GLENDALE, Ariz. — Eloy Jimenez has a few bats on display in a room back home in the Dominican Republic, reminders of special occasions from his brief professional career.
Two of the bats are from his appearances in the MLB Futures Game in 2016 and ’17. Another is the one he used to hit his first major league grand slam last season. And one is split in half.
That broken bat, the one he snapped while hitting a game-winning home run against the Cubs in June, might be the most special of the bunch.
“It was my first homer at Wrigley Field and my first homer with a broken bat,” Jimenez said. “So why not?”
Jimenez, 23, said he’s over the Cubs, who in July 2017 sent him and Dylan Cease to the White Sox for Jose Quintana in the biggest crosstown deal in decades. Quintana has been effective for the Cubs for the most part, but the deal will be thrown in the Cubs’ faces for years to come if Jimenez builds on a strong rookie season.
Jimenez is in a very good spot now, starting in left field for a Sox team that expects to contend and feeling more comfortable after ceding the spotlight this spring to rookie Luis Robert.
Although he admits being dealt in 2017 hurt, Jimenez declared, “I’m at home” on the South Side.
But even if he’s truly over the Cubs, Jimenez still enjoys giving their fans a chance to see him succeed. He hit 31 home runs in 122 games as a rookie, so it would have been hard to ignore him.
This could be an even bigger season for Jimenez, who admittedly felt some pressure last year as the “next big thing” of the Sox rebuild. For that to happen, he needs to stay healthy. He missed three weeks in late April and May after injuring his right ankle trying to climb the outfield fence and another 10 days in July stemming from an outfield collision in Kansas City, Mo.
It was no secret the Cubs felt Jimenez was expendable because of his defensive issues and the possibility he eventually would turn into a designated hitter, which the National League doesn’t have yet.
Manager Rick Renteria kept in Jimenez in close games most of the time last season instead of lifting him late for defensive purposes, letting the rookie feel his way around. The fact the Sox were out of contention the entire second half made that easier for Renteria, but if the Sox are as good as advertised in 2020, the late-inning decisions will be closely scrutinized.
“We did it a couple times but not an inordinate amount,” Renteria said. “I would like not to have to do that, to be honest. Every player should take pride in being able to play on both sides of the baseball.
“It offers you (an advantage), especially on the offensive side, being able to keep him in, just in case something gets out of whack. You still have him available to you. I still try to win ballgames in nine innings. I don’t think too much about extra innings.”
Jimenez said he had too much on his mind last year, which affected his defense much of the season.
“I didn’t play very good,” he said. “But in the last month you could see I can do everything. For me, this year is going to be huge.”
Jimenez made a nice, sliding grab against the Giants on Wednesday at Camelback Ranch and has been getting in a lot of innings early in the Cactus League season, a sign he’s serious about improving defensively. The Sox don’t need him to be a Gold Glover. But they do need Jimenez on the field, which means avoiding crashing into walls or colliding with Robert while trying to man left field.
Jimenez said he’s not out to prove anyone wrong and seemingly has accepted the notion that his critics aren’t going to change their minds, no matter what he does.
“I just focus on my job and let people think it,” he said.
Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber was in Jimenez’s shoes a few years ago, especially after some miscues in the 2015 National League Championship Series against the Mets. But he has made significant strides through hard work and repetition and has one of the better arms among regular left fielders.
There’s no doubt Jimenez will put in the same effort — he arrives at the Sox facility at 5:30 a.m. daily to start his workout routine — and can avoid being sentenced to the DH role until he’s good and ready.
He already has proved the ability to develop into an elite power hitter, which is why the Sox acquired him. Whether it was premature for Jimenez to say he could hit 50 home runs, as he did this spring, is debatable. Either way, you have to like his confidence.
“Someone asked me, and I said, ‘Why not?’ ” he said. “I don’t feel there’s any pressure on me because I know I can do it. It doesn’t need to happen this year, but I know it’s going to come with the work I put into it. The more I learn, the easier it will be.”
It would’ve been easier on many Cubs fans if the front office had traded Jimenez to the Pirates or Padres or any other team so that they wouldn’t have to see him or hear his name when hanging out with friends and family who root for the Sox.
Maybe if he were playing somewhere besides the South Side, Cubs fans eventually would forget he was once theirs. But that, obviously, is not the case.
“They know who I am,” he said.
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