The crafty right-hander, who was a non-roster invitee to spring training, fired three scoreless innings in a start against the Cleveland Indians on Friday and has given up just one run in eight innings over three Cactus League outings.
Before fading badly down the stretch last season, Axelrod was able to give the White Sox some solid innings. He made 20 starts, posting a solid 3.95 ERA over the first month in five outings. His ERA went up every month form there, though, until he posted an 11.32 ERA in four July outings.
He was essentially reduced to a mop-up relief role from there, although he did get two September starts.
Because he faded so significantly, the White Sox might be more comfortable using his skill set out of a long relief role. Axelrod is proving he is fresh again, putting together a spring that is as solid as the one he delivered last year.
One more reason the long-relief role makes sense for Axelrod is that it would allow guys such as Charlie Leesman, Andre Rienzo and Eric Surkamp to remain stretched out as starters at Triple-A Charlotte.
Manager Robin Ventura has already said the team sees the value of a long reliever. And if Felipe Paulino and Erik Johnson end up making the Opening Day rotation, Axelrod could end up getting a fair amount of work as those two settle into their roles. Paulino hasn’t pitched since 2012 because of injury, and Johnson is a rookie.
One critique is that Konerko, 38, is past his prime and more of a liability than asset. Another refrain is that he is taking a roster spot from a younger player. The most pronounced denouncement is that his return has bogged down the roster with three plodding first base types in himself, Adam Dunn and newcomer Jose Abreu.
If coming back for one last season on a 400 percent pay cut while probably getting 300 fewer at-bats was going to be considered selfish by some, well, then he was fine with that, especially since he consulted teammates who would be affected by his return and the club opened the door to him putting on the uniform again.
Even when an act might look selfish at face value, Konerko still goes about it in the most selfless way possible.
“I’ve played a long time, but I’ve never gone through a season where you know, ‘OK, this is the end of it,’ so how that all unfolds and how you feel at different moments, you’ll just have to wait and see,” Konerko said at the start of spring training. “I’ll try to give as honest answers and be as up front with it as I can as we go. But I can’t possibly answer how I’m going to feel in June or August. It’s tough for me. I don’t know.
“It’s the first time I’m going through this, and the last time. But I definitely have some thoughts on things as far as stuff you want to take in along the way that’s alongside the baseball stuff, but just stuff you know, ‘OK, this is the last time I’m going to do this and I need to take advantage of it.’ I have some thoughts on that kind of stuff, but nothing that’s going to get in the way of doing the job.”
In the end, it’s about the job. Of course it is. This is Paul Konerko.
Yet some still aren’t on board with a conscientious hard worker who thrives on team more than self, who remained loyal despite offers of more money on two separate contract negotiation periods, won the MVP in the 2005 American League Championship Series and had the sense at the pinnacle of his career (the final out of the ’05 World Series) to hide the ball and present it to chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who cried at the thoughtfulness of the simple gift.
TEENAGE FAN CLUB
Most fans are appreciative that Konerko is returning, of course. At least that’s how it seems. Perhaps it’s simply the cheers for every Konerko at-bat at sparsely attended Cactus League games that overwhelm the groans of those who can’t see the point.
At least two major league managers are thrilled to see Konerko give it one last go-round. The Milwaukee Brewers' Ron Roenicke and the Los Angeles Angels' Mike Scioscia have probably known Konerko longer than anybody in the White Sox organization.
As a 19-year-old in 1995, Konerko played at Single-A San Bernardino of the California League a year after being drafted in the first round (13th overall) by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Roenicke was the San Bernardino manager that year and Scioscia was the club’s roving catching instructor. It was the final season Konerko would catch.
The stats from that season don’t exactly leap off the page. Konerko hit 19 home runs with 77 RBIs and had a .277 batting average with a .455 slugging percentage. But he showed he could put the ball in play, striking out 88 times in 519 plate appearances.
What has stuck with both current managers most was a single moment in that year’s California League championship series when Roenicke operated on a hunch and Konerko unflinchingly delivered.
“It was first and second and nobody out in the game they clinched (the title) and Ron just asked him, ‘Can you bunt?’” Scioscia said. “He said, ‘Sure,’ and he put down a perfect sacrifice bunt. I think that’s what Paul’s about. I think he’s always been a winner. He has a deep understanding of the game, a deep passion for the game.”
Konerko still has a vivid recollection of the moment too, although his isn’t as much about having that deep understanding as much as it was having a respect for authority.
“I was 19 years old,” he said. “At that point, I don’t even know how professional baseball works or anything about it. I’m just learning it. A coach asks you to bunt, a manager asks you to bunt, you bunt. I never thought anything about, ‘Oh geez, I hit some home runs this year, this isn’t right.’ I never thought along those lines.
“I’m not sure if I was even swinging the bat well at the time. That could have played into it. But I also know I never really bunted, either, so it was kind of a bold call. Luckily the guy threw a fastball right down the middle and it was about the easiest pitch you can bunt, and I got it down.”
Roenicke remembers Konerko’s approach well from that one season together, and the longevity of the White Sox’s captain doesn’t surprise him.
“He has a really good head,” Roenicke said. “He can help your younger players and how you should think and approach the things at the plate. And he gets how to hit. He can drive the ball out of any part of the ballpark, which helps, but he understands what a hitter needs to do to be successful at this level and how you make adjustments.”
Both men saw it firsthand in 2005 with Roenicke as the Angels’ bench coach sitting right next to Scioscia in the dugout. While the White Sox’s starting pitching got the most acclaim that series for delivering four consecutive complete games against the Angels, Konerko was the offensive star, delivering a home run in Games 3 and 4 and finishing the series with seven RBIs.
“It’s what guys do when the games are on the line,” Roenicke said. “I know at the end of the season you can look at the numbers and see a guy has 25 homers, 90 RBIs, but how much did they have an impact on your team? When you need him, what does he do? There are some guys that put up great numbers and they really don’t make a big difference on winning or losing. Konerko made a big difference. When the game was on the line and you needed a hit, he gave you a great at-bat. Those are the guys you want on your team.”
THE LITTLE THINGS
Despite some physical limitations, Konerko has delivered with the best of them. His slow foot speed is obvious and his range on defense isn’t exactly up there with the best first basemen in the game. His catching career actually ended before he turned 20 because he wasn’t flexible enough in his hips to get into a proper crouch.
Offensively, though, he hardly seemed limited. His 427 home runs are second in franchise history to Frank Thomas' 448. He is also second to Thomas in RBIs with 1,361, third in doubles with 398 and third in hits with 2,249, behind Nellie Fox (2,470) and Luke Appling (2,749).
“There aren’t too many times during a season that lend itself to have a chance to show [selfless play],” Konerko said. “There are a lot of things I can’t do. When you’re a guy who can run or steal bases or play shortstop and do all those things, there are many moments throughout the season when you can do the little things more to help and be noticed with those things.
“For a guy like me it usually comes down to a guy on second, nobody out trying to get that guy over. If there is a guy on second and you’re on defense, you try to dive and stop a ball from going into the outfield. Everybody up here can play, everybody up here has talent, but unless you’re going to be some superstar and will hit 50 home runs and drive in 120 runs every year, it’s those little things that will build your value as a player and make teams want to keep you or make teams want you.”
A slow-footed player who got the most out of his ability also describes Scioscia. And the two could have been united in Southern California had Konerko accepted more money and moved to the Angels following the 2005 season.
“Naturally, we would have loved to have signed Paul, but in that process we even gained more respect for him because he made the decisions for the right reasons,” Scioscia said. “He wasn’t out chasing the most money. He wasn’t out looking for the most notoriety. In the end he stayed in Chicago because of loyalty, because of a comfort level and thinking that he had the opportunity to repeat and win a championship there. I think that’s what Paul is about.”
He’s back now and ready to wear the uniform one last time, at peace with that decision and not willing to apologize to those who think this is an improper fit. His conscientious approach to each at-bat and keen awareness of his limitations give him the ideal mindset for coming off the bench in the late innings or grabbing a start after a week of pinch-hitting duties.
As a compromise for delaying his family-man status or one final year, he will bring his wife and three kids on more road trips than ever before. And it typical Konerko fashion, he says those family trips will still take a backseat to his team requirements.
Konerko doesn’t want to sail away with the stench of the 99-loss 2013 season lingering in the air. So he’s doing this one last time, on his terms -- sort of. He’s doing it the best way his conscience will allow him to.
And please, no gifts.
“I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings; I don’t want to come off like I don’t care, but anybody that has been around me knows it’s just not something that’s really important to me as far as the moments of people recognizing you,” Konerko said. “Maybe I’ll take it in a little more than I normally would. Certainly off the field with the guys on the road and the traveling and family stuff, there’s going to be more stuff that goes on than in a normal year that I’ll do on my own.
“I’ll just have to wait and see how that all plays out. I’m definitely not asking for it. I appreciate it, but it’s certainly not necessary. There’s only a handful of guys every year that you know their situation, but I appreciate it. I’m pretty focused when I come into work every day. I always try to do things the same as it was 10 years ago.”
Right-hander Nestor Molina, left-hander Frank De Los Santos and infielder Carlos Sanchez all were optioned to Triple-A Charlotte.
The moves leave 44 players in big league camp: 21 pitchers, four catchers, 13 infielders and six catchers.
According to the betting website bovada.com, the Chicago White Sox's Opening Day starter has the fifth best odds of winning the 2014 Cy Young Award at 12-to-1, tied with the Tampa Bay Rays' Matt Moore and the Detroit Tigers' Justin Verlander.
The Texas Rangers' Yu Darvish is considered the odds-on favorite at 8-to-1, while the Tampa Rays’ David Price is second at 9-to-1. The Boston Red Sox's Clay Buchholz and the Tigers’ Max Scherzer are tied for third at 10-to-1.
Sale’s first two years in the White Sox rotation have been an unquestioned success. He is 28-22 in 59 career starts with the White Sox, but his success in that role is better reflected in his 3.06 ERA as a member of the rotation.
When he became a starter, the move was done to make him the left-handed mainstay in the rotation after the departure of Mark Burhele. As for Buehrle’s Cy Young odds this season, the Toronto Blue Jays lefty is listed at 75-to-1
Of the 26 position players whose odds were listed for AL MVP, none were members of the White Sox. The Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout is the favorite at 5-to-1, while the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera is next at 6-to-1. The 26th player on that list is the New York Yankees' Derek Jeter at 100-to-1.
While they had questions on offense, defense, base running, third base and catcher when the spring began, yet another group now is requiring the most attention for the Chicago White Sox.
The club isn’t in a bullpen crisis, exactly, but it is clear that after a week and a half of Cactus League games, there remains a ton of work to do with the relief corps.
Mitchell Boggs is struggling, Scott Downs hasn’t looked sharp yet, Nate Jones and Daniel Webb have barely pitched and Ronald Belisario and Matt Lindstrom haven’t even taken the mound. Belisario, a late arrival because of visa issues in his native Venezuela, is scheduled to pitch in his first game Thursday.
Left-handed pitcher Charlie Leesman, who pitched in eight games with the White Sox last season (one start), was optioned to Triple-A Charlotte. Outfielders Jared Mitchell and Trayce Thompson were optioned to Double-A Birmingham.
Five players were reassigned to minor-league camp: Catcher Miguel Gonzalez, right-handers Deunte Heath and Omar Poveda, left-hander Scott Snodgress and outfielder Keenyn Walker. Those players will have their minor-league teams decided at a later time.
Of the 47 remaining players in big league camp, 23 are pitches, four are catchers, 14 are infielders and six are outfielders.
Abreu's swing is very clean and pretty -- he has no load, but explodes to the ball as if he'd cocked his hands much further back, so while his path to the ball is extremely short, he has the hand and wrist strength to hit for power.
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If you said John Danks at $15.75 million, you’d be right on the money. And if you have been asking what a pitcher 18 months removed from shoulder surgery will capable of in 2014, you wouldn’t be alone.
Danks arrived in spring training boasting to anybody who would listen that his arm strength is much improved, and his Cactus League results are evidence of that.
The left-hander fired five scoreless innings at the Texas Rangers and now has eight scoreless over two starts this spring. His March 1 outing was rained out.
Danks even worked his way out of a fifth-inning jam after the first two batters reached base. A ground ball and a double play off the bat of top Rangers prospect Jurickson Profar ended the threat.
“I feel like I have a better chance (to compete),” said Danks, who had his shoulder repaired during the 2012 season. “Last year I would have had to pull a Houdini act almost and flip some slow curveballs up there and try to get some chases. I feel like I can go after guys more aggressively because I have a little better stuff. It’s a little sharper. I have some movement on the fastball, the cutter’s sharp and that’s basically how I got out of that last inning.”
His father Mychal Thompson had a successful NBA career with the Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers, while his brother Klay Thompson is a key contributor to the Golden State Warriors.
Up with the major league team again this spring, it's only a matter of days before Thompson is sent back to minor league camp, but he will head back with a sense of confidence that he is on the correct path.
"I just feel like this offseason was big," said Thompson, who turns 23 on Saturday. "Last offseason I was thinking about Double-A and maybe spending a little time in Triple-A. But this offseason all I was thinking about was getting after it and getting that call, just getting up there and competing.
"It's not about getting there and saying 'I'm a major leaguer,' it's getting up there and helping the team and getting after it and competing and doing the best I can."
Thompson's first full season at Double-A Birmingham last year didn't go as planned. He batted just .229 with a .383 slugging percentage in 135 games. He had 15 home runs and 73 RBIs, a year after hitting 25 with 96 RBIs combined between the Single-A and Double-A levels.
But the Barons won the Southern League championship and during the course of the season he was able to see teammates such as Erik Johnson, Marcus Semien, Daniel Webb, Jacob Petricka and Miguel Gonzalez get called up to the major leagues, reinforcing to him that his goal is within reach.
Instead of contemplating what went wrong or what the future had in store for him, this offseason Thompson played winter ball in Venezuela, where he had just one hit in 22 at-bats, but was better off for the experience.
"I know the year didn't turn out how I wanted and how everybody else wanted, especially the second half, but I am definitely looking forward to this upcoming year," Thompson said.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Southern California native is part of a heralded bunch of White Sox outfield prospects, along with Jared Mitchell, Keenyn Walker and Courtney Hawkins, but that group collectively slipped in 2013.
All four outfielders were ranked among the White Sox's prospects last year, according to Baseball America with Thompson siting in the No. 2 spot. This year, only two of them were listed, with Thompson dropping to No. 8, while last year's No. 1, Hawkins, fell to No. 7.
It might seem like Thompson is regressing, but he doesn't feel that way. While his brother went right from the NBA draft and into the spotlight, Thompson is comfortable with the slower road baseball players take to reach the highest level.
"Every year is a learning process whether you're in the big leagues or in the minor leagues," Thompson said. "I was told from Day 1, and I've been hearing from everybody not just baseball critics, that I was pretty raw. I'm pretty realistic with my expectations."
Thompson knows, though, that it's time to refine those former rough edges now. He continues to make adjustments that will make him a better player, adding pieces to his game even when he is playing well.
He remains confident that his time is coming soon where he can be at his sport's highest level, just as his brother is. And if accomplishing your goal isn't enough motivation, he knows he can at least stop of the good-natured teasing from his siblings.
"My brothers come and see me play every summer," Thompson said. "They definitely poke fun at me because I go to see Clay and all these people come up to him and it's in the big city. Then they come to see me and it's the little kids that want autographs. They don't have too much fun with me but they have a little."
That's what brothers are for. Sure they can put you in your place, but in the case of Clay they can also inspire.
"It's definitely getting closer (to being a reality)," Thompson said of reaching the major leagues. "A lot of guys I've played with, even before pro ball, are in the major leagues now. And a lot of the guys I played with through my minor league career are up there. It's just time to go."
Multiple reports have said teams are coming to the White Sox with interest not only in Viciedo, but in Alejandro De Aza as well. Expected to be the fourth outfielder this season, De Aza is actually the highest-paid outfielder on the team, set to make $4.25 million this season.
“I haven’t really thought about [trade rumors] to be honest with you,” Viciedo told reporters Monday in Arizona. “Those are things I don’t control and things out of players' control. So that type of thing doesn’t concern me. What concerns me is the work that I’m putting in out on the field and try to get better every day this spring.”
Viciedo’s brief tour in Chicago hasn’t quite been a smooth one. He seemed to show his potential in 2012 with 25 home runs and 78 RBIs to go along with a .444 slugging percentage, but an early oblique injury he suffered last season, coupled with a wildly aggressive swing once he returned, led to 14 home runs, 56 RBIs and a .426 slugging percentage in 2013.
One intriguing aspect for the White Sox to explore, though, is whether the arrival of fellow Cuban Jose Abreu has a positive influence on Viciedo, who says Chicago is the place for him.
“Only God knows what will happen in the future, but right now, and in the future, I’m thinking about the White Sox,” Viciedo said. “I’m thinking about how I can make this team better, how I can contribute to this team. This is where I want to be.”
A fresh start could be what Viciedo needs, but he isn’t ready to go that route just yet.
“I don’t think about other opportunities or what other opportunities may be,” he said. “Baseball is baseball. But my opportunity, and what I have to do, is right here right now and getting better, doing what I’m doing and helping this team. I don’t think about other opportunities. Whatever happens in the future happens. But what I’m thinking about is right here, right now.”
If the season started tomorrow, Gillaspie would likely be in the starting lineup over challengers at third base like Matt Davidson, Marcus Semien and Jeff Keppinger.
Davidson has been struggling at the plate, Semien is still projected for everyday play in the minor leagues, while Keppinger continues to nurse a sore shoulder. But it isn’t that Gillaspie is leading the pack by default.
After entering spring camp with a renewed focus on offense as well as defense, Gillaspie’s approach is gaining a heightened confidence level from the coaching staff. At the plate, the left-handed hitter had five hits in his first 18 at-bats (.278), while delivering a .500 slugging percentage, before his start Monday against the Milwaukee Brewers. He had a home run, three RBIs, three runs scored and just two strikeouts.
“To me, he’s just in a better spot this year confidence-wise, knowledge-wise on what he needs to do to play, offensively, defensively,” manager Robin Ventura told reporters in Arizona. “He actually had one game that wasn’t very good, but everybody has those and you have to be able to get over that and still have the confidence, and he’s done that.”
We've once again asked three of our top baseball analysts -- Jim Bowden, Keith Law and Buster Olney -- to rank all 30 teams across five different categories (see table) in an attempt to measure how well each team is set up for sustained success over the next five years. When we last did these rankings, in August, the two teams who went on to meet in the World Series occupied the top two slots.
The better your rank in a given category, the more points you get, and the average point scores from the three voters are available in the bar graphs accompanying each team's section, rounded to the nearest integer. We weighted the categories and then gave each team a score on a scale of 1 to 100, with the score representing a team's percentage of total possible points. (For a detailed breakdown of the methodology used for the Future Power Rankings, click here.)
With each team's ranking, you'll also get a take from Buster, Jim and Keith. Buster will give an overview of the franchise's future, Jim will explain the biggest dilemma currently facing the team and Keith highlights a prospect facing a make-or-break season.
So who's No. 1? Which team did our team of experts think is best equipped for success over the next half-decade? It's time to find out.
AL EAST FPR RANK: 1
The bar graphs reflect the average points given by the voters for each category.
A year ago, even coming off of their disastrous 2012 season, the Red Sox came in 10th in these rankings, and then second in our August update, so it's not like they fell off the map completely even during a period of struggle. They have one of the best farm systems in baseball as well as incredible financial flexibility, with a little less than $14 million committed for the 2016 season, most of which is owed to face of the franchise Dustin Pedroia, who signed one of the most team-friendly deals in baseball last year. -- Buster Olney
The Red Sox have tremendous depth on the mound and infield, but their long-term outfield picture is unclear beyond rookie center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. They should be fine this year with Shane Victorino in right and Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava once again platooning in left, but they need to find some youth in the outfield corners. -- Jim Bowden
Make-or-break year (Law's top 10 Red Sox prospects)
Brian Johnson was the Red Sox's second first-round pick in 2012, after Deven Marrero, as a low-ceiling, quick-to-the-majors starting pitcher, but he took a liner to the face that August and missed about half of 2013 with a shoulder ailment. He's now 23 years old with no projection and should already have been ready for Triple-A, making a healthy 2014 a critical step for him. -- Keith Law
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Pitching coach Don Cooper had already suggested that Sale would get the opener, but he was reluctant to go on the record, until the manager talked about it first.
“Just what he’s done in the past and what you expect him to do, he’s the logical choice,” Ventura told reporters. “He deserves it.”
After today, Sale’s spring schedule will have him pitch Saturday against the Los Angeles Dodgers, then March 20 in a minor league game (the White Sox don’t have a Cactus League game that day), and March 25 against the Colorado Rockies. He will then get an extra fifth day of rest before pitching on Opening Day, March 31 at home against the Minnesota Twins.
The right-hander, who was not in big-league camp this spring, spent the entire 2013 season at Triple-A Charlotte, compiling a 6-14 record with a 4.25 ERA. The 27-year-old has pitched in 33 major league games over two seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays, White Sox and Boston Red Sox.
In a 2011 start with the White Sox, the Texas native nearly pitched a perfect game, retiring the first 21 batters before the Minnesota Twins’ Danny Valencia led off the eighth inning with a double. He finished with a complete-game one hitter.
Over two seasons with the White Sox, he was 3-7 with a 6.14 ERA in 28 appearances (nine starts).