White Sox face multiple decisions in youth movement
Club's young talent must prove it's ready for big league stage
CHICAGO -- In the world known as White Sox reshaping, the team's 2014 Opening Day roster would feature members of the young core such as Matt Davidson, Marcus Semien, Jake Petricka and maybe even Micah Johnson, along with projected starters Adam Eaton, Avisail Garcia, Erik Johnson and Jose Abreu.
Unless Major League Baseball grants the White Sox seven or eight extra active roster spots or a handful of trades take place, that scenario won't happen. So there are plenty of Spring Training decisions to be made once pitchers and catchers report on Saturday, even for a team that doesn't seem to have a great deal of position battles to be fought.
Here's a look at some of those moves to be analyzed by general manager Rick Hahn, manager Robin Ventura and their staffs over the upcoming six weeks at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz.
Davidson: Minors or Majors? Take a look at most publications featuring White Sox preseason outlooks, and Davidson is listed as the team's starting third baseman. Make no mistake that the 22-year-old power-hitting acquisition from Arizona will be the club's third baseman for what it hopes is many years to come, but he might not be there on March 31.
Conor Gillaspie, a 26-year-old left-handed hitter who possesses an easy swing the White Sox like, is out of options. Jeff Keppinger, a 33-year-old veteran whom the White Sox expect to be significantly better than his White Sox debut in '13 and will be used in more of a super-utility role in '14, has two years and $8.5 million left on his contract. Neither player appears to be going anywhere.
Both Hahn and Ventura talked at SoxFest about Davidson having a viable shot to win the job out of Spring Training, but it won't be based purely on offensive numbers in hitter-friendly Arizona. If Davidson is not deemed ready, or enough regular at-bats aren't available, he won't be hurt by a little more time at Triple-A Charlotte.
Semien, Johnson and Carlos Sanchez: When will their time come? Semien clearly is Major League ready, physically and mentally. Johnson is moving quickly toward the Majors, literally and figuratively, and Sanchez has boosted his status and expectations once again following a strong Winter League effort in Venezuela. One thing to keep in mind is that the White Sox aren't afraid to take the best players available regardless of their service time, but this trio certainly won't knock out second baseman Gordon Beckham or shortstop Alexei Ramirez at the outset.
If nothing else, the team has a talented group of middle infielders that hasn't been seen within the organization for the past decade.
Leury Garcia: Where does he fit? When Paul Konerko decided to return for one more season in early December, it was assumed that switch-hitting Leury Garcia would fill the final bench spot because of his infield/outfield versatility. It was the kind of versatility needed with Konerko, Keppinger or Gillaspie and a backup catcher already taking three of four reserve roles. But the White Sox acquired Eaton, moving Alejandro De Aza into fourth outfielder status, and leaving the fleet-footed Garcia temporarily out of the picture. The White Sox have high hopes for Garcia, especially if he finds a consistent shorter swing.
Adrian Nieto: Should he stay or should he go? This Spring Training should be viewed as a mixed blessing for the 24-year-old switch-hitter. Nieto has the chance to grab control of a catching position where Tyler Flowers and Josh Phegley are being given second chances after rough 2013 campaigns, and Nieto never has played above Carolina League competition in six Minor League seasons with the Nationals.
But it won't be an easy stretch for Nieto, who must learn the White Sox pitching staff and prove he's a solid game-caller to stay on the 25-man active roster. If he doesn't stay, there's a chance the Nationals could re-claim him as part of the Rule 5 process from which Nieto originally was claimed.
Closing Time: Is Nate Jones the early favorite? The White Sox can talk about open competition at the back end of the bullpen and certainly mean it, but Jones has the edge. Jones possesses the 100-mph fastball often associated with that ninth inning, and his early struggles from '13 might help his cause in '14. Jones never lost confidence and worked extensively with pitching coach Don Cooper to figure out changes needing to be made and then implementing them.
Jones standing as the clubhouse leader certainly doesn't eliminate Matt Lindstrom or Daniel Webb from the battle. In fact, Webb earned unsolicited praise on a couple of occasions from White Sox front office members and Cooper during SoxFest, so keep an eye on the 25-year-old right-hander.
Bullpen: Six or seven relievers? This solution appears to be fairly simple in that seven is the magic number.
Chris Sale and Jose Quintana are proven commodities at the top of the order, and John Danks is less of a question mark after his '13 return from arthroscopic shoulder surgery in '12. With Johnson, who is a rookie, and Felipe Paulino, who is coming off of surgeries in September and 2012, filling out the rotation, the White Sox don't want to be caught short in relief even if they go without a long man.
A strong veteran quartet of Mitchell Boggs, Scott Downs, Ronald Belisario and Lindstrom were added or brought back for '14, joining Jones and most likely Donnie Veal as the second lefty. Leaving the final spot between Webb and Petricka also leaves the bench a little thin, but pitching drives this team and the White Sox will err on the side of an extra arm.
Opening Day starter Let's finish with an easy one. Although it hasn't been 100 percent officially announced, if Sale isn't facing the Twins March 31 at U.S. Cellular Field, under what has to be 80 degrees and sunny skies based on this Arctic-like winter, then it's not good news for the team. Either he's hurt or has retired, which seem highly unlikely at this point.