Paul Sullivan: Eloy Jimenez’s injury confirms White Sox’s worst fears. For all involved, someone must tell him to stop taking so many risks.

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Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune
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CHICAGO — It’s bad enough knowing you just suffered a serious injury that potentially could force you to miss the entire season.

What’s worse for Chicago White Sox left fielder Eloy Jimenez, after suffering a torn left pectoral tendon while trying to make a catch Wednesday during a Cactus League game, is having to deal with all the criticism of his reckless decision-making.

And let’s face it: Trying to rob a hitter of a home run in a meaningless game is about as reckless as it gets.

Sox general manager Rick Hahn surely knows that, too, but didn’t want to kick Jimenez while he was down Thursday. Hahn said he couldn’t be upset with the young outfielder for “trying to make a play,” even though one of his best hitters needs surgery and will be out five to six months.

“Was it the right decision to go for that ball, especially when you put it in the context of spring training?” he rhetorically asked. “Perhaps not. But fundamentally you like the fact he was trying to make a play.”

Hahn said he would talk to Jimenez in the “much distant” future about “perhaps making some better decisions, or what we are expecting of him from a defensive standpoint.”

But the focus is on getting Jimenez healthy.

I don’t blame Hahn for not piling on. There will be enough of that on Twitter and the internet, and Jimenez is rightfully distraught over the news.

Unfortunately, those conversations already should have happened and in fact did between Jimenez and his mentor, Jose Abreu. It was only in August that Abreu spoke with Jimenez after the left fielder fell into the netting at Sox Park for the second time.

“I told him a few times to be careful about those plays,” Abreu said then. “But I know that sometimes, in the heat of the moment, you just want to make the play and you don’t think about getting hurt. But I’m telling him, ‘Hey, the only way you can do better and get better is just stay healthy. Because that means you’re going to be on the field every day. If you get hurt, it’s going to be difficult for you to keep improving because that’s going to stop the process.’

“I know he listens to me.”

Jimenez stayed out of the netting the rest of the season. But he couldn’t avoid getting hurt. During Lucas Giolito’s no-hitter, Jimenez twisted his ankle while celebrating by jumping up and down in the outfield. He limped off the field, and the injury was minor. He also missed time in September with a right foot sprain and was removed early from Game 3 of the AL Division Series against the Oakland A’s with the injury.

The “next man up” cliche is a myth. Jimenez’s bat can not be replaced in the Sox lineup. You can’t find someone who can hit 40 home runs and drive in 100 runs with one week left in spring training. He’s their version of Frank Thomas — a middle-of-the-lineup presence who can change a game with one swing.

It looks as if rookie first baseman Andrew Vaughn will be given an opportunity to start in left, along with Leury Garcia, opening up the designated hitter spot for a DH-by-committee. Vaughn hasn’t played left outside of the satellite camp last summer in Schaumburg but reportedly is a quick learner and deserves the first shot. Hopefully he succeeds and the Sox won’t look for an available free agent such as Yoenis Cespedes, who has an ego that probably wouldn’t fit in with this tight group.

This is the worst thing that could’ve happened to the Sox at the worst time, but no one can say they’re too surprised. Earlier this spring Jimenez had another collision in left with Luis Robert, who tends to encroach on Jimenez’s territory because he’s a much better fielder.

During a teleconference a week or so ago, Jimenez became defensive when being asked if he could see himself as a DH, insisting he wants to play the field. That defensive posture made me wonder whether Jimenez tried to rob the home run to prove he’s a decent outfielder.

Hahn agreed Jimenez does “take a great deal of pride in being a better defender than people give him credit for” and works hard to improve.

“He takes it seriously,” Hahn said. “Probably the most upset I’ve ever seen Eloy is when he’s being removed from games for defensive purposes. He wants to finish games. You’re asking me to read his mind a little bit, but it’s certainly possible that when he sees a chance to make a spectacular play he tries to do it, to sort of address some of those concerns on some level.”

Hahn added Jimenez’s “instinct” might have taken over Wednesday, “even though, upon reflection, it probably wasn’t the smartest decision at that time, all things considered.”

Certainly not in a Cactus League game. But manager Tony La Russa said it’s difficult to tell a player not to be aggressive.

“By in large aggressiveness is a trademark of a productive pitcher or a player and learned,” La Russa said. “You’ve got to be careful about coaching aggressiveness out of a player. You don’t coach it out of him. You try to preach caution, and that usually comes with experience.

“I’m certain when Eloy gets back, maybe we’ll play him a little deeper, and when he feels that warning track he’ll be careful. Young enthusiasm. You don’t want to insult him by saying it was a bad play. It wasn’t a bad play. He was trying to make a play. But you learn as you get older how to stay healthy.”

Jimenez, 24, is a smart young man, but he’s also stubborn. And old habits are hard to change.

But for the sake of his career — and for the Sox’s future — someone must tell him to stop taking so many risks.