White Sox expecting to be better defensively
Confidence points to outfield upgrades, stability around infield
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- John Danks just might have come up with a new slogan for the 2012 White Sox.
Actually, Danks' quote didn't deal with the team as a whole as much as the White Sox defense, expected to be one of the club's strong suits in the upcoming campaign.
"We know that if we pitch to contact and make the guys hit it," Danks said, "more times than not they are going to get it."
Catchy, just like the White Sox fielders aim to be behind the southpaw.
In 2011, a .987 fielding percentage left the White So second in the American League, trailing only Tampa Bay's .988. The Rays (73), Phillies (74) and White Sox (79) were the only three teams to make fewer than 80 errors.
Alex Rios struggled with reads in center field and Juan Pierre had a rough start in left, with a couple of April errors contributing to Matt Thornton's four blown saves in his first four attempts. The White Sox have tried to rectify that issue with Dayan Viciedo taking the strongest arm in the outfield to left, and Rios moving to right, where he seems to be most comfortable.
Alejandro De Aza proved over the final two months of last season that he's the best center fielder the team has at the Major League level.
"I love Rios back over in right field," said Thornton of the outfield switch. "I remember playing against him in right field, and he seemed to be really good over there. De Aza is a great center fielder with great range."
An infield made up of third baseman Brent Morel, shortstop Alexei Ramirez, second baseman Gordon Beckham and first baseman Paul Konerko returns for a second season. Morel came into the 2011 starting lineup as a glove-first sort of player, and Ramirez and Beckham are as good defensively as anyone in the American League at their respective positions.
Konerko's work at first rates as very underrated, especially in saving errors on throws with the way he scoops the ball. It's an especially important unit for the White Sox, who possess starting pitchers who can record strikeouts such as Jake Peavy, Chris Sale and Danks, but don't have the Randy Johnson-type fireballer.
"We don't have guys who are going to strike out 10 or 15 every night out," Danks said. "We'll pitch to contact and need guys to make plays behind us."
Picking up big strikeout totals isn't as important to the team goal as starters who can work 200 innings and give the White Sox a chance to win more often than not over the course of 30 starts per season.
"Get early contact and let your defense do your work so they get later in games," said White Sox third-base coach Joe McEwing, who also works with the infield. "We have to be prepared for that, but they have had a lot of success in the past and we are just trying to keep them where they were.
"It is definitely a group that works hard and what I've really enjoyed is the communication part of it. Communicating with everyone, knowing where they are on the field, where they want the ball on a double play, and those types of things. They've come out and work and communicate and talk and it has been fun to watch."
That run-saving defense has been on display throughout the first nine games of Spring Training. On Saturday night against the Dodgers, Beckham made a diving catch of a line drive headed toward center to end an inning and save a run. Against the Rockies on Sunday, Danks avoided more early trouble with the help of double plays in each of the first three innings -- all started by Brent Lillibridge, who was playing his first 2012 Cactus League game at shortstop.
And on Monday at Camelback Ranch against the A's, Beckham started an inning-ending double play that was finished off by Ramirez behind Peavy off a tricky hop on Josh Reddick's first-inning grounder. De Aza then tracked down Brandon Allen's line drive to open the second with a nice running catch near the wall.
Solid defense such as these aforementioned examples are as much the by-product of hard work during pregame drills as they are due to pure talent.
"We make sure we get all of our work in. That really makes the games easy. You just go out and play," Beckham said. "I feel I can go out there and I can make any play. That's how Alexei feels and Mo feels and Paul helps us out tremendously. We definitely feel comfortable out there.
"Really, I just know what Alexei is doing and he knows what I'm doing. We make calls in terms of what we've done in the past. We understand where each other is going to be and that kind of stuff. It's pretty easy. It's easy for us to get along out there."
Beckham took that defensive fit one step further. If the White Sox have a better season than expected, he believes no less than Morel, Ramirez and himself could emerge as Gold Glove-worthy. Some believe Ramirez and Beckham already are there.
"You have to have a good year to have that happen," said a smiling Beckham. "But it would be pretty cool if we all won it. We can pick it."
"Defense and pitching is what's going to get us through the grind of the middle of the year," Lillibridge said. "I mean, we have to hit. But if those guys are taking away runs and games are in the three or four [runs scored] range, we will win a lot of games."