Seven Spring Training Storylines

Pitchers and catchers officially report to Camelback Ranch on Friday, though beat writers already in Glendale indicate many pitchers and position players have already been in camp for some time. It seems the excitement for the season extends beyond the fan base after an exciting offseason. Here’s a look at seven of the key storylines to watch for in Arizona this spring, so you can cut through the noise and focus on the fights at the top of the card.


1. The Battle for Second Base

The roster battle likely to get the most attention is for the starting job at second base. The contenders: Micah Johnson, Carlos Sanchez, Emilio Bonifacio, Gordon Beckham and maybe Tyler Saladino.

Micah Johnson is the likely 2B of the future for the White Sox, but it isn’t assured he’ll get the job straight away. He’s only got 107 games at AA and AAA combined, he needs to show he’s fully healthy (early reports indicate he is), and there are questions about his defense. But he’s got game-changing speed and a strong hit tool, and if he’s not the guy on Opening Day, there’s a good chance he grabs the job during the season. His main competition is Carlos Sanchez, who is probably more likely get the Opening Day gig but is seen as having a lower ceiling. Sanchez also has the ability to play SS and 3B, so he could go north in a utility role as well.

Then there are the backup plans. Bonifacio was signed during the offseason and is virtually assured a roster spot, but more likely he’s going to back up 3B, 2B and OF from the bench as a “super-utility” player. Beckham is set to make his return to the White Sox after a brief stay in Anaheim, but he’s also more likely to be on the bench or even in AAA. Both could potentially sneak into the job if Johnson and Sanchez both struggle or get hurt, but neither represent Plan A. Tyler Saladino has a very outside chance at the job, but if he comes north as a starter, something has probably gone wrong.

Look for a more in-depth write-up on this particular battle coming to Future Sox next week.

2. Bench Brawl

The bench will almost definitely have four players. One will be a backup catcher, but we’ll leave that as a separate discussion below. Another one of the bench slots will go to Bonifacio, who can play virtually any position on the field. That leaves two open slots.

This will be dictated in part by who wins the 2B job, because Sanchez is also part of the bench pool. The rest of the players in the group with any notable chance at a job include Saladino (skill INF positions, OF in a pinch), Leury Garcia (all over the field), J.B. Shuck (OF only), Michael Taylor (OF only), and the aforementioned Gordon Beckham (2B, 3B, maybe SS in a pinch).

If Sanchez doesn’t land the 2B job, he’s got a good shot at the bench as a utility infielder who can provide above average defense at 2B, passable D at SS and 3B, is good on the base paths and makes good contact. Beckham seems like he has a good shot too with decent defense and relative strength against LHP, especially if Sanchez isn’t part of the bench group. Saladino also destroys LHP and may be better defensively than Beckham, but he’s coming off an injury (discussed more later) and is more of an unknown. One of Shuck or Taylor seems a good bet for the outfield, though Bonifacio can play there too, so the team could pass on both. The “other” Garcia was atrocious offensively in 2014, and provided passable but unspectacular defense, so he’s the long shot here.

On the extreme outside, there are two other outfielders who may get an extended look and, in a perfect storm, could break camp with the team: Jared Mitchell and Trayce Thompson. Neither appear ready for MLB yet, but the team likes both enough that they’ll get a chance to show their wares for an extended period in Arizona. Jared Mitchell may have turned a corner in 2014 and he’s a Buddy Bell favorite, with some still-significant ceiling. Trayce Thompson is MLB-ready right now defensively and has screaming tools in power, speed and athleticism, but the lack of contact and average say the bat isn’t ready yet.

The short story is, if Sanchez wins the 2B job, then your two names are probably Beckham and one of Taylor or Shuck. If Johnson is at the keystone, then Sanchez is there and the Sox may elect to go with Beckham and not carry a pure outfielder on the bench at all with Bonifacio playing that gig. Those are just the most likely scenarios though, there are lots of other possible permutations.

3. Backup Catcher

With Tyler Flowers having the starting catching role locked up, there is a wide field of players who will contend for the backup job with no leader going in.

In terms of players who were already in the system… Adrian Nieto was in the role last year, but he was protected (or hidden if you will) and sometimes appeared overmatched on both sides of the ball. He did better than some thought he would for a guy with no experience above A ball, but he’s likely ticketed for AA or AAA. Kevan Smith did well in AA last year and may be more ready than Nieto in some ways (less so in others), but with no time in AAA he’s likely headed to Charlotte.

The more likely candidates are new additions. Geovany Soto, once a highly touted prospect and 2008 NL Rookie of the Year, looks like he has the inside track after signing a minor league deal. Also in the discussion is Rob Brantly, claimed off waivers from the Marlins and himself a significant prospect just a couple years ago. Brantly provides a lefty bat to foil against Flowers and is considered strong defensively, and is still on the younger side at 25 with some potential upside. Finally there is George Kottaras, a 32 year old signed to a minor league deal. A veteran of ten different organizations, he has never hit for much average but he does get on base and has some power. Defensively he may not be as strong as either of the other candidates, and he’s only thrown out 18% of would-be base-stealers in his MLB career (Soto is 27%, Brantly 25%).

4. The Bullpen

More than likely the White Sox will begin the season with seven arms in the bullpen. Five of those appear locked in, barring injury: offseason signees David Robertson, Zach Duke (L) and Dan Jennings (L), along with 2014 relievers Jake Petricka and Zach Putnam. But what about the other two spots?

The field of possibilities is pretty huge, with eight guys looking like they have a shot at those two slots. Currently in the pole position is righty Javy Guerra, who had a pretty solid year in the White Sox pen last year. Among others who were in Chicago last year, fire-baller Daniel Webb spent the full season in Chicago, but his numbers (particularly the 5.6 BB/9 rate) didn’t live up to expectations so he may end up back in Charlotte working on his control. RHP Scott Carroll and/or LHP Eric Surkamp could line up for a long relief role if the team elects to even have such a slot, but they may not go that way. Maikel Cleto has a big fastball and control issues (much like Webb), but he did look significantly better in his August-September stint in Chicago after a midseason demotion and he’s in the field as well. All the above players are on the 40 man roster, except Carroll.

Then there are the newcomers. The Sox have brought back a familiar face in right-hander Jesse Crain, who signed on a minor league deal after missing all of 2014 due to shoulder surgery and recovery. Another MLB veteran in camp will be Matt Albers, another righty coming off injury. Albers suffered from tendonitis in his shoulder and missed most of 2014, but when healthy he’s got pretty good stuff and could be a contributor. Brad Penny was also signed to a minor league deal, but he’s an extreme long shot to go north in April.

Finally, there are the prospects. Frank (or Francelis) Montas is among the top prospects in the system and the White Sox have shown they want him to start long term, but it has been hinted he has an outside shot at making the MLB bullpen with a strong spring. This isn’t a likely scenario, but as a key prospect if he’s ready and it makes sense for the team, none of the pitchers in the two paragraphs above this would stand in his way. Then of course there’s this left-hander you might have heard of…

5. Carlos Rodon

Taken as the number three overall pick in the 2014 draft and signed to the largest draft bonus in team history, lefty Carlos Rodon flew through the minors last year and appears nearly ready for the majors. A top 20 prospect in all of baseball according to multiple publications, Rodon could take one of three paths on Opening Day.

The most likely path is back to AAA Charlotte, where Rodon can refine his command a bit and oh-by-the-way give the team another year of cheap control. Perhaps the second most likely course would put Rodon in the major league bullpen straight away, much like the team did with Chris Sale, with the plan to ease him into the rotation as the year goes on or in 2016. Least likely but not impossible is that he breaks camp as part of the team’s starting rotation, though barring a trade or injury this looks like a very slim chance.

Whatever status Carlos Rodon ends up at on April 2nd, you can bet he’ll be under a microscope between now and then.

6. Health Watch

The fortunes of the 2015 White Sox will, perhaps more than other recent seasons, hang on the health of the roster. While the team looks dramatically improved on paper, there is a steep talent drop-off at many positions after Plan A. It goes without saying that any injuries to pitchers and regular players could be a major factor. But the flip side is, how healthy certain players with already known health issues come out in February and March.

Starting right fielder Avisail Garcia played winter ball and appears healed from his early 2014 injury, but he missed most of the season. The earlier-discussed Micah Johnson missed some time last year with mild hamstring issues, and we’ll get to see if his new offseason regimen leads to him running at full speed. Another player in the infield game, Saladino, is recovering from TJ surgery and will supposedly be ready for Spring Training.

Montas’ chances at the bullpen go from slim to none if he’s not healthy after missing time last year with dual knee surgeries, though he did play some at the end of the year so he’s less of a question mark health-wise. Offseason acquisition Onelki Garcia missed most of 2014, and while he’s not looking like a likely candidate for the club straight away, the Sox are sure to be getting a read on how he looks coming back. Nate Jones is still rehabbing and isn’t likely back until June, but you may see him around camp working out.

7. Prospects and Camp Assignments

For those interested in the prospects on a much-improved farm system, while many top names won’t likely make the majors out of camp, that doesn’t mean their presence there is irrelevant. How they perform in camp is only a blip, but what games and situations the team puts them in provides a look into how they see their likely futures. And then there’s the camp roster cuts – when players are sent to the minor league side may give you some clues as well.

Some prospects who are non-roster invitees to camp that we haven’t yet discussed include RHP’s Chris Beck, Tyler Danish and Nolan Sanburn, infielders Tim Anderson, Andy LaRoche and Dan Black, and outfielder Courtney Hawkins. Beck may have a sliver of a chance to make the team in some wacky scenario, but the rest should be seen as being there to show their stuff and get the experience of being around the big leaguers.

Let the baseball begin.

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