
“It was never going to be about one player,’’ Hahn said.
But if there’s one player who deserves face-of-the-rebuild status, with apologies to Michael Kopech (injured) and Yoan Moncada (who didn’t live up to his No. 1-prospect status in his first full season), it’s Jimenez, whose autograph was available for premium-upgrade convention-goers only.
At SoxFest 2018, prospects were the autograph darlings of fans. This year, fans are talking less about them and more about where Machado would bat in the middle of the lineup and whether he’d play third base or shortstop.
It could be a waste of breath. While the Sox are happy and deserve to “be at the table” with players of Machado’s ilk, Hahn seemed to be preparing fans for the real possibility that Machado, who reportedly is getting interest now from the Padres as well as the Phillies and Sox, might walk away from the Sox’ table.
“Most people viewed us as a long shot to land either of these premium free agents,’’ Hahn said about Machado and Bryce Harper. “At one point, Vegas posted the odds of the six or seven most likely clubs to land either of these guys, and we weren’t even listed. The fact that we are sitting in a potential position — or at least in a position where if we don’t convert, people are going to be disappointed — is an important step forward for this organization.’’
Receiving a participation trophy in the talks won’t be much of a consolation for fans.
“If for whatever reason we wind up not converting, I will certainly be disappointed,’’ Hahn said.
There will always be the free-agent market next offseason.
And Jimenez is here. And here to stay. And that’s a tangible consolation.