At this point in the longest spring ever, the top priority is getting all White Sox players out of Arizona alive. With John Danks very likely to start the season on the DL, Alex Rios and Jesse Crain remain as the lone health questions.
Rios has missed three straight games with stiffness in his lower back. You could apply that same line to Brent Morel last year, so it's easy to monger fear knowing nothing else about it -- especially since he went to a hospital to have it checked out on Monday.
Rios and Robin Ventura are the two principal figures in deciding whether he plays, and their reports neither jibe nor conflict. It's more like they cover part of the spectrum:
"No, I don't think so. It's a thing that's going to take a few days," Rios said. "It will be fine. I've had this before in my career. It's just a normal [stiffness]." [...]
"He's telling me not to worry but I think we're getting close enough that everything becomes a concern now," Ventura said. "We're treating it pretty aggressively and making sure he can get out there Wednesday just so he has a few games before we start."
Rios' outlook is less alarming, of course, but he has a right to some benefit of the doubt. His back acted up on him last year, playing with it for a few days before this swing against Bruce Chen ...
... forced him to miss a game in early August. His assessment at the time:
"It’s been going on for a few days, but yesterday it got stiffer,’’ Rios said. "But I don’t think it’s something that’s going to keep me out of that lineup for more than a day or so. I’ll be fine.
"It’s something that you should just take a day and tomorrow we have a day off so that will be two days. Then, I’m going to come back better and I don’t have to take any other days off.’’
When he came back, he suffered his worst stretch of the season, with more strikeouts (10) than hits (six) and walks (zero) over his next 43 plate appearances. Maybe he still had back problems, but regression is probably the simpler answer. He eventually shook the slump, and he ended up starting the next 50 games because he was too productive to rest during the stretch, and his teammates couldn't keep up. Ventura finally found a time to rest him ... after the Sox were mathematically eliminated.
Sox fans know better than anyone that back problems can't be disregarded lightly, but if Rios thinks it's the same as ones he's endured before, that's reason enough to lower your guard, if only a little. He's too important to the Sox's plans to shrug off entirely, which is somewhat startling when thinking about it, considering he was on the verge of being written off at the same time last year.
Unlike Rios, Crain did make a recent appearance, although no conclusions can be drawn yet. He met his pitch count ceiling before he could finish an inning on Monday, allowing four runs (three earned) on three hits and a walk over 25 pitches. He only retired two batters, including a strikeout.
"No matter what anybody says, you never want to go out there and give up hits," Crain said. "The most important thing today was feeling good and I threw, [manager Robin Ventura] came out after 25 pitches and I felt fine.
"My leg felt good. There still might be times mentally where I kind of baby it a little bit, but from now on I shouldn't have to do that because I feel good." [...]
"If it goes like today as in health-wise, then I'm not worried about a thing," Crain said. "It's all going to come pitch-wise and crispness. I think my velocity was decent and I even feel like I had a little more in the tank the next couple of times out."
Crain will have a shot to get those elusive results, as he's scheduled to pitch on Wednesday, and then once over the two-game exhibition series in Milwaukee. Brian Omogrosso's shot at a major-league per diem hangs in the balance.
While that bullpen job remains unsettled, one other roster spot can be checked off the list, as Angel Sanchez won the utility infielder job:
"It's going to be Angel," Ventura said after an 8-2 loss to the Royals. "He's been the best guy in the middle of the infield and if something happens to one of those guys, we're going to need somebody else. So he's going to be going with us."
That's the key clause. Sanchez doesn't hit enough to qualify as even a stopgap soution, but the guys who might need to be playing every day right now.