PHOENIX — On Thursday, White Sox manager Pedro Grifol said he would grant slugger Eloy Jiménez a day or two off upon his return from the World Baseball Classic, unless Jiménez talked him out of it. By Friday morning, his presence in the cleanup spot in the batting order was evidence that Jiménez talked him out of it.
“I’m getting ready for the season,” Jiménez explained on his first day back in the clubhouse. “We are here, why not?”
“He had a great experience down there,” Grifol said. “He wants to get ready for the season. I was going to give him a day off and he was like ‘I want to play.’ So all right, let’s play.”
Jiménez went 5-for-11 with a rocket double and two RBIs in the WBC, forcing his way into regular action after being left off the Dominican Republic lineup at the open of pool play. His outfield defense wasn’t perfect, and it’s not like Jiménez’s offensive talent was in question, but his performance in a high-leverage environment demonstrated his offseason preparation and conditioning.
“It was good, I feel really good, I think I did good,” said Jiménez, who raved that it was the most intense environment he’s ever played in. “Something I will never forget but not the result I wanted. Now we’re here, getting ready for the season and that’s the most important thing.”
A booming double off the top of the left-center wall in Friday’s 4-4 tie with the Cubs drove in a run and affirmed that Jiménez’s timing is in a decent place, but he did mention that he hopes to play more outfield by the end of spring. Grifol acknowledged the recent tests of Oscar Colás in center field could offer a possibility for how the Sox navigate Luis Robert Jr.’s off days, with Jiménez in right.
“He’s a guy that we feel we can throw out there a couple of times a week, or two out of 10 days and be fine,” Grifol said of Colás in center. “We’re trying to leave no stone unturned when it comes to something that might pop up during the regular season. Obviously if something pops up and it’s a day or two and we get somebody else in there, we have the ability to put somebody else in there. If it’s not (an injured list) situation then we have to be covered, so we have to feel comfortable with where we put players to play during the regular season. That’s why we’re doing it here.”
White Sox top prospect Colson Montgomery will tell you openly that his carrying trait is his plate discipline. He laughed at a mention of taking so many borderline offerings during a live batting practice session that pitching coach Ethan Katz wondered if he was just tracking pitches, rather than hitting. Montgomery, 21, clearly enjoyed standing in against Joe Kelly, because all the hesitation moves the veteran reliever employed challenged his already active obsession with timing up opposing pitchers.
“When I’m on time, everything kind of slows down for me,” Montgomery said. “When I’m not on time, I feel like the game speeds up on me real quick. Things look a lot faster, things look more disgusting, their off speed and stuff. In the offseason, that’s what I worked on and that’s what I’m doing now.”
Part of what Montgomery is referring to with his offseason work is facing off against the iPitch machine at the facility for The Bledsoe Agency in Tennessee. Best understood as an automated pitching machine, it touts the ability to simulate velocity up to 100 mph and spin up to 3,000 RPM coming out of different release points, with randomized sequences. For a cool $14,000 starting price, it can be yours, if you’re not fortunate enough to have your representation provide one for you.
“It’s gross,” Montgomery said, which is how the young kids talk about someone having nasty stuff. “Some of the big leaguers like Brandon Lowe and them said this thing, if you can hit off this, you can hit any big leaguer, because it was just that gross. It’s very realistic too with the spin and stuff like that. It was just good. Not many people here really challenge themselves that much in the offseason with a whole bunch of failure like with that iPitch, but I felt as I did that it prepared me really well for the season. When I came here knowing I was trying to hit off that thing, I came here and I was hitting off these arms, everything kind of slowed down.”
Montgomery walked as often as he struck out during his time at High-A Winston-Salem last year. And while some signs of physical fatigue at the end of his first full professional season hampered him during his time at Project Birmingham, just returning to Double A puts Montgomery on a timeline where fans and evaluators will be assessing the major-league readiness of his bat sooner than later. So, if hitting off the iPitch readies you to hit any big leaguer pitcher, can Montgomery hit iPitch?
“Yeah!” he replied with a laugh. “Yes! … Sometimes.”
Jake Burger entered spring training needing to fight his way to an Opening Day roster spot. A spring assignment to add first base to his abilities — and despite his bat, he’s never played there previously at any level— signaled a depth role, where his lefty-smashing skills and power bat could be readily stashed at Triple-A Charlotte. He certainly would need a strong March to reverse that course, and having as many home runs (four) as any other Cactus League hitter certainly speaks to the skill set he could provide.
“I don’t know what he does, but he has a ton of power,” raved teammate Oscar Colás through an interpreter. “It’s incredible.”
Burger’s strength is what he is trying to remain cognizant of this spring. Burger has a visible hand load in his swing. While it’s helpful for keeping him fluid, it’s important to not let it get too big. Both because it can put him behind for catching up to same-handed velocity (.224/.271/.392 against right-handers last season), and because, well, there’s no need.
“I’ve matured in that sense that I’ve got enough pop, I don’t need to reach for more,” Burger said. “There are some tendencies, in big situations, where I might do that. When I was at my best last year, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was not trying to do too much and just get the barrel to the ball. I feel like I’ve zoned in on that and that’s what I worked on all offseason. Not trying to hit it as hard as I can because I’m going to hit it hard. Just control the swing and make the moves a lot smaller and a lot more compact, and I’ll have more success with barrel consistency.”
As the clear favorite for the job, Seby Zavala’s resume to be the White Sox backup catcher doesn’t need to go much further than the fact that he graded out well above average by Statcast’s framing and blocking metrics. Run the game, help the pitching staff and keep the ball in front of you is all you can ask for from a receiver playing once per series.
“I’d rather go 0-for and win every game,” Zavala said, a frequent sentiment he offers about his offense.
Coming off a year when he made such defensive strides, Zavala’s offseason work behind the plate was largely a repeat of the winter before. (“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said.) But he does think this April going differently than last could pay dividends over the course of the year. At the start of last season, Zavala’s place in the organization was a lot more tenuous. The Sox dealt for Reese McGuire to back up Yasmani Grandal and outrighted Zavala off the 40-man at the end of spring. He cleared waivers to stay with the only organization he’s known since getting drafted in 2015, but largely played first base at Triple A until he was called into duty to catch in Chicago when Grandal was sidelined.
“I went from playing first base every day in the minor leagues to catching every day in the big leagues,” Zavala said. “So my legs were shot. Everything was just less powerful, because I just went from not catching to catching every day.”
Zavala’s raw power and ability to pull the ball a long way have been a feature of his offensive game throughout the minors, and certainly was on display in his incredible three-homer game in 2021. He produced a very helpful .270/.342/.382 at the plate in the majors in 2022. Though the .404 batting average on balls in play might be hard for him to repeat, some more power production would help counteract if fewer hits fall. With a pair of tape measure Cactus League homers to point to, Zavala thinks his legs are powerful in his swing again.
“I think that was the main difference,” Zavala said. “Because everything I’m doing is about the same. I just have a little bit more juice in the bat. But I think that’s just from catching. If I went from first base and then caught every day, I’m sure the same thing will happen. I had a lot of home runs in the minor leagues. I know that doesn’t always translate to the big leagues, but I was hitting the ball hard last year, just they weren’t going out.”
(Top photo of Eloy Jiménez: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)