For White Sox’ Eloy Jimenez, talk of defensive struggles is an instant mood changerSteve Greenbergon March 12, 2021 at 11:04 pm

Chicago White Sox v Cleveland Indians
Jimenez makes a sliding catch last season. | Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

One of the most likable athletes in Chicago, Jimenez is delighted to be here, there, anywhere. But being seen as a less-than-complete player is never fun.

Nobody makes an entrance like White Sox slugger Eloy Jimenez.

Not into a room. Not into a Zoom.

His loud, happy hellos and wide, beaming smiles are merely signs of all the other charming things that come with the 6-4, 235-pound 24-year-old. This is a guy who’s delighted to be here, there, anywhere.

Especially when he homers off a scoreboard during the same game in which he hits a rare stand-up triple, which was the case for Jimenez on Thursday.

“I liked both!” he cracked a day later after asking reporters which hit they thought he enjoyed more.

But one of the most likable athletes in Chicago turned almost sullen and slipped into a monotone when asked about his defense in left field and the reality that the picture many have of the 2020 Silver Slugger winner continues to be that of a less-than-complete player.

“I don’t want to come out in the seventh inning,” he said. “That’s why I work hard every single day and try to do my best at being a complete player. That’s why I take so much pride to do everything I can to go out and play hard for my team.”

We should point out that Jimenez’s “sullen” didn’t last long. It never does. But there is no doubting at all that this — his subpar defense — is his least favorite baseball subject. There’s also no doubting that, as the stakes get higher for a Sox team expected to contend for a division title and more, the subject isn’t going to go away.

“I try not to hear that,” he said at the start of the spring.

But he really doesn’t have any choice. Especially not if he produces more gaffes such as falling into the protective netting while a batter circles the bases for an inside-the-part home run. Or merely falling into the netting without consequence, which also happened last season. Or — as all shaky outfielders do sometimes — taking poor routes to the baseball and turning outs into hits.

Or even — yes — having center fielder Luis Robert run all the way over and catch a ball that Jimenez is perfectly well positioned to field routinely. That has happened, too. It’s not on Jimenez when it does, but such a spectacle only perpetuates the image of a defensive weak link.

“I’ll keep working hard and try to change their minds with my work,” he said.

Jimenez keeps at it with Sox coach Daryl Boston and remains driven in large part by his preference not to be forced into a designated-hitter role. This isn’t a new story. But just like Cubs fans saw Kyle Schwarber go from awful to perhaps almost average as a left fielder, Sox fans can at least hope to witness something similar.

“I think he’s tremendous,” teammate Adam Eaton said. “I think it speaks for himself [that] the willingness to learn is huge.”

Jimenez has said he wants to win an MVP award, and soon. He’s openly gunning for 40-plus home runs this season. Manager Tony La Russa sees Jimenez these days as being further along than most Sox hitters in preparation for Opening Day. He could be in line for a monster 2021 at the plate.

But that doesn’t give him any extra rope in left.

As general manager Rick Hahn said last month: “He doesn’t like being defensively replaced. It doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. … The short answer is, yes, he’s the left fielder. The longer answer is it’s not inconceivable that Tony deploys him from time to time as the DH.”

As likable as Jimenez is, the sight of him lying helplessly in the netting is definitely more alarming than charming.

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