He experienced enough inconsistency last season to make a change, and so far Avisail Garcia is encouraged after making a slight tweak to his batting stance.
Though they also remain hopeful, the White Sox are realistic that Garcia has much ground to cover.
But with spring training near — pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 19 — the expectation is the young outfielder will receive enough repetitions to get comfortable with a new stance at the plate before Opening Day.
Although they don’t see it as a radical change, last month, the White Sox started to work with Garcia to stand taller in the box. They think he’ll need time to adjust to and get comfortable with the alterations. But if the plan works, the White Sox are confident Garcia can eliminate some of the inconsistencies that dominated his 2015 campaign.
And only then might Garcia — who hit .257/.309/.365 with 13 home runs and 58 RBIs in 601 plate appearances — fulfill the lofty expectations that were attached to him when he was acquired from the Detroit Tigers in a three-team trade in July 2013.
“We’re working to get better because last year I was down then up,” Garcia said late last month. “This year I am focused to be tall and being patient and swinging at strikes. When I swing at strikes, I can hit like the start of the season.”
Garcia looked like he may realize his potential when he began last season hitting at a .346/.380/.492 clip in his first 137 plate appearances. Buoyed by an impossible-to-sustain .423 average on balls in play, Garcia had 11 extra-base hits, including four homers, and drove in 17 runs in a torrid start that ran from Opening Day through mid-May.
Then came the bad times, and they arrived in bunches.
Whether due to bad luck, pitchers’ adjustments or struggling teammates, Garcia’s production collapsed.
He produced a .383 OPS over 11 games (41 plate appearances) from May 18-June 4. A 46-game homerless stretch from June 9-Aug. 3 resulted in a .533 OPS over 187 plate appearances. And Garcia endured another lengthy streak from Sept. 2-25 when he had a .536 OPS in 87 plate appearances.
Throughout it all, Garcia switched stances as he tried to find proper balance at the plate.
Either he saw the ball well, but couldn’t connect for much power whenever he crouched near the front, or he had poor pitch selection and a more powerful stroke deep in the box. Rarely did he find middle ground.
But those struggles may have given Garcia the perspective necessary to realize changes at the plate are needed. Last month, hitting coach Todd Steverson traveled to Miami for a three-day session with Garcia and Jose Abreu. He found Garcia receptive and together they developed a plan.
Steverson is encouraged by the initial work, though he stressed that it’s early in the process.
“You can tell people, tell people, tell people,” Steverson said. “But until they get a hold of it in their own head that says, ‘It’s time to make an adjustment’ or ‘It’s time to do something different,’ then that’s when it comes down to it.
“We put in some time. We need more time, a good thing about spring training. But we’ve done some things that are positive. He likes it. It’s going to take a while repetition-wise to get used to it. He’s gonna look different than you’ve seen, I’ll say that.
“It’s nothing drastic, but hopefully it allows him to be more competitive.”
Abreu admits that he’s naturally an optimistic guy. Still, he called the three-day session “important” and likes how Garcia is carrying himself. Abreu said he mostly reaffirmed what Steverson said to Garcia and likes how the outfielder has responded.
“Especially to see Avi in the shape that he is and the kind of mindset that he is having now,” Abreu said through an interpreter. “It’s very good.”
“When I look at him, I think that wow, he could be that kind of player that all people are suspecting.”
The White Sox could use a heavy dose of good from Garcia.
In December, they upgraded the lineup with the additions of Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie and a catching combo projected to produce 3 Wins Above Replacement, according to ZiPS.
But an offense that produced three or fewer runs in 82 contests in 2015 needs as much help as it can get.
The team — which is projected to win 84-85 games — has since pursued free agent outfielders Alex Gordon and Yoenis Cespedes only to come up short.
While Rick Hahn said he’ll continue to look for roster upgrades before the team’s April 4 opener at Oakland, the White Sox are likely to give Garcia his share of at-bats. But they need him to be much better than the player who finished 115th out of 141 qualified hitters with an isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) of .108 — especially if his defense doesn’t improve.
“He’s got work to do, there’s no question about it,” manager Robin Ventura said. “He understands where he’s at in his career and what he needs to do in order to make improvements in different parts in his game. Everybody reacts differently when they get in that situation and I’ve really enjoyed and liked his reaction to it. He’s come in great shape, ready to go and is determined to prove to everybody that he should be on a roster and playing every day.”
[SHOP: Gear up, White Sox fans!]
Said Hahn: “We believe in the talent. There are specific things he needs to work on and he knows that. And he has the aptitude to make those adjustments.”
Garcia said he’s worked hard to prepare himself for success. This offseason differed from the previous one. In 2014, Garcia played winter ball to make up for the at-bats he lost to a shoulder injury. This winter, Garcia stayed home and focused more on physical preparation, resulting in a slimmer build.
Though he did offer a declaration of self-confidence, Garcia didn’t discuss his plan much to avoid setting high expectations.
“I know who I am and what I can offer to my team,” Garcia said. “I really don’t want to get into what I can and can’t prove.
“It’s just not good to spread expectations like that.
“I know I can do better. That’s why I’ve been preparing myself. When you work hard and prepare for something you don’t have a chance to fall.”