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Brent Morel playing through pain, but not well

This feels great, I'm sure.
This feels great, I'm sure.

Brent Morel singled and walked twice during the White Sox's 6-1 victory over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on Thursday. It was the first time this season he reached base three times in one game, and it bumped his line all the way up to ... .177/.225/.195.

It's been a rough season for Morel, and unless two walks off a guy who couldn't find the strike zone is a harbinger of happy times, there are no signs it's getting better.

The strikeouts are the most alarming thing. Morel struck out just 57 times over 444 plate appearances last year. He already has 39 over 125 this year -- which extrapolates to 139 per 444 plate appearances.

There's nothing in Morel's history that suggests this strikeout binge is born from normal circumstances. He struck out 86 times over 527 PA in 2010, when he sprinted through Double-A and Triple-A. But that was likely a product of his quick advancement, because he cut his K rate significantly in his rookie year.

For as long as we've known Morel, he's been a very predictable ballplayer. He struggles upon being introduced to a new level, then figures it out and hits like mad by the end of the season. The learning curve was much steeper in his rookie season, but watching his growth in August and September, he seemed to finally assert himself in the batter's box.

So even with modest expectations, this year is a shocker -- not just because he's foundering, but because the symptoms are so completely uncharacteristic. There was always non-zero chance of zero progress, but if he were to stagnate, it would likely take the shape of his 2011 season. The strikeouts probably mean something else.

With Morel, I think it's time to make a bigger deal about his back.

Morel's back first started bothering him during spring training. It was described as "stiffness," and it forced him to miss a couple days. He came back and finished the spring hitting .288/.299/.394. That line was an improvement over the way he started the spring, and spring stats don't count, so nothing seemed amiss.

Now, he's 125 plate appearances into the season now with just two extra-base hits to show for it, and not by coincidence, his back problems have returned. His problem is now described as a bulging disc. He missed two games last week and took a cortisone shot to deal with the pain.

When Morel and Robin Ventura have talked about it, they've treated it as no big deal. Ventura says the cortisone shot helped:

"You could tell even the way he was moving around and swinging (Friday), he was a little freer with everything he was doing."

And Morel is trying to go by the book himself:

"I mean, it's tough to rotate and it's just one of those things that you are trying not to hurt it when you swing," Morel said. "You can't do too much, so it just got the point where you give it three days off and get the injection and get it taken care of and kind of go from there.

"There's nothing too serious, no surgery or anything like that, with a bulging disc. It's just kind of one of those things you have to stay on top of and make sure to do my exercises and stuff every day and I should be fine."

He came back to the lineup and started a three-game hitting streak. And then he came crashing down with two 0-for-4, two-strikeout games, the second even uglier than the first. He did have a nice day on Thursday, but it took C.J. Wilson's worst control day ever to get him going. And even then, he grounded into a double play.

While his back might not require surgery, there is a setting in between "season-threatening" and "should be fine." His .420 OPS is the worst in the league among all qualified hitters, after all.

We've seen how back problems can take down a hitter in a hurry. Joe Crede is the obvious example, as he saw two potentially outstanding seasons derailed by his herniated disc. In 2006, he had to leave the Sept. 6 game against Boston in the seventh inning. He returned as a shell of himself, as the numbers indicate:

  • Before: .300/.332/.539
  • After: .130/.242/.204

Back surgery in 2007 gave Crede a second life, and he parlayed it into an appearance at the 2008 All-Star Game. For most of the first half, he deserved it. But he reinjured his back at Wrigley during a series in mid-June, and it was the same story:

  • Before: .281./354/.537
  • After: .173/.221/.288

Beyond the convenient comparison among third basemen, Morel's 2012 season can be looked at as a less pronounced version of 2011 Adam Dunn. There were a lot of guesses as to what dragged down Dunn last year, but the simplest one was the appendectomy. He looked fine before it, he looked terrible afterward, and we knew he came back too soon. But he downplayed its initial effects and never used it as an excuse last year, the Sox never mentioned it, and as the appedectomy faded into the past, a dozen new explanations were offered in its place.

Sure enough, as Dunn started feeling right in spring, he finally admitted that he didn't recover enough to gain full range of motion, and everything collapsed. That holds up as far as I'm concerned, because physical hindrances are the only way to really rationalize such an out-of-nowhere free-fall.

I can see why the Sox are trying to keep Morel in the game, because the other options are equally uninspiring. Brent Lilibridge has struck out in 17 of 41 plate appearances. Eduardo Escobar is only productive in short seasons. And if the Sox were to consider playing Dayan Viciedo at third, they may as well put Dunn there and quarantine the train wreck to one position instead of two.

But if this season is all about trying to solidify the young talent -- Morel, Viciedo, Gordon Beckham, Chris Sale, etc. -- I'm not sure how much this helps. It's certainly hurting his stock among fans, which shouldn't be that important, but sometimes has adverse and unquantifiable effects.

I'm not a doctor, so maybe continuing to play through the pain really is the best course, as much as it sucks to watch. If that's the case, perhaps the Sox should at least draw more attention to his compromised situation in order to reduce the heat. He didn't inspire tons of confidence with his play last year, and he looks morose by default, so as long as his back continues to hamper him, he'll be hard-pressed to help himself.