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WSI News - News Watch

Notebook: Graffanino's ready for anything

By Jimmy Greenfield,

TUCSON, Ariz. -- There's a very good reason why Tony Graffanino has yet to try and play catcher for the White Sox.

They haven't asked.

But don't put it past them. The Sox utilityman has been adding new positions to his repertoire on a weekly basis this spring and is likely to see some action this season at every position outside the battery.

"Sometimes you have to make a way to get a guy on the field," said Sox manager Jerry Manuel.

Graffanino's versatility could especially come in handy during April with Manuel leaning toward carrying 12 pitchers, which would leave the Sox with only three bench players besides backup catcher Mark Johnson.

"Having a guy like me around that can play all these different positions gives [Manuel] a little more flexibility in other areas," Graffanino said. "Instead of needing two guys to do what I do, they can just carry me. Then if they need to carry another pitcher or another catcher it gives them some more freedom."

You can almost hear infielder-outfielder Willie Harris cringing and left-handed pitcher Mike Porzio smiling at that statement. Both are on the bubble to claim the final roster spot.

The 29-year-old Graffanino doesn't intend to be the reason why Harris could end up at Triple-A Charlotte. All he does is what's asked of him, which is a lot.

Manuel has had Graffanino taking grounders at first base for the last couple weeks and on Tuesday gave him his first start of the spring in left field. He later moved to third base when Jose Valentin left the game and went on to hit his second homer of the spring. He's hitting .391 (18 for 46) with nine RBIs.

Graffanino didn't play in the outfield in the big leagues until Manuel threw him out there last June for the first of three appearances there. He also played four games at shortstop, 20 at second base and 38 at third base.

Manuel would like to have Graffanino as an option at first base in case he needs to pinch-run for Paul Konerko in the late innings of a close game.

"It's a little different than the other three infield positions that I'm used to playing," Graffanino said of first base. "I guess it's closest to third the way the ball comes off the bat and how close you are to the other hitter and different kinds of spin. Then there's other responsibilities of making sure you can get to the bag, and taking throws and being able to pick [throws out of the dirt]."

Graffanino was released by Atlanta after the 1998 season and signed a minor-league deal with Tampa Bay. He was acquired by the Sox during the 2000 season after he had established himself as a valuable utility guy with the Devil Rays and hit .270 the rest of that season.

A solid 2001 season followed as he hit .303 with two homers and 15 RBIs in 145 at-bats, which was the fewest he's had since his professional career began in 1990 as Atlanta's ninth-round pick.

A testament to his readiness is that he only had five at-bats in all of July but then hit a career-high .452 in August, going 14-for-31.

"Of course I'd love to start but that's what my role on this team is: utility guy," Graffanino said. "Unless somebody gets hurt or something happens, I know my job and I go about my day, every day, preparing for what I do. Now if something changes I'll have to shift gears mentally but as far as I'm concerned, mentally right now I know what I'm supposed to do on this team."

The biggest challenge so far for Graffanino has been finding the time to practice each position, which he likes to do on a daily basis during batting practice.

"I try to take at least five minutes, usually about 10 minutes, of grounders at each position that I might play," Graffanino said. "But now it's more. Now there's first, and I'm playing left today."

He paused, then added with a chuckle: "I don't know how I'm going to get it all in in one BP session. I'll figure it all out."

Jon Garland didn't show much concern over any of his spring starts, even as his ERA rose to 9.28 last week. Tuesday was a different story, however.

After allowing 12 hits and eight earned runs in 4 2/3 innings against Colorado, which sent his ERA to 11.15, Garland for the first time wore a downtrodden expression on his face.

"Look at it," he said. "I got it handed to me. My breaking ball really wasn't working well. My slider I felt like it was cutting off. I had to use my fastball and they started sitting on it."

There's nothing wrong with Garland that a good dose of confidence won't cure. In his last 11 starts in 2001 he went 2-3 with a 3.34 ERA, the finest he's pitched in the Majors over an extended period.

"Toward the end of the year my confidence kept building up and building up and I was going right after hitters and things were going my way," Garland said. "At the start of the season hopefully I can get back to that and keep going where I left off." Manuel instructed catcher Sandy Alomar to call for Garland to throw mainly inside fastballs against the Rockies, a practice he would never do in a regular season game because, well, he would probably get hit pretty hard, just as he did Tuesday.

"What we want is the young pitchers to show aggression," Manuel said. "And showing aggression is trying to establish a certain part of the plate and usually that's in. You're trying to say, 'That's my part of the plate.'"

Alomar said he has to believe Garland and his pitching brethren can turn things around before the start of the season, if only because their aren't any other options.

"We've got nobody else to look for," Alomar said. "Where are we going to look? We've got nobody else."

There still could be some movement in the bullpen if Bob Howry doesn't prove to Manuel that he can get out hitters with his 88 mph fastball.

Howry has a 10.95 ERA and has allowed 24 hits in 12 1/3 innings.

"I can't say that he's definitely on the team," Manuel said. "A lot of things can transpire from here until we leave but as of right now we'll have to take him with us."

There doesn't seem to be an obvious candidate to replace Howry if he doesn't break camp with the team, and the Sox seem to be resigned to beginning the season with 12 pitchers. Relievers Antonio Osuna, Kelly Wunsch and Lorenzo Barcelo are all recovering from shoulder surgery and haven't been effective pitching on consecutive days.

"We've still got to make sure those guys who had the surgeries [can pitch on] back-to-back days," Manuel said. "That would be the big key [to keeping 11 or 12 pitchers] for us. They really haven't responded greatly so we have to take a lot of that into consideration."

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