Eloy Jimenez has always shied from the thought of being a designated hitter, so word from manager Pedro Grifol that the 6-4, 240-pounder will work in right field during spring training with the idea of playing there in 2023 made the White Sox slugger’s new year.
“I’m really preparing myself for playing outfield more than DH,” Jimenez said Monday on a conference call.
With 2021 Gold Glove winner Andrew Benintendi signed to the richest contract in franchise history to play left field, it makes perfect baseball sense to slot the defensively challenged Jimenez at DH, where he produced a .274/.343/.500 hitting line with 11 home runs in 50 games last season.
Jimenez also stayed healthy at DH, avoiding the perils of outfield walls, side walls, nets, wet grass and the occasional minor crash with a center fielder. And that’s big for a team that needs a bat that won a Silver Slugger Award in 2020 but has appeared in 122, 55, 55 and 84 games from 2019 to 2022.
That doesn’t mean he has to like taking four at-bats a night without picking up his glove.
“I don’t think I’m going to accept it,” Jimenez said.
But with prized Cuban prospect Oscar Colas, a left-handed hitter, being touted as the top choice for regular right-field duty, the Sox would have a swifter, more athletic and stronger-armed option than Jimenez to cover the corner that demands a big arm.
But the Sox want to keep Jimenez, who would be a 40-homer candidate if he played 140 games, mentally engaged and upbeat about coming to the park every day.
“I’ve told him to continue to work in the outfield, to work some in right field, as well,” Grifol said.
In spring training two years ago, Jimenez jumped at the left-field wall for an uncatchable ball and tore a pectoral muscle. He has seemed the wiser for it, if not better. Jimenez was minus-2 in defensive runs saved in 231 innings in left field last season compared to minus-10 in 967 innings in 2019. So while he’s preparing himself for more outfield assignments than DH work, it doesn’t mean it will pan out that way.
In addition to Benintendi, Colas, Jimenez, Luis Robert and converted first baseman Gavin Sheets in the outfield, the Sox also signed veterans Jake Marisnick, Billy Hamilton and Victor Reyes to minor-league contracts with invitations to spring training for bench depth. Adam Engel wasn’t tendered a contract and signed with the Padres.
Perhaps motivated by his desire to play the field, or to be in better condition after his 2022 season was harpooned by a hamstring tear suffered running to first base in Minnesota in April, or to be ready to play the outfield for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic in March or as part of a collective effort by a team that disappointed in a big way in 2022, Jimenez strongly hinted that he’ll arrive at camp in better shape than last spring.
“I’m going to give you a surprise,” he said. “I’m not going to answer right now. You’re going to see me in spring training.
“It’s going to be a surprise.”
Truth be told, it would be something of a surprise if Jimenez actually gets substantial playing time in right field. The Sox pushed the envelope and suffered defensively by playing Sheets and Andrew Vaughn out of position in the outfield in 2022 and wisely have Vaughn penciled in where he belongs — at first base — in 2023.
But Jimenez is bent on showing he’s not as big a liability with a glove in his hand as most believe he is.
“Last year when I was DH’ing more than [playing] outfield, it was because I got surgery [for the hamstring tear],” he said.
“If I’m working hard, I’m going to get better, and I want to play in the outfield.”