GLENDALE, Ariz. — Rick Hahn said it at one point during the 2018 season: Daniel Palka has no interest in being a 27-year-old DH.
And so that’s what he’s trying to avoid heading into this new campaign.
Palka won a special place in the hearts and minds of White Sox fans last season, hitting 27 home runs in his rookie season and displaying everyman qualities that made him one of the most popular players on the team — all this despite not even making the Opening Day roster.
But while there was much to like about Palka’s 2018 — left-handed power and a knack for clutch hits among the highlights — there were obvious things that he needed to work on. His defense was the most discussed, and it seemed he was best suited for a role as a designated hitter.
To Palka’s credit, he worked every day with White Sox coach Daryl Boston to improve in the outfield, and his work carried into the offseason. And while he says he needed no extra motivation to transform from likely DH into big league outfielder, the team’s acquisition of Yonder Alonso — who will split time at first base and designated hitter with Jose Abreu — seemed to take away the DH opportunities Palka was ticketed for.
So now improving his defense becomes imperative if he wants to stay in the conversations surrounding the White Sox short- and long-term futures. He knows it.
“The whole offseason, we were working on defense and small footwork stuff just to get more mobile,” Palka said Saturday at Camelback Ranch. “I ate right, ran a lot. We did a lot more sprint work this year than I’ve ever done. Just wanted to come back and be ready to play in the outfield every day.
“Whether we have 18 DHs or not, I wanted to be able to say, ‘Hey, if I’m going to contribute on the team, I need to be in the outfield every day and playing a position.’”
And the good news for Palka is that he’s already noticing a difference in his defense.
“It’s night and day,” he said. “We did a lot of reps. Even the first day we got out there with (Boston). Everything was smooth. Defense is one of those things where you have to put in the work. Hitting is fun, but defense is work. It’s the first year I did that, so I’m pretty confident.”
The White Sox outfield is about to get a lot more crowded. While the Opening Day starting three might be relatively easy to project — Palka, Adam Engel and the newly acquired Jon Jay — top-ranked prospect Eloy Jimenez is expected to arrive a few weeks into the regular season and take over an everyday job in left field. And so Palka, Engel, Jay, Nicky Delmonico and Leury Garcia are left to fight for time at the other two spots. There will not be room for all of those players on the active roster.
Palka can offer left-handed pop none of those other guys can. But can he be improved enough with the glove to box them out? That’s one of the big questions of camp and the early part of the season.
“Whatever role I have to do, for me to be able to contribute to the team, I need to be playing defense,” Palka said. “I wanted to be able to contribute on both sides of the ball instead of just sitting. It just makes me more valuable to the team, and the more ways I can contribute the better.”
And defense isn’t the only thing Palka needs to improve to distinguish himself from his competition in the outfield. Despite the 27 home runs, he hit .240 with an on-base percentage of .294 in 2018. He’s worked on that, too, communicating with hitting coach Todd Steverson during the offseason and trying to improve his approach.
“It was a lot of fun stuff, but at the same time, I kind of looked back on it as frustrating,” Palka said of his rookie year. “You know you can do more. My plan is to be a hitter first. The homers will come. I’m a hitter, and I was a little raw last year in my approach but it was a good learning curve.
“You can do all the hitting and stuff you want to do in the offseason, but until you start and have a different approach in live at-bats, that’s where it’s going to change. So, I have to come in here and key in on my pitches early instead of just wanting to hit every single pitch.”
This all sounds like pretty serious business from a guy who won over fans by joking around on social media and during media sessions. Well, don’t worry. He’s hoping the work will make him a different caliber of fielder, but he’s not changing too much.
“I mean, I feel like the same stud I was before.”
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