White Sox

Improved routine has Erik Johnson ready for second shot with White Sox

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Improved routine has Erik Johnson ready for second shot with White Sox

MINNEAPOLIS — Erik Johnson is back, and the White Sox intend to see what he can bring to the table in his second go-around.

Johnson is one of four players who was promoted (three from Triple-A Charlotte) when rosters expanded to 40 players on Tuesday along with catcher Rob Brantly and utility man Leury Garcia. Frankie Montas, the team’s top pitching prospect, also was promoted from Double-A Birmingham, and both he and Johnson are expected to start in the bullpen.

But, general manager Rick Hahn identified Johnson — who was demoted to Charlotte after five starts in 2014 despite entering 2014 as the club’s No. 2 prospect — as the first in line to get a start this month. Early Tuesday, Johnson was named the International League pitcher of the year.

“It’s a good opportunity,” Hahn said. “No matter what happens here over the next few weeks, he’s already had a great year, unlike last year where it started out rough and he’s sort of playing catch up. He’s already accomplished a great deal in 2015 and should head into the offseason with a great deal of confidence and the feeling that he’s very much back in the mix in being part of a major league rotation in 2016.”

[MORE WHITE SOX: White Sox call up Francellis Montas, three others]

Johnson started 2014 in the rotation but posted a 6.46 ERA in five starts and was demoted. He never made it back even though the team struggled all season and finished with 89 losses, sliding off the prospect map almost altogether.

But Johnson arrived at spring training with a desire “to make moves,” and he’s done that all season.

Had it not been for an extremely healthy season from the White Sox starting rotation, Johnson would have been here earlier as he went 11-8 with a 2.37 ERA and struck out 136 batters in 132 2/3 innings at Charlotte. He was the starting pitcher for the International League in the Triple-A All-Star Game and has been dominant.

Johnson said the key has been identifying a routine and sticking to it.

“It was just learning how my body works the best,” Johnson said. “Just knowing and going through your routine and really getting to know your arm, your body and how you can attack.

“Routine is the biggest thing that leads you to predictability. For me, I know it’s almost a soothing feeling where I can go do my routine and get what I need to get done, so I feel prepared and I feel ready for that fifth day. It’s almost like knocking down dominoes.”

[MORE WHITE SOX: White Sox pitcher Erik Johnson named International League's Most Valuable Pitcher]

Both Hahn and White Sox manager Robin Ventura said Johnson’s routine over the final month could include several starts. Ventura is curious to see how Johnson responds though the White Sox will have to pick and choose spots.

“We’d of course like to get him an opportunity to start at some point,” Ventura said. “Hopefully more than one.

“There’s not probably much of a difference as how we look at it as he looks at it. He’d like another shot at it, see where he’s at.”

Johnson has a pretty good idea where he is and feels ready for any opportunity the White Sox throw at him. He’s felt good all season and looks forward to showing it off at the MLB level.

“It wasn’t one specific game,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t one specific catch or bullpen. It was just kind of getting to know and making adjustments, whether it’s during the game or if it’s midweek, where I can make some adjustments before my next start. Just being able to recognize something that might have come up last game that I need to address and just be ready for the next time out.”

White Sox free up spot on 40-man roster by outrighting Dylan Covey

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USA TODAY

White Sox free up spot on 40-man roster by outrighting Dylan Covey

The White Sox freed up a spot on their 40-man roster Sunday, outrighting pitcher Dylan Covey to Triple-A Charlotte.

Covey pitched in 18 games last season, making 12 starts for the South Siders. Things did not go well, with Covey turning in an 0-7 record and a 7.71 ERA in 70 innings.

While there was an outside chance that Covey could have provided at least some starting-pitching depth heading into the 2018 season, the team's recent additions of Miguel Gonzalez and Hector Santiago — not to mention Covey's results from last season — wiped out that idea.

At the moment, the White Sox starting rotation figures to look like this by Opening Day: James Shields, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Gonzalez and Carson Fulmer, with Santiago seeming like a good option to provide depth as the long man in the bullpen.

Jose Abreu's got a new beard, but what he really deserves is a contract extension

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USA TODAY

Jose Abreu's got a new beard, but what he really deserves is a contract extension

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Sunday marked the first surprise of White Sox spring training, courtesy of first baseman Jose Abreu.

“This year, I’m going to try to steal more bases,” Abreu said through a translator.

This might have sounded like a joke, but Abreu was completely serious.

On paper, he’s not exactly Rickey Henderson. In 614 career games, Abreu has only six stolen bases. However, the slimmed-down first baseman does have some sneaky speed. His six triples last season ranked third in the American League. So there are some wheels to work with.

“I like the challenge. I think that’s a good challenge for me. I’m ready for it,” Abreu said.

How many steals are we talking about? A reporter asked sarcastically if a 30-30 season is in the offing? Abreu didn’t exactly shoot down the possibility.

“Who knows? When you fill your mind with positive things, maybe you can accomplish them,” Abreu said. “The mind of a human being works in a lot of different ways. If you fill your mind with good things, good things are going to happen.”

The morning began with Abreu walking to the hitting cages with his Cuban compadres Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert, who the White Sox signed last summer. He held his first workout on Sunday. At the White Sox hitters camp last month, Moncada took Robert under his wing, showing him the ropes, even telling Ricky Renteria, “I got him.”

But Sunday, Abreu was in charge, holding court with the three of them in the cage. Abreu watched closely as Robert hit off a tee, giving him pointers about his swing.

“I just like to help people,” Abreu said. “When I started to play at 16 in Cuba, I had a lot people who hounded me to get better. At the same point, I want to give back things that I’ve learned and pass that along to other people. That’s what I’m doing. I’m not expecting anything else. I’m just glad to help them and get them better.”

What kind of advice has he passed along to Robert?

“Since I came to this country, I learned quickly three keys to be a success: Be disciplined, work hard and always be on time. If you apply those three keys, I think you’re going to be good. Those are the three keys I’m trying to teach the new kids, the young guys,” Abreu said.

Abreu lost about 10 pounds during the offseason. He said he hopes to learn more English in 2018. He also arrived at spring training sporting a scruffy beard which he grew while he was in Cuba so he “could be incongnito.”

Abreu likes his new look. Moncada thinks he should shave it off.

“If the organization doesn’t say anything, I’m just going to keep it,” Abreu said.

Well, so much for that.

Moments after Abreu spoke with the media, Renteria told reporters that Abreu will have to “clean it up a bit.”

The two will find a compromise. Come to think of it, maybe Abreu and the White Sox should do the same about a contract extension in the near future.

Yes, he’ll be 33 when his contract expires in two years, but there have been no signs of a decline with his performance. Instead, Abreu is only getting better both offensively and defensively.

Heck, now he wants to steal bases, too.

After Renteria, Abreu is the leader of this team. He commands ultimate respect inside the clubhouse. He’s become another coach to Moncada, Robert and others. He’s a huge brick in the present and too big of an influence and cornerstone to not have around in the future.

“I hope to play my entire career in the majors with the White Sox,” Abreu said Sunday. “But I can’t control that.”

At some point, a decision will have to be made whether to keep Abreu or trade him. In the meantime, ask yourself this question: What will bring more value to the White Sox, getting a high-end prospect or two in return not knowing if they’ll ever succeed in the majors? Or keeping your best player, the heart and soul of your team, allowing him to show your future stars the way while they’re developing in the major leagues?

Seems like an easy decision to me.