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No pressure, but White Sox lineup will put rookies in the spotlight

If offseason plans translate to Opening Day, first-year starters like Adam Eaton and Jose Abreu may be expected to produce while they develop

That's a good pesky swing.
That's a good pesky swing.
Justin K. Aller

After a year in which the White Sox were too right-handed, too impatient and not powerful enough to overcome the lack of baserunners, diversification is being heralded as the offense's salvation.

At the same time, said diversification can only happen if multiple unproven hitters establish themselves in a relatively graceful fashion. Adam Eaton enters spring training as the presumptive leadoff man, and the OBP-oriented, pest-type hitter the Sox have lacked. Jose Abreu is supposed to bring a threatening presence to the middle of the order -- you know, the role formerly occupied on an everyday basis by a franchise icon.

And that's not all! Avisail Garcia might provide protection for Abreu on some days, and we haven't even gotten to Matt Davidson yet.

It's a precarious balance, and a huge departure from previous seasons, when the Sox typically hid rookies the best they could at the bottom of the order, leaving the first six or seven spots to do the heavy lifting.

Last season, Conor Gillaspie was introduced to the lineup in the seventh spot, then moved up to sixth. When Josh Phegley came aboard, he only spent three games batting higher than eighth.

The year before, Dayan Viciedo spent most of his first full season in the seventh spot. In 2011, Brent Morel started 100 games batting either eighth or ninth.

You have to go back to 2009 to find a situation where rookies were thrown into the deep end of the lineup. Ozzie Guillen had the idea to entrench Chris Getz and his adept bathandling in the second spot, but that lasted all of two days when Dewayne Wise proved to be a poor fit for the leadoff spot.

Guilllen's next idea: Move Getz to leadoff, and put another unproven starter, Josh Fields, in the second spot.

The crazy thing was it actually worked ...

Getz 12 53 3 0 0 5 3 0 3 4 .340 .396 .404
Fields 20 86 2 2 1 10 0 1 11 24 .257 .360 .378

... until May.

Getz 95 362 15 4 2 26 22 2 27 50 .250 .313 .338
Fields 59 182 3 0 6 20 2 2 14 52 .206 .272 .333

Regression caught up to both of them, but I suppose it's somewhat comforting that you can't chalk it up to anything like pressure or "too much too soon." You can simply chalk up their downfalls to documented flaws: Getz suffered two injuries in April (cracked fingertip, bruised elbow), and Fields couldn't hit a fastball above 91 mph. They were going to get found out in any spot.

The Sox eventually stumbled onto two perfectly adequate replacements at the top of the order: Scott Podsednik and the confident rookie version of Gordon Beckham. And even the cocksure version of Beckham was given nearly 50 games in the bottom third of the order before taking off his training wheels.

It's been five years since the Sox have thrust rookies into the spotlight that early, and if spring training goes as planned, Eaton and Abreu may not have nearly as much assistance in acclimating. Their long-term development is paramount, but it could test everybody's patience if those growing pains play prominent roles in losing streaks early on.

"It's not easy, because people are going to want them to perform from the start," Rick Hahn told me at SoxFest. "If Jose's hitting .150 on April 20, people are going to be like, 'What's going on?'"

"But I think it's incumbent upon me and Robin and others just to make sure that people as much as they can stay focused on the long term. The fact of the matter is [Aaron] Rowand and [Joe] Crede had to go back to the minors. Development is very rarely linear."

That certainly applies to Eaton, but given that Abreu's age and salary disqualifies him from most prospect lists, I think any such demotion involving him would cause far more alarm -- internally and externally -- than a usual refresher course in Charlotte. It wouldn't do much good to voice that concern, since minimizing pressure is the idea.

Fortunately -- at least in that regard -- Eaton and Abreu will have the benefit of playing on a team with lower expectations. Every edition of the White Sox since 2000 has entered the year expecting to contend, and that includes the secret rebuilding year of 2007. If the manager is expected to pull out all the stops during the race, it's a lot harder to accept day-to-day failures from players who haven't yet shown they can do better.

The Sox haven't eliminated themselves from the AL Central race, but Hahn and others have consistently stressed that development of the next core takes precedent. I think the White Sox public is about as on board as it can be, especially after the horrors of 2013, but it's always a little different when the games start counting.