For the second straight season, it appears as though Mark Teahen will return from the DL in search of a regular position, because Brent Morel is finally making third base his own.
While Teahen rejoined the White Sox on Sunday, Morel received his second consecutive start against a right-handed pitcher -- and he had his second solid day. He singled in each of his two at-bats against Brad Penny on Sunday, following a respectable 1-for-3 night against Justin Verlander, the kind of guy Morel never saw in the minors. He didn't try to do too much in either case -- he tried opposite field twice each day, along with a pulled single through the left side off one of Verlander's slower fastballs (92 mph).
He finished the weekend with a seven-game hitting streak, lending credibility to the notion that he can handle the position on a full-time basis.
It also lent credibility to the notion that Morel is The Most Uninteresting Man in the World, because his season is going according to script, with little room for ad-libbing.
When Morel reached Double-A and Triple-A, he needed about three to four weeks to start hitting. Sure enough, when Morel got his first true crack at holding down a job in the majors, Morel didn't offer much of anything in terms of offense over his first 21 starts (.187/.197/.240).
He busted out of the malaise with a three-hit game against Seattle, and now his punches are coming in bunches. Over his last month of action, he's hitting .362/.383/.448.
At the same time, he's really started to mark his territory at third. In the first two games of the Detroit series, Morel made five above-average plays. I documented three in Friday's recap, and on Saturday, he ran down a pop-up in foul territory on an angle better suited for a shortstp, and then hit the dirt again to his left.
Now that he's not a liability at the plate, this is the Morel everybody signed up for when they gave him the starting job at spring training. Although it may not feel like it -- thanks to the massive struggles of Adam Dunn and Alex Rios -- Morel is right on time.
Lest the account appear too tidy, it should be emphasized that Morel didn't exactly pull himself up by his bootstraps. I've used the cliche before that it takes a village to raise a rookie on a contender -- you can't just throw a nobody out there and accept everything that goes wrong as part of the plan. He's going to be feeling heat, and it's the manager's job to keep him far enough away from the flames so his trainee hat doesn't catch fire.
In that sense, Ozzie Guillen has raised Morel right. He has responded well to Morel's growing pains, reducing responsibilities when Morel lost his way in the second half of April and saving him for spots where he was likeliest to succeed. Now, he's in the process of adding to Morel's plate, and Morel hasn't yet buckled.
Guillen also had the benefit of two options to take Morel's place against tough righties. Teahen, rather ironically, took a lot of the heavy lifting away from Morel, which allowed the rookie to focus the matchups that he must succeed in to remain a viable big leaguer.
I don't think Guillen was expecting to get much out of Teahen at third, based on his all-feet defense there in 2010 and somewhat unimpressive spring showing. But when the regular season rolled around, Teahen started making plays again. His throwing motion still looks awkward, but the throws are accurate. His first step and decision-making on hops are a billion times faster, too.
With Teahen offering reliable defense, that allowed Guillen to arrange a platoon and balance present concerns with future ones.
And Teahen was also kind enough to never let that balance get out of whack. At the end of April, it looked like Teahen might have reclaimed the position for himself. If he continued hitting .282/.378/.410, Guillen would have had to play him two out of three times.
However, the way Teahen's May played out couldn't have been more beneficial to Morel's career. First he cooled off by going 1-for-15, and then he disappeared. That made the prospect of playing Morel more palatable to Guillen, and then mandatory. Morel seized the day.
All of the above is written in past tense because Morel has completed the first stage of his MLB career. Around the two-month period, he had to start contributing hits of any kind to pair with his above-average defense. Both are present, and now we can proceed to phase two.
Over the next six weeks, the stakes will elevate. Now it's time for Morel to start more than half the games. Teahen will still be there for the really tough matchups, but Morel will be expected to survive against the Pennys of the world on a more regular basis. It remains to be seen how he'll fare, because he has to shore up some specific deficiencies that Guillen has been able to mask so far
And by the time the second half rolls around, he'll be expected to get the ball behind the outfielders more often than once a week. It's not a problem that he only has one homer, but he has to at least boost his number of doubles (currently at six). It would also help if he improved his walk rate so he drew more than, I dunno, three walks a year.
The script says he can handle it, and Morel can follow directions, so I remain a believer in his ability to stick. But Teahen will also need to get back on track, because the Sox are going to need both of them to keep third base an offensively viable position in 2011 (or at least as long as Dunn keeps struggling).
That means that work has just begun for Guillen. The weights will change, but the manager will still have to strike a balance beneficial to Morel, Teahen, and the 23 other guys on the team. Morel might be on the right trajectory, but he can't be expected to pick up the slack of others when he's still taking ownership of his own responsibilities.