Dan Johnson owns the only White Sox home run over their first two spring training games. He also had baseball's timeliest regular-season homer last year, and with that combination, he has bought himself a little bit of press.
Daryl Van Schouwen gave Johnson a chance to present his case for making the White Sox's 25-man roster:
"Second week of the season, I took a 96 [mph fastball] right off the wrist,’’ Johnson said. "Because of the nerve damage, I was unable to control grip strength in the left hand. It was a long year trying to play.’’
"I was playing handicapped essentially, making one-handed swings,’’ he said. "I became a slap guy, aiming where I was hitting it rather than being aggressive. It was tough, going from being a cleanup batter behind Longoria or Manny Ramirez to within a month you’re pretty much on the shelf, not worth anything. It was hard to swallow.’’
So was being designated for assignment to Durham after the season. Johnson declined it and is taking a shot with the Sox, who might have room for him as a 25th man. He’s primarily a first baseman but can also play third and some outfield. His bat would be valuable off the bench.
Of course, Johnson's problems aren't limited to his 2011. Since the start of the 2008 season, Johnson has hit .167/.281/.335 over 260 plate appearances, so I would hold off on getting too excited. That said, if Johnson doesn't force the issue this spring, another veteran might make a legitimately strong case.
But is there anything the White Sox can do about a dark horse corner player? Barring injury or a trade, there are two routes for a guy like Johnson, and neither look likely.
No. 1: A six-man bullpen. The White Sox tried this last year when Lastings Milledge hit too well to ignore during the spring, but a string of long days for the bullpen cut the experiment short within a week.
However, the shape of the 2012 bullpen could be quite different. In 2011, Tony Pena was the only guy who resembled a long reliever, with Will Ohman the second in line. This season, it's possible the Sox bullpen could feature two pitchers with recent starting experience. Maybe that will encourage Robin Ventura and Don Cooper to try it again, and it would be interesting to see a new manager try a less conventional bullpen setup right off the bat.
No. 2: One utility infielder. The assumption is that Ozzie Martinez or Eduardo Escobar will take the 25th spot in order to give the Sox a true reserve middle infielder. If a Johnson type were to compel Ventura and Co. to sacrifice that depth, it would leave all up-the-middle duties up to Brent Lillibridge, and Lillibridge hasn't proved that he can handle either second or short with the White Sox.
It's quite possible Lillibridge could rediscover how to play the infield. And it's possible Johnson plays a decent enough third to cover the position when neither Lillibridge nor Brent Morel are available. But I'd say it's even more likely that Johnson tails off before he becomes a real possibility, so I'd hold off on the unorthodox roster construction until Ventura truly has a reason to entertain it.
*For those who are optimistic about Simon Castro's White Sox future if only because he looks like Jose Contreras (I'm one of them), Don Cooper gave us reason to dream:
"He got my attention semi-negatively with what he was doing," Cooper said. "He had the right idea but was going about it the wrong way. After a couple of practices, he instantly looked better."
Cooper usually isn't this bold about a reclamation project. For instance, he didn't share nearly the same enthusiasm about Jhan Marinez:
"(Marinez's) fastball has movement (and) velocity," pitching coach Don Cooper said. "His M.O. is he hasn't thrown strikes."
So now it's time to pay close attention to Castro, or at least his walk-to-strikeout numbers. He struggled immensely while pitching in Arizona last season at Triple-A Tucson, so any improvement in the desert could have added significance.
*Hector Santiago also received some special instruction from Cooper thus far:
Pitching coach Don Cooper moved left-hander Hector Santiago from the third-base side of the rubber to the middle. Santiago said it took a few pitches during his scoreless inning Monday against the Los Angeles Dodgers to feel comfortable.
"We did it to make my fastballs and sliders drive down into lefties and away to righties,’’ Santiago said. "It felt fine.’’