GLENDALE, Ariz. — There is no getting around the magnitude of the loss of Eloy Jimenez.
Publicly, teammates, coaches and front office voices are saying what they would be expected to say, that the White Sox are deep enough offensively even without Jimenez and coupled with a good-looking pitching staff to forge ahead and still be a postseason team as they have expected to be.
“Next man up,” as Opening Day starter Lucas Giolito said.
Privately, they must be thinking that losing a Silver Slugger poised to ascend into All-Star company, a middle of the order masher who hits for average and to all fields and over walls from pole to pole is a crushing blow. Jimenez was not forgotten Sunday, his red batting glove hanging out of MVP Jose Abreu’s back pocket.
He won’t be forgotten all season long.
With Jimenez, many viewed the Sox as the team to beat in the AL Central, and many saw them as the best team in the American League. Without him, Billy Hamilton might be getting more reps in left field than anyone imagined a month ago.
“That’s a big blow. No way around that,” Giolito said. “I think we have that mentality. Injuries are going to happen. Things out of our control are going to happen.
“It’s like, what do we do now? Next man up, we have that culture in our clubhouse where we are going to support each other. We are all going to fight and do everything we can. It really sucks to lose Eloy for these next X amount of months, we have guys for that role and it’s just more motivation.”
Andrew Vaughn, a first baseman by trade, played left field for the second time in three days Sunday, an indication the Sox are seriously considering using him there quite a bit. La Russa didn’t rule out the possibility and for the second time, Vaughn wasn’t a hazard out there, catching a routine fly and getting the ball into second on a double.
Reliance on a pitching staff featuring four who finished in the top 10 in AL Cy Young voting last season. A rotation of Giolito, Dallas Keuchel, Lance Lynn, Dylan Cease and Carlos Rodon (which has featured a combined 2.24 ERA this spring) and a bullpen touted as one of the best in baseball looks very good at the surface. With Jose Ruiz or recent waiver claim Nik Turley as the top 13th arm candidates on the staff and largely untested prospects Jimmy Lambert and Jonathan Stiever first in line for next man up, the Sox’ depth will be tested.
With Adam Engel, who is working his way back from a hamstring strain, in left field – or Leury Garcia, who like Engel has played a lot in center — the Sox can be stronger defensively if La Russa chooses them to be.
“The only place you can look at is left field,” La Russa said. “Center field, right field, all four infield spots, catcher [are good]. … Whether it’s Andrew or who plays left field, they’ll hold their own. So I think it’s a contender kind of defense. Talk is cheap, but that’s what I think.”
After six weeks of spring training, in which the Sox lost reliever Jimmy Cordero to Tommy John surgery, Engel for the first couple of weeks and Jimenez, the Sox open the season with four games in Anaheim starting Thursday.
“The definition of how ready we are comes Thursday night when the other side is trying to beat you,” La Russa said. “I would not change anything about effort level of the club, the attention to the practices and nobody is been half-stepping it. No excuses.
“The weather has cooperated. We generated a lot of playing time. Lately we’ve been more competitive so that’s more fun. But there’s a lot of talent and in this game, you have to execute plays, pitches, at-bats, and I think we are a team that’s learning. But we are fast learners.”