There once was a time where all there was to Jose Contreras was optimism and unclaimed potential // Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-US PRESSWIRE

Those rare times when Spring Training talk rings true


The White Sox are doing their part and talking extremely confident, in order to properly compensate for the lack of confidence the roster might inspire on its own.  Hell, even Brent Lillibridge is feeling boastful.  Well, he probably should be.  If rate stats are gospel no matter the sample size, he’s the team’s second-best hitter from last season.

“There’s an excitement here that we have a chance to really kind of blow people out of the water once the season starts,” Lillibridge said.

Since there’s a new manager in tow, there’s all sorts of optimism being expressed about the new, lighthearted and fun atmosphere that’s been brought.  It’s “just about playing the game and having fun”, you might hear.  Take this light-hearted anecdote, for example.

“In the first, after taking a borderline 1-0 pitch from Gavin Floyd for a strike, [Pierzynski] heard it from pitching coach Don Cooper.

‘Yeah, it was,’ said Cooper of the strike, seated a few feet from Pierzynski in a folding chair. Pierzynski just laughed.”

Laughter during the middle of a White Sox game!  Players not cursing at Cooper for his betrayal!  Pierzynski taking a close strike!  What magic is this?!

Of course, finding examples of how Spring Training talk is just…talk, is unfairly easy.

Periodically over the winter, Jim Margalus of South Side Sox would tweet out Adam Dunn quotes from April of 2011.  If I wasn’t sure it was a result of his research for writing White Sox Outsider 2012, he could be accused of self-flagellation.  But the point stands, one needs to only go back to everything that was said last Spring see why there’s not necessarily value in optimism for optimism’s sake.

But people like optimism for optimism’s sake; it can be self-fulfilling, and it beats the hell out of the alternative.  So let’s look through the great kaleidoscope of memory (and the whitesox.com news archive) for the type of talk that led up to some of the bigger surprise years in recent White Sox history.  We might just see some remarks eerily familiar to what’s being said now.

“[Konerko]has put himself in position to enjoy another productive season.

That’s largely because he and trainer Herm Schneider have taken preventive measures to protect a right thumb that nagged him in 2008 during a subpar season.

‘Since then, Herm and I have done a good job of staying in front of the pain, to where I’ll get the (pain-killing) shots before it gets bad,’ said Konerko, who rebounded in 2009 with a .277 batting average with 28 home runs and 88 RBIs. ‘We’re protecting it better, cutting down on the workload, not hitting all day just to hit — all that helps. We’ve done a pretty good job of monitoring it better.

‘In 2008, I figured I better start taking care of this, or else you’re not going to be able to swing the bat the way you want to. You still feel it. I can feel it, but it’s nothing that’s stopping me from being able to do what I want to do at the plate, and that’s the key.’

Konerko’s health has enabled him to concentrate on preparing for the regular season.

‘It’s a real mental game, but I like where Paulie is at right now,’ hitting coach Greg Walker said.”These (final exhibition) games are important. I like where he’s at right now. I think he’s ascending.’”

-Chicago Tribune, April 1, 2010

You might remember a newly healthy, and regularly rested Konerko setting career-highs in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging as a 34 year-old in 2010.  One could say this article is cheating because it had an actual medical development to back up Greg Walker’s talk about Konerko’s mindset, but everyone’s feeling healthier in April than they are in September.

———-

Guillen said he knew the expectations weighed on Floyd. Maybe they were too heavy a burden for him to carry. Maybe that’s why he never could live up too them.

Until now.

Something seems to have clicked with Floyd, Guillen said. It could be simply that he’s found an organization that believes in him.

“I just go out there and say, ‘Listen, you know what? I think you have great stuff. Go out there, perform and regardless what happens, it’s my fault,’” Guillen said. “He’s got the manager, the pitching coach, the GM and the players behind him.

“When you’ve got all these people behind you, you should just go out, perform and forget about everything.”

That appears to be what Floyd has done this spring: He’s performed. Performance has fostered confidence.

-WhiteSox.com, March 1, 2008

The White Sox made a somewhat bold decision to pencil Floyd into the 2008 rotation after a year spent mostly in Triple-A, and speckled with a fair share of trainwreck MLB appearances.  His last two starts of 2007 showed a bit of promise, and on the strength of that and belief in his potential under Don Cooper, he was placed in the rotation.  The pre-season hype around Floyd was buttressed with little more than the vague rationale of “he’s confident now”, but lo and behold, in 2008 Gavin attacked the strike zone with an aggression that never showed up in Philadelphia.

———-

“From the first time I saw him play, he really impressed me with his glove work,” said Contreras of Ramirez. “Not too many can make plays like him with the ease he does.”

-Jose Contreras on playing with Alexei Ramirez on the Cuban National Team, February 24, 2008

No real summary needed here.  Alexei is just an awesome shortstop.

———–

In his outing, Danks relied on his cut fastball more than on his changeup, a pitch he turned to often when in trouble last season.

Not that he abandoned his changeup altogether. He threw a couple of really good ones. They were as effective as his cutter.

“He went after hitters — a pretty good outing,” manager Ozzie Guillen said.

Danks sped through those hitters so quickly that he might not have needed to use the changeup any more than he did, which is one reason he headed to the bullpen.

-WhiteSox.com, March 3, 2008

It’s funny to read reports that Danks was considered the #3 starter going into 2008 despite racking up a 7.11 ERA in the 2nd half of the previous season, but the organizational confidence in him has always been off the charts.  If anything, this quote should serve as a reminder to get really, really excited whenever it’s written that a White Sox pitcher has successfully added a cutter to their repertoire.

———–

Here’s where El Duque’s positive influence becomes readily apparent. He quickly came to Contreras’ defense in regards to his pitching style, supporting the theory that Contreras simply needs to trust his ability.

“That was one of the things that bothered me in years past, with a lot of people telling me a lot of different things,” Contreras said. “I just want to pitch my game and have fun with it.”

“He doesn’t have to worry about throwing too many forkballs,” added Hernandez of his friend. “There are a lot of pitchers out there who throw more forkballs than he does. All he has to do is pitch his game and not worry about anything.”

- WhiteSox.com, February 20, 2005.

There’s no discernible difference in pitch usage from Contreras’ time in New York to Chicago, and it would be absurd to pin his success on a reduced amount of pressure, seeing as he spent most of his career on the Cuban National Team and went through a harrowing defection process.

Instead, he reads as a genuine case of a positive reaction to a change of scenery and new environment.  He played with a confidence and assurance that was lacking in previous seasons, and experience the greatest run of his career in the process.  It’s the type of story that countless players are crafting for themselves in the first year of the Ventura era, a year that admittedly has a lower standard for success, and lacks the internal tension of the past two seasons.

Of course, going through the archives, you can’t help but run across the optimistic articles once penned about Brian Anderson, Josh Fields, Joe Borchard, Jerry Ownes or even Daniel  Cabrera.  Spring Training optimism is a shotgun blast fired into a crowded room; it hits a lot of people, and very few deserving parties.  But when there’s full investment and belief from the start and it’s rewarded, there’s nothing sweeter.

It’s the constant temptation that brings us back every year.

“Oh, yeah. The juices are flowing right now,” [Kenny] Williams said. “Once you get going at this time of the year, the sun is shining and you smell the grass — it’s good to get back to work. And I’m excited about the club we have, so I’m doubly enthusiastic.”

WhiteSox.com, February 16, 2005

 

Follow James Fegan on Twitter @ JRFegan.  Also check out his full-time, daily blog, White Sox Observer

 

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Tags: A.J. Pierzynski Adam Dunn Baseball Brent Lillibridge Brian Anderson Chris Sale Daniel Cabrera Don Cooper Gavin Floyd Herm Schneider Jerry Ownes Joe Borchard John Danks Jose Contreras Josh Fields Kenny Williams Orlando Hernandez Ozzie Guillen Paul Konerko Robin Ventura Spring Training White Sox