The injury to Eloy Jimenez at the tail end of Spring Training left the White Sox in a position where they needed to piece together the puzzle of a team with championship aspirations. How would they address the void in the middle of the lineup, and how would they juggle the playing time for the left field and DH positions?
Ten days into the season, we may be moving towards some clarity. Social media darling, Yermin Mercedes, has taken the bull by the horns slashing .536/.594/.857 in 32 PA to open the season. In the process, Mercedes is laying claim to the DH position until he shows he can no longer handle it.
Mercedes’ emergence has created a number of questions on how this roster will be comprised moving forward in the near term. Many believe Plan A was for top prospect, Andrew Vaughn to be the full-time DH as he acclimated himself to Major League pitching.
However, the injury to Jimenez caused the team to shift gears and attempt to deploy their top prospect in left field. Finally getting his opportunity at the big league level, Mercedes is intent on staying for the long haul. With defensive liabilities himself, there is simply nowhere they can put him aside from the DH spot. So maneuvering these pieces has proven to be quite the task in the early going, with the only real certainty being Mercedes’ presence in the lineup.
What Happens in Left Field?
Yermin’s torrid start has, for the time being, filled a void at the DH position. This is welcomed news, as this spot has been a relative black hole for a number of years at 35th/Shields. So for the moment, left field remains the biggest question mark on the roster. Tony La Russa has not shown a willingness to give Vaughn everyday playing time, starting him in only five of the team’s nine games to this point. In fact, La Russa has given no assurances to Vaughn’s position with the team:
If Andrew Vaughn isn’t able to get everyday PAs in place of Billy Hamilton and Nick Williams, I’m not sure what we are doing here. The problem will be compounded in short order when Adam Engel returns from the hamstring injury he sustained at the latter end of Spring Training. We all know Engel is a plus defender and showed significant improvements at the plate dating back to his recall during the 2019 season. However, we’ve seen on multiple occasions that Engel can be overexposed by playing every day. Engel is truly best suited for a role where he is a late-inning defensive replacement and a platoon starter against LHP.
I’m of the belief (with no evidence to support my theory) that upon Engel’s return he will be seeing a majority of the action in left field due to his defensive exploits. If this indeed the case, and probably regardless, if he isn’t going to see everyday PAs, I truly don’t see the purpose to Andrew Vaughn on the active roster. Now, I was one of the individuals that believed the White Sox should’ve insulated their roster with another option to start the year at DH instead of Vaughn. They chose not to do that, but allowing him to be on the bench instead of getting consistent PAs is negligence at this point.
If Tony La Russa doesn’t believe Andrew Vaughn should be in the lineup every day, fine. Send him down to the alternate site until the minor league season gets going in a few weeks. When minor league play finally resumes, allow Vaughn to get some of the much-needed seasoning against high-level minor league pitching he wasn’t afforded in 2020 due to the pandemic. I always felt there was significant risk with asking Vaughn to step into a big league batter’s box to begin 2021, and I say that as someone who is a big believer in what he will ultimately become because of his hit tool. Forcing Andrew Vaughn to hit his way into the lineup every day in Chicago and allowing him to work on manning a corner outfield position isn’t a bad thing.
Simply put, the organization isn’t doing Andrew Vaughn any favors in terms of his development by not playing him every day. We all know Tony La Russa is the most powerful man in the organization not named Jerry Reinsdorf, so if he won’t play Vaughn every day, they should put him in a place where he can do so ensuring his development isn’t stunted.
It’s not fair to Andrew Vaughn to be in this position, and in some ways, it may help the 2021 White Sox. Vaughn has looked a little overmatched to this point, but that is almost to be expected from a guy who has never stepped in a batter’s box above High A Winston-Salem. I firmly believe this kid is going to be a really good Major League hitter, but he needs to be allowed to mature and develop into that finished product. He can’t do that without being in the batter’s box every single day.
The Road Ahead
The development and emergence of Yermin Mercedes is a very welcomed one for the White Sox. If he continues to mash, albeit probably not at this level, the White Sox will be better positioned to have a successful season. Having another impactful bat in the middle of the order will help this team overcome the long-term loss of Eloy Jimenez, who in all likelihood will not be the normal Eloy Jimenez should he return at any point in 2021.
From a player development standpoint, this team needs to figure out what to do with Andrew Vaughn. For me, there are really only two options: either allow him to play every day in left field at the corner of 35th/Shields, or remove him from the active roster so he can do so at another level.
This team has invested too much into his future to have his development stunted because they have a manager who refuses to play him every day. The White Sox have a juggling act they need to perform from here on out due to the challenges of their roster construction. Let’s just hope they are able to do it effectively for everyone involved.