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Encouraged by health, Morel ready to compete

CHICAGO -- Any mention of the White Sox third-base candidates for 2013 and beyond begins with Kevin Youkilis, who anchored the position over the final three months on a team that sat atop the American League Central for 117 days.

If it's assumed that the coveted free agent ends up somewhere else, then talk at that position turns to the trade front. Those Hot Stove ideas run from the highly unlikely in Chase Headley to the ever-so-slightly more plausible in Mike Moustakas.

Even fast-rising prospect Carlos Sanchez, projected more as a middle infielder, gets some chatter as a possible White Sox starter at the hot corner.

Finally, perched in the somewhat of an afterthought category, Brent Morel's name appears.

It was just 15 months ago when Morel was completing a September run where he knocked out eight home runs in 85 at-bats while driving in 19 runs and walking 15 times after drawing just seven over the 2011 season's first five months.

Morel's bat appeared to be catching up with his stellar glove work at the close of his first full big league season. He entered Robin Ventura's inaugural year at the helm as the team's starting third baseman, eager to learn from one of the best at that position in White Sox history.

That learning process didn't get too far. Morel suffered from lower back issues in Spring Training, back issues that greatly hampered his play in the field and at bat throughout the 2012 campaign.

Basically losing the entire 2012 season, aside from a .177 average over 113 at-bats, was the bad news for Morel. Make that the often exasperating news.

The good news is for the first time since before the start of Spring Training 2012, Morel's back feels consistently healthy. He's ready to compete for a job in Arizona and isn't worried by the White Sox search for a perceived upgrade.

"By me worrying about what they are going to do, that will take away from my progress, rehab-wise. It's just going to lead to poor rehab work," Morel told during a recent interview. "I'm focused on me and not worrying about anything else.

"They will do what's best for the team. Last year, I had to battle through everything, and it was tough for me to stay on the field. Now I finally feel healthy and that I can contribute. Hopefully there's a chance to show I'm healthy in Spring Training and win the job."

There were moments of 2012 optimism for Morel, who saw top physicians concerning the pain, including noted spine specialist Dr. Robert Watkins in California. But as he tried to work his way back through Minor League rehab games with Triple-A Charlotte and Class A Winston-Salem, the back pain always seemed to produce some sort of setback.

A recommendation from his representatives at Sosnick-Cobbe Sports sent Morel this offseason to Sparta Performance/Science, a training group in California that had great success working with numerous other injured athletes. Through forced plate technology, where Morel does a vertical leap off a plate in the ground, they were able to pinpoint Morel's problem.

His back issue ultimately centered on trunk stability.

"I had a strong trunk and flexibility, but if I would go to move, it would loosen up quickly," Morel said. "So when I'd go for the ball or swing, my strength would go away. Everything else has to take over in my back."

For the past three weeks to one month, all of Morel's flexibility has returned, he's pain-free and he understands the work needed to be done to strengthen that area and get prepared to play. Morel stays in contact with the club concerning his workout program and was scheduled to meet with White Sox head athletic trainer Herm Schneider during a Chicago visit this week.

And while the 26-year-old doesn't seem to be an absolute fan choice at third base, the White Sox certainly haven't written off the young talent if he really is healthy.

"It's easy to lose sight of the fact that one year ago, with his defense and how he finished the 2011 season, we were excited about what the future held for him," said White Sox general manager Rick Hahn, who stressed the health issue as key for Morel. "We thought we had someone to lock down third base for many years to come."

"I'm hoping that this offseason, he gets better and competes for a job," said White Sox hitting coach Jeff Manto, who is familiar with Morel's healthier, productive days when previously serving as the organization's Minor League hitting coordinator. "I don't think we've seen the last of Brent Morel. I'm eager and intrigued to see him come back."

Manto admitted that there was clearly something wrong with Morel when watching him work in the batting cage. He was forcing his swing, had a lot of body and was pushing a lot of balls.

Just like many of his accomplished veteran teammates, Morel simply tried to play through pain. Instead, he emerged with disappointment from watching on the sideline as his teammates compete for a division title.

Frustration has been replaced by healthy encouragement. Brief thoughts of retirement for Morel after just one season have been replaced by a desire to be a better player than he was before the injury.

"Depressing and tough to go through," said Morel of his 2012 season. "You see [Joe] Crede go through it and guys have back problems that end their career, but I did not think I would go through something like that so early. But I'm encouraged by the fact I'm healthy for the first time in a long time."

Chicago White Sox, Brent Morel