GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Wasting no time in his all-out quest to get his job back, Brent Morel has been a fixture all week along with White Sox pitchers and catchers.
Morel was among a handful of position players that have been on hand since the beginning of camp, instead of waiting for Sunday’s first full-squad workout.
With what was eventually classified as a lumbar back strain last year, Morel never had surgery, but his recovery was slow and marked by setbacks.
Then this winter, he saw the Jeff Keppinger signing and heard all the talk about how the White Sox have a new third baseman. But since nobody told Morel he’s on the outside looking in, he will pick up where he left off last spring.
Exactly one year ago, Morel was coming off a strong final month and was about to put together an impressive spring training that made it look as if he had figured out exactly how to tap into the potential the White Sox saw when they made him a third-round draft pick in 2008.
Then the back issues started.
“You never want to get hurt and miss the whole year,” said Morel, who played in just 35 major league games a season ago. “Just being away and watching the team from afar and seeing them come so close and not pulling it off at the end, it just gets you that much more motivated. Stepping away just gave me that much more desire and motivation to get me back to where I was.”
A top-notch defender, Morel hadn’t shown much in the way of offense until the end of the 2011 season, when he was essentially out of his mind. Clearly determined to take a more aggressive approach once September started that year, Morel batted just .224 in the month but had eight of his 10 home runs and 19 of his 41 RBIs. He also had monthly highs in slugging percentage (.553) and OPS (.893).
“I finished off 2011 strong and was hoping to build on that going into last year,” Morel said. “I was having a good spring, and the back kind of happened. I’m just kind of throwing that out and trying to build off how I ended 2011 when I was healthy.”
It doesn’t figure to be easy. Former White Sox third baseman Joe Crede can attest to the challenges back injuries bring, as his career was cut short because of them. Crede is now a farmer in Missouri. The White Sox still don’t know how Morel will move forward after his issues.
“We need to be cautious at this point,” general manager Rick Hahn said. “We should be. Based on what he showed us in the winter and what he showed us in the first couple of days, we can be cautiously optimistic. But we need him to continue to show where he is physically once he gets into playing on a daily basis and diving for balls and running the bases and playing the game at full speed.
"So far everything has been real encouraging.”
Manager Robin Ventura admits to having a vested interest in Morel. Both Ventura and Morel are mild-mannered, have third base in common and hail from the Central California area.
“Watching him now, he’s different now than he was last year as far as watching him physically go out there and do things,” Ventura said. “I’m excited to see what he can do, and yeah, I kind of get the same area thing and all that. But I’m happy for him just to be out here without mental things going on in his mind of maybe not being as healthy as he wants to be.”
With everybody not knowing what to expect, Morel has the advantage of being able to open some eyes, not unlike the first time he was able to break upon the scene. He has the added advantage, though, of having done this before while being able to perform in front of coaches who know him well.
“They’ve seen me play, and I think right now it’s just a matter of being healthy or not,” Morel said. “I worked in the offseason, and I got ready for this, and I’m just trying to stay healthy.”
It wouldn’t seem likely that the White Sox would sign Keppinger to a three-year, $12 million deal to turn around and have him serve as a backup, but the White Sox say they are open to having Morel at third base if he deserves to be there.
“In the end, we’re going to take the 25 best, and Robin will play the lineup he believes will give him a good chance to win on any given night,” Hahn said. “That has been clear from the start. I don’t view us passing on a guy that we feel will help us win ballgames because of other roster considerations right now. There is flexibility in other things that can be done if need be.”