White Sox

White Sox hope fun approach to tedious work pays off

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White Sox hope fun approach to tedious work pays off

Catch White Sox Opening Day on CSN tonight with coverage beginning at 8:30 p.m. with White Sox Pregame Live followed by Chris Sale taking on the A's.

OAKLAND, Calif. - Even as spring training lingered in its final week, the White Sox continued to make noise on Camelback Ranch’s backfields in their morning workouts.

Rather than simply go through the motions of yet another practice, players hollered or cheered each other on in friendly skills-based competitions.

Team A faced off against Team B to see which could make more plays during infield drills. Or the outfielders might see who could come closest to landing a throw in the ball bin just beyond second base. The stakes normally ranged from the losers fetching the victors a Gatorade from the refrigerator or serving them lunch. Another competition resulted a championship wrestling belt being awarded.

In the process, a group of veteran White Sox players encouraged their teammates to remain engaged in what is normally a monotonous part of camp. Whether fueled by the desire to win or avoid the payoff, players focused on producing quality work and forging important bonds. There’s also a hope those sessions created a foundation that helps the White Sox - who open the 2016 season at 9:05 p.m. CST on Monday at the Oakland A’s - get back on track after three consecutive losing seasons.

[RELATED - Preview: White Sox-A's in Opening Day tilt on CSN]

“You’ve got to find some way,” third baseman Todd Frazier said. “Whether you miss a ball you do 15 pushups, or you get my Gatorade today. Something as simple as that. You owe me a Wendy’s burger later on or something.

“It makes for a little more competition, and it builds character and builds game-ready situations.”

The White Sox added plenty of character this offseason. Before Sunday’s workout, manager Robin Ventura described his team as a “saltier” bunch with much more experience than in the past.

In an attempt to fill in the holes around a talented young core, the White Sox added veterans wherever they could. Free agents Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila were the first to join. Frazier arrived next from Cincinnati in a December trade. Jimmy Rollins joined the club in late February and Austin Jackson soon followed.

Collectively, the group has played for 21 division winning teams and made 23 postseason appearances.

The White Sox are intrigued to combine a veteran group of winners with a hungry young core that includes Chris Sale, Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton and Jose Quintana.

“That’s the kind of formula it takes to do special things,” pitcher Zack Duke said. “You have superstar players in their prime and you build around that, you complement those guys, to give them a situation where they can be best equipped to succeed. They’ve done a great job of that. It’s pretty nice to see the way its shaping up here. It gives us a lot of hope and motivation to go out there and make it happen.”

General manager Rick Hahn said he hoped to add some experience when the front office constructed its offseason plan. He didn’t expect to land Rollins and Jackson when he did. But, they fit the bill, as Hahn desired players with postseason experience.

“There is an element of what guys bring to the clubhouse and guys who do have a history of being integral parts on winning teams bring a little something extra,” Hahn said. “Being able to add guys with that much experience is a big positive.”

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The group’s collective know-how helped sooner than the White Sox originally expected and perhaps in a way they never could have foreseen after the mid-March retirement of Adam LaRoche.

In the days after LaRoche abruptly quit, Ventura felt as if his club would be better-suited to handle the tumult. Soon thereafter, the White Sox were back to their boisterous ways and they haven’t slowed down. Rollins said he senses a winning vibe.

“I don’t know what it was like last year, but I hear we’re in a better place already and we have guys that have played on winning teams and you need that,” Rollins said. “It’s important to have guys that know what it’s like to win. When you know what its like to win, when someone or things are going the other way, when you’re not doing things that are conducive to winning, it stands out and you make a correction because you know better.”

Avila has played on winning teams in each season of his career until 2015. He said an attitude and belief that the Tigers would win persisted from the first day - they just knew how to carry themselves - in each of the five winning seasons.

While that same feel wasn’t there last season, Avila senses it once again with the White Sox.

“You have to have a business attitude when you come in every single day,” Avila said. “You have fun, you have a good time, you’re playing a game. But it’s only fun when you win. So when the guys come in, you’ve got to get your work in. You’ve got to make sure you prepare because if you’re not, you’re going to get eaten alive in the league. This is a very professional group right now and that’s half the battle.”

They’re a tight-knit group, too.

Duke credits Hahn for investigating the all-around package of each player. He said the combination of players has led to positive attitudes and “crisp” work.

Sale has noticed that many of his new teammates have brought a winning attitude to the mix, that they act as if they’ve been there before.

“They know how to handle it,” Sale said. “They know what it takes to get there.”

Eaton said that confidence and attitude made a big difference at the end of camp, a time of the spring where things get stale. The daily competitions have allowed players to stay upbeat and have fun while they remain focused on improving as a club.

“It’ll allow spring training to go by a little bit quicker, but at the same time you’re getting good work in,” Eaton said.

[MORE - White Sox set 25-man roster]

And that’s all that matters in Frazier’s mind.

With six weeks of pitcher’s fielding practice, grounders to take or fly balls to track, things can get tiresome. But the White Sox found a way to make it enjoyable when they recently had to go through rundown drills again after several mishaps on the field.

If they can take their work seriously yet still have fun, the belief is that will carry over when the results really start to matter - as if they haven’t already.

“We won a competition (last Sunday),” Frazier said when asked about the wrestling belt above his locker. “The corner infielders and catchers beat out the middle infielders and outfielders in this agility game. It was fun. I don’t know how we did it, but we came out on top. It was concentration.”

Frazier admitted infield work is tedious. But he and his teammates found an engaging way to take it seriously, knowing that it'll pay off when the season starts Monday.

“We’ve got something to prove.”

James Shields, Joakim Soria and some other potential midseason trade candidates for the White Sox

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USA TODAY

James Shields, Joakim Soria and some other potential midseason trade candidates for the White Sox

Another day, another quality start for James Shields.

The White Sox once more didn’t win a Shields start. Despite an increasingly good-looking season stat line, Shields can’t seem to rack up many wins, with just two to his name on the season. But of course, wins are not exactly the most important barometer in this rebuilding campaign.

Speaking of the rebuild, the White Sox are getting closer to the trade deadline, it’s about a month and a half away. And Shields’ continued success could have Rick Hahn’s phone ringing as July 31 creeps closer. After six innings and three runs in Sunday’s loss to the visiting Detroit Tigers, Shields has seven quality starts in his last 10 outings,

After last season’s struggles that ended in a 5.23 ERA and 27 home runs surrendered, getting anything for Shields might’ve seemed a bit of a fantasy. But Shields has delivered, especially since the end of a rocky April.

“It’s very important to try to eat as many innings as you possibly can,” Shields said of his consistent efforts of late. “Early on in the season, we were ruining our bullpen by not going deep into games. My main focus is to go as deep as I possibly can. … Consistency’s the name of the game.”

Does it make him one of the most attractive names on the market? No, probably not. Is it going to fetch a highly ranked prospect? No, probably not. But it might fetch something, and in a season where guys believed to be afterthoughts like Dylan Covey and Daniel Palka are working their way into the conversation about the White Sox future, who wouldn’t want something added to this rebuilding effort?

And Shields isn’t the only White Sox player who could bring something back.

The bullpen was stocked with potential sign-and-flip guys over the offseason, and a few of those veteran arms have had good runs that could earn them a similar fate to the bulk of last year’s relief corps. Anthony Swarzak, Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, Dan Jennings and Tyler Clippard were all dealt away last summer. Could Hahn employ a similar strategy this season?

The bullpen hasn’t been quite as good as it was last year, which made all of those players attractive additions for contending teams around the league. But veterans like Joakim Soria, Luis Avilan, Bruce Rondon, Xavier Cedeno — guys who hoped to rediscover some old magic — could still draw interest.

Soria owns a 3.12 ERA. Avilan’s is at 3.10. Cedeno hasn’t given up a run in his six relief appearances. Rondon has shown blow-em-away stuff at times. It’s been a nice recovery for some of these sign-and-flip veterans.

“They’ve had an opportunity to get their chances to work on different things and become really effective performers,” manager Rick Renteria said of some of his veteran relievers prior to Sunday’s game. “I think Joakim has risen his level of game back what he was pre last couple years, I think he’s reinvented himself a little bit. He has an up-down breaking ball now, he’s continuing to attack the strike zone, he’s throwing 93 miles an hour with his fastball, he’s commanding the zone. He’s doing everything he can to be as good a closer as he was in the past. His history and his experience also allow him some confidence to be put in situations to close out ballgames.”

Soria could perhaps draw the most interest because closers are often in demand in July. But last year’s trade-a-thon showed that teams are willing to trade prospects away for relief help of any kind. Many of the return pieces in those deals might not get rebuild-loving prospect followers thrilled. Casey Gillaspie and Ryan Cordell haven’t exactly put their names at the forefront of the discussion about 2020 and beyond. But remember that Blake Rutherford came over in the deal that sent Robertson and Kahnle out of town (Todd Frazier went to the New York Yankees in that trade, too). So an acquisition that could improve the rebuild can most definitely happen, even with middle relievers.

There’s no guarantee that any of these guys, be it Shields in the rotation or any of the arms out in the bullpen, will get traded or even draw significant interest. But for a team in the White Sox position, you’d have to assume they’d be open to making a deal and getting something to add to this rebuilding process.

Eloy Jimenez reminds Frank Thomas of Vlad Guerrero, and more rebuild thoughts from the Big Hurt

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AP

Eloy Jimenez reminds Frank Thomas of Vlad Guerrero, and more rebuild thoughts from the Big Hurt

Here’s a comp that’ll get White Sox fans really excited. It’s a Hall of Famer saying that the organization’s top-ranked prospect reminds him of another Hall of Famer.

“The kid Eloy (Jimenez), I’ve really watched him a lot. He’s a tremendous (player),” Frank Thomas said. “He reminds me of a young Vlad (Guerrero) that can cover the whole zone and use the whole field. I’m interested in seeing how he progresses.”

Eloy a young Vladdy, eh?

Don’t tell actual young Vladdy that — Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is ranked one spot ahead of Jimenez on MLB Pipeline’s list of the best prospects in baseball — but that’s one heck of a comp for a player that White Sox fans are already immeasurably excited about.

Thomas was back on the South Side on Sunday to join Hawk Harrelson in the broadcast booth for the latter’s sendoff season. He spoke a lot about what Harrelson meant to him and the White Sox, but he also answered questions about the team’s ongoing rebuild. Thomas has kept a close eye both in his roles as an analyst for FOX and someone who will always be invested in this team.

“It’s Chicago, and we’re used to winning,” Thomas said when he was asked if the White Sox needed to undergo such a process. “You normally get away with this in a smaller market, but you’ve got to understand they’ve taken their time with it. They wasted a lot of money for a five-year period trying to continue to be successful the way we were in the past and it wasn’t working.

“The game has changed. The game has totally changed. It’s a different ballgame now. It’s all about the youth. … The hardest part they’re going to have, though, is figuring out who’s going to be here and who’s not going to be here because over the next couple years they’ve got so many young talented players in Double-A and Triple-A that someone could actually force some of these guys out. It’s going to be a hard decision what they’re going to have to do.”

That’s the good problem Rick Hahn and his front office would like to have.

While fan buy-in to the rebuilding effort has been tremendous, there are some who will continue to question the willing suffering through losing seasons at the major league level while the contending team of the future develops in the minor leagues. But if you look at the teams that have won and played in the World Series in recent seasons — and even seasons long past — the process almost seems mandatory if you want to reach that level.

“It is,” Thomas said. “I’ve watched it firsthand. I first saw it with Cleveland when I was playing. Cleveland did it. Then you saw the Royals do it. You saw Houston do it, and they’re tearing it up with that youth. There’s been some other teams that have had a lot of success with it, too. I think Billy Beane has been great with it in Oakland for many, many years. They just haven’t had the luxury of keeping it together and going for the World Series, but he continues to create young superstars and basically trading them off for whatever the organization needs.”

Thomas, the greatest hitter in White Sox history, was also asked about the greatest hitter on the White Sox right now, Jose Abreu. Abreu’s future is the topic of much conversation surrounding this team, what with his contract running out at the end of the 2019 season, just when the White Sox hope to be fielding a perennial contender.

Abreu has been remarkably consistent — and one of just three players ever to hit at least 25 homers and drive in at least 100 runs in each of his first four seasons — but Thomas thinks there’s a side of Abreu we still have yet to see.

“I just don’t think we’ve seen the best of him,” Thomas said. “That’s because it’s a youth movement and the protection’s been up and down for him in that lineup. I’ve seen him be inconsistent at times, but I think he’s a much better player than that. But I understand when you’re not winning every day and it’s not as motivating because losing’s tough on everybody. But the guy’s an incredible player, an incredible hitter.

“I think the next couple of years we’ll see the best of him if he’s still here. I think this guy has a chance to be one of the great ones.”

With one last question about the modern-day White Sox, Thomas was asked about manager Rick Renteria, who he raved about. But with Renteria’s recent history with the Cubs, when he was replaced with Joe Maddon right before the North Siders started their phase of contention, he has yet to be the manager of a team with expectations. The plan is that he soon will be, and Thomas is interested to see what happens when that becomes the case.

“I think he’s done a hell of a job. I really like Ricky a lot,” Thomas said. “But who knows what they’re going to do in the future. When this team becomes what they think it’s going to be, either you get it done or you don’t. That’s just what it’s going to be. That’s the way Jerry’s handled it for many, many years.

“We’ve had some decisions that weren’t all happiness at times, but it’s about winning once they get their team here. I hope it’s Ricky because he’s done a hell of a rebuild job with the Cubs, he did a hell of a rebuild job here. It’s just time for him to get a good team out on the field and see what he really can do. I’m hoping he gets a chance of having a full team to put out there for 162 games and see what he can do.”