By Adam Hoge-
GLENDALE, Ariz. (CBS) A year ago, Brent Morel was sitting in the Camelback Ranch clubhouse knowing he would be the White Sox’s Opening Day third baseman.
Monday, he was sitting in the clubhouse just hoping he’ll make the team.
To say the last year has been tough for Brent Morel would be an understatement. A minor complaint about a back issue in spring training turned into a full-blown problem, ending his major league season on May 17. After a failed rehab assignment, Morel finally completed a second one in late July, but then was optioned to Triple-A Charlotte as soon as he came off the disabled list. Then, about a week later, he ended up back on the DL with a right eye infection.
When the season was over, Morel had hit just .177 in 35 major league games and .199 in 41 minor league games.
“It was frustrating with the limitations I had in knowing that I couldn’t play,” Morel said. “Just trying to go out there and not really having any success with it. And to go through that, it was tough, it was tough to stay positive.”
Truth be told, Morel has probably become an afterthought for most White Sox fans, but that doesn’t mean the team has completely given up on him. Third-round draft picks don’t just rise to the major leagues in two years for no reason and he only has 591 major league at-bats under his belt. Plus, no one in the White Sox organization has forgotten that Morel, still just 25 years old, hit eight home runs and posted an .893 OPS in September of 2011 — the last time he was fully healthy.
“It’s really just a matter of getting him back there,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. “Right now, he’s progressing towards that and the more he plays hopefully the closer he’ll get to that.”
The problem is, Morel only has a .230 average, .273 OBP and .338 slugging percentage overall in 182 major league games over three seasons, putting him in a position where he has to revert back to that September 2011 form immediately.
Unfortunately, he might not get a chance to do that on the major league level come April, despite being healthy again. Coming off a back injury with those career numbers, the White Sox were forced to add depth at third base, signing Jeff Keppinger and trading for Conor Gillaspie.
And it’s the acquisition of Gillaspie, who hits left-handed, that could send Morel back to Charlotte come April.
The former top prospect for the San Francisco Giants is making quite the impression at Camelback, hitting .333 with an OPS of 1.162 in 12 spring training games. Morel, meanwhile, is batting .250 with an OPS of .740 in 13 games, although he does have three hits, a home run and six total bases in his last five at-bats.
But the numbers are probably not Morel’s biggest problem. Gillaspie doesn’t have any options remaining and neither does Rule-5 pickup Angel Sanchez, who can also play shortstop. Morel has received a look at shortstop this spring, but it still seems unlikely the White Sox would go in that direction since Sanchez is more of a true utility player. And they would almost assuredly lose Gillaspie if they placed him on waivers.
“If for whatever reason (Morel) doesn’t make this club, he’d be in Charlotte playing every day and continuing to show us and everybody that he’s healthy and hopefully return back to that form he showed at the end of the 2011 season where not only was he playing great defense, but he was hitting for power and taking walks and was a pretty valuable guy all around at that point,” Hahn said.
The White Sox GM isn’t ready to make final roster decisions at this point, but he did concede it’s “conceivable” that Morel won’t make the 25-man roster.
“I know they are all giving us a fair look and a fair chance and they are going take the best 25 guys and that’s all you can really ask for,” Morel said. “I’m just going to continue to go out there and play wherever they want me to play and kind of do whatever and hopefully I’ll be on the team.”
But about an hour after making those comments, it was impossible not to notice that Morel was on the field working out with most of the remaining minor league players in the major league camp, not the field that included the 25-man roster shoo-ins.
And that was on a day when Keppinger was sitting out with shoulder irritation.
Instead, it was Gillaspie taking almost all of the work at third with the major league club.
Morel still has over two weeks before the final cuts are made, but it’s not hard to see the writing on the wall: He’s likely going to start the season in Charlotte.
“The approach stays the same whether last year or this year,” Morel said. “I’m still trying to come in and somewhat improve myself, improve my health, get an opportunity to play a lot and do that and just try to take advantage of it.”
The clock is ticking.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.