The three scoreless innings for John Danks in the March 6 Cactus League game was a huge statement from the lefty starting pitcher. But the fact that he felt "great" the next day might have been even bigger news, as the Chicago White Sox are counting heavily on Danks to return to the pitcher he was before shoulder surgery hampered him since the 2012 season.
In that outing against Seattle, Danks allowed one hit and two walks, fanning two, hitting 90-91 mph on his fastball and using all four of his pitches with just over three weeks left until Opening Day. What had Danks excited was he felt like it was an outing that felt free and easy.
"I don't know what the (velocity) numbers were, but I was able to change speeds with four pitches," Danks said. "The curveball is always a tough pitch out here (in dry Arizona air); I had trouble getting it over the plate. I was real pleased with the cutter, the fastball had some life on it and the changeup was where it's always been."
It's been quite the journey for Danks, who was expected to take over as the top lefty ace after Mark Buehrle left for Miami two seasons ago. His shoulder started acting up early in that '12 season, Chris Sale emerged on the scene, and by the time Danks was forced to have surgery on the shoulder in August of that season, Danks almost became a forgotten man.
Danks entered this spring with far less pressure, especially with Sale and Jose Quintana penciled in at the top of the starting rotation, but if he can be the pitcher he was before the shoulder problems, that gives the Sox three proven lefties.
"(Pitching coach Don Cooper) and I have talked about that," Danks said. "I welcome the challenge of being a seven-plus-inning guy night in, night out, pitching 200-plus innings and giving us a chance to win. You're only as good as your pitching (as a team), and I'm kind of the swingman, I guess. I welcome that. I'm expecting a good year. I'm going to work hard at it, and I feel like I'm where I need to be at this point."
The two keys for Danks so far have been the command of his cutter, and a velocity in the low 90s. His velocity at this time last spring was mid- to high-80s.
"It's just strengthening, being able to get my arm where it needs to be and have enough behind (the cutter) to spin it right and make it move," Danks said. "Last year, I had trouble spinning it, and it was backing up on me and getting hit. This year, I'm able to drive the ball where I want, and that was proved by being able to throw it to both sides of the plate with the sharp break on it."
And he'll need that cutter to improve on his dismal 4.75 ERA from last year. The focus for Danks is to now be more of a pitcher, and that's a point Cooper continued to reiterate with him.
"It's going to be what it's going to be," Cooper said of all the velocity talk. "If he gets it back, great, but he still has to locate. You've still got to be able to pitch, change speeds and locate."
--RHP Ronald Belisario, who received a $3 million contract in free agency this offseason, finally seems to have his visa problems behind him, and according to manager Robin Ventura, was expected into camp over the weekend, almost three weeks later than he was expected. All eyes have been on the bullpen for the Sox this spring, especially because of all the problems they've had getting pitchers on the mound. Matt Lindstrom (oblique) and Nate Jones (gluteus strain) have each been slowed, but getting healthy, and Belisario is weeks behind the rest of the group.
--RHP Matt Lindstrom originally felt that his mild oblique strain would only cost him a few days. It's now looking like it could be weeks. Lindstrom suffered a setback on Mar. 4, toward the end of his long-toss workout. He had thrown three days pain-free and was planning to throw off a mound after that, but when he felt a sharp twinge on his last throws, the bullpen session and his return-to-normal plan were put on hold. "It feels like somebody is shoving a knife in your side," Lindstrom said. "I'm continuing to try to get it better, rehab it a little more since we have so many games left in spring training."
--1B/DH Jose Abreu finally connected on that promise of power, as the Cuban rookie hit his first homer of the spring in a Mar. 6 game against the Royals. All eyes have been on Abreu all spring, especially early on when he was putting on batting practice clinics with his power. It finally showed in a game. "I hit (home runs) all over the field," Abreu said. "I hit it well to all parts of the field. It was an outside pitch, so I hit it that way." Asked if he feels more relaxed now that he has his first homer out of the way, Abreu said, "It will be the same. The toughest game of spring training was my first one. After that, it will be the same tomorrow, all spring. I don't get too stressed or uptight."
--3B Matt Davidson came to the Sox in an offseason trade with a reputation of being a swing-and-miss guy at times, but one with huge power potential, and while there is a chance the rookie could open the year in the minors, the Sox have indicated that they will give him every opportunity to win the third base job. That's been evident this spring, as Ventura said he plans to give him plenty of playing time. That's been Davidson's goal from Day 1. "I want to start in the big leagues," Davidson said. "That's my goal. But I only have control to a certain point and want to make sure wherever Opening Day is, I'm ready for it."
--CF Adam Eaton continued to cement himself as the leadoff hitter for the Sox in the March 7 win over the Reds, going 1-for-1 with two runs scored, drawing a walk and stealing a base. Basically, being a disruptive force at the top of the lineup and giving the Sox what could be their first true leadoff hitter since Scott Podsednik. Eaton, who was acquired in the offseason, was penciled in as the leadoff hitter at the start of camp, and has not disappointed, according to Ventura. Unless he completely falls on his face the next three weeks, Eaton has likely won the job.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's no newness anymore, which is kind of nice. It's definitely a better feeling than coming into camp in the past. There's a calmness that I have now, having been around long enough to understand the ups and downs of it." -- 2B Gordon Beckham on coming into spring training in what could be a make-or-break year for his future with the Sox.
LHP Chris Sale
LHP Jose Quintana
RHP Felipe Paulino
LHP John Danks
RHP Erik Johnson
Even with an 11-14 record last season, Sale remained the undisputed ace of the staff, and one of the elite southpaws in the American League. The concerns about Sale being fragile are in the past, and that is why the White Sox have had no problem admitting the staff is being built around him. All eyes will be on Danks, as the lefty struggled in his first season back from shoulder surgery, going 4-14 with a 4.75 ERA, before being shut down for the final few weeks of the season. Johnson is one of the top prospects in the organization and has a chance to be an impact arm moving forward.
RHP Nate Jones (closer)
RHP Matt Lindstrom
LHP Donnie Veal
RHP Jake Petricka
RHP Ronald Belisario
LHP Charlie Leesman
RHP Daniel Webb
RHP Mitchell Boggs
Jones will get the first chance to be the new closer, with a veteran like Lindstrom the safety net if Jones stumbles or cannot handle the duties. Webb also opened some eyes, with pitching coach Don Cooper listing him as a candidate to get a look in the ninth inning. The problem for the White Sox will be a shortage of known lefty relievers. Leesman and Veal are the leading candidates to handle those roles, but the Sox enter camp knowing that they are leaving room for other pitchers to impress them and make a name for themselves.
1. CF Adam Eaton
2. LF Alejandro De Aza
3. 1B Jose Abreu
4. DH Adam Dunn
5. RF Avisail Garcia
6. SS Alexei Ramirez
7. 2B Gordon Beckham
8. 3B Matt Davidson
9. C Josh Phegley/Tyler Flowers/ Adrian Nieto
The Sox lineup seemingly became younger overnight, with the additions of Eaton, Abreu, Garcia and Davidson since last July. All of them will be given a serious push to become everyday starters, hoping that one of the offenses in the AL can start turning things around. The key could be at the top with the speedy Eaton given the chance to take over the lead-off duties from De Aza. The problem area could be behind the plate, with the catcher position completely wide open. Phegley took the job from Flowers last season, but in hitting .206 in 204 at-bats didn't exactly leave a lasting impression by the time the season came to an end. Nieto was a Rule 5 addition, and will be given every opportunity to compete for the spot.
TOP ROOKIES: RHP Erik Johnson was one of the elite pitchers in the farm system for the White Sox last season, going 12-3 with a 1.96 ERA in 24 starts between Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte. He was then called up the final month of the season, and impressed with a 3-2 record and 3.25 ERA in five starts. The Sox have three lefties penciled in the starting rotation, so Johnson will have a chance to be a key starting righty. Abreu was the big offseason acquisition for the Sox, grabbing the Cuban for $68 million over the next six years. The 27-year-old could be a leading Rookie of the Year candidate, penciled in to be the everyday starting first baseman, and projected to have at least 25-homer power.
--RHP Nate Jones (gluteus strain) missed the first five days of camp, but is throwing bullpen sessions with no setbacks.
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