Brent Morel's sophomore year presents plenty of challenges.
Since then, the new manager has become more tight-lipped with unresolved matters. He still hasn't knighted a closer, which has turned some beat writers into amateur gumshoes (when it comes to caring about who pitches the ninth inning, Daryl Van Schouwen is the yin to my yang).
A lesser issue involves the No. 2 hitter. Ventura originally named A.J. Pierzynski his front-runner for that role, and it made sense in and of itself -- Pierzynski is contact-oriented, and he spent most of the 2008 season hitting second. The White Sox made the playoffs that year, and while it can't be said that Pierzynski's adept bat-handling propelled the Sox to the postseason, he didn't kill the team, either.
But with Alejandro De Aza cemented in the leadoff spot and Adam Dunn looking worthy of batting third, putting Pierzynski between them would make the top of the White Sox order lefty-lefty-lefty. And that would turn into wimpy-wimpy-wimpy in the late innings by turning LOOGYs into LTOGYs.
So now Ventura's lonely eyes turn to Brent Morel, who seems like a better choice three months from now. Alas, personnel isn't on Ventura's side -- Alexei Ramirez and Alex Rios are GIDP machines and Gordon Beckham can't escape Prometheus' fate at the bottom of the order -- so time isn't on his side, either.
Morel could work in the second spot, and it's not nearly as awful an idea as it was last year. Still, I have an uneasy feeling for a specific reason -- by giving him the stereotypical duties of a No. 2 hitter, it might push him back into the mode that resulted in feeble contact for the first four months of the season.
You may remember the post I wrote about the factors behind Morel's September surge. To make a detailed story short, he looked for pitches he could pull, and he wasn't so afraid of striking out. Sure enough, when our friend J.J. talked to Morel at SoxFest, he confirmed our hunch:
"I was just caught up trying to put the ball in play and just kinda move guys over and do that kind of stuff," Morel said of his April-August approach. "Toward the end, I relaxed a little bit and was more selective and patient up there. That helped me out."
"[In September] I really just got selfish and aggressive, putting time in and developing an approach. So I will just carry that over the next year."
If Morel is given the stereotypical responsibilities of a No. 2 hitter -- being ordered to hit the other way, watching pitches to give De Aza the opportunity to steal, bunting -- it seems like Morel could revert into feeble form. He has the natural ability to cover the whole plate and hit to all fields, but he doesn't have the power to make a living going the opposite way, and he realized that over the course of his rookie season.
Even when Morel talks about learning the virtues of patience, it doesn't mean he's well-suited to take pitches on purpose. Four of his eight September homers came on the first pitch -- he just happened to recognize them as pitches he could turn into something special.
Forcing Morel to abandon his "selfish" ways on occasion should work at some point down the road. He's not particularly prone to double plays, so he could very well apply the lessons he learned from late last season to his new role in the second spot. For what it's worth, Joe Randa, Morel's most popular comparable player, was at his best hitting second. The promotion will just require Morel to shift modes far more quickly than he did in 2011. An audition can't hurt if they keep close tabs on his progress.
Ventura can help him out by keeping it simple over the first month. De Aza can run the bases, but he hasn't been the most efficient basestealer over the course of his career, and his 3-for-8 performance in the spring certainly hammers that point home.
Just last year, we witnessed just how well a 50-percent success rate plays. Getting Juan Pierre to second base was a gruesome, bloody process. He didn't have the extra-base power to get there without running. He didn't have the speed to steal the base anywhere close to the break-even rate. That put the second hitter in the awkward position of having to bunt over the active leader in steals, or watch Pierre run into a buzz saw, then get back in the box down one strike and/or one out.
If the Sox want to establish a different tone to this season, they should take a little time to see what a leadoff hitter can accomplish with a modicum of power alone. Pierre slugged .322 over his two years with the White Sox (and much worse in April!), so even an unremarkable beginning by De Aza will give him a head start in the total bases category.
If De Aza is limited to one base and the battery isn't exploitable, don't force the issue by starting the runner against the odds. Give Morel the opportunity to see the ball the way he did late last year, and maybe that plate approach will take care of second base (and third base, and home) by itself.
The Sox need Morel to show he's worthy of the second-most plate appearances on the team before getting cute. Literally and figuratively, Sox management has tried to make its players run before they could walk, and it just hasn't made much sense in the scheme of things (and by "things," I mean "outs").
Morel's plate is full enough with the need to prove that he can hit in the majors for a whole season. Yet due to circumstances beyond his control, he might also be the most capable No. 2 hitter by default. Filling that role is a sacrifice in and of itself, so he shouldn't also have to assume responsibility for the shortcomings of the guy hitting in front of him.