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02-17-2002, 04:24 PM
ChiSox kick off Spring Training
Pitchers & catchers report, work out
By Gary Rausch

TUCSON, Ariz. -- The parking lot leading to Chicago's training complex was packed Saturday -- but not for the reporting White Sox pitchers and catchers.

The local populace was more interested in a gem show than the rough diamonds Jerry Manuel will be honing for a pitching staff this season. The ChiSox manager could field a rotation with four of five starters 25 years old or younger.

On Day 1, Manuel was certain of only the top two spots, 2001 wonder Mark Buehrle (16-8) followed by Pittsburgh acquisition Todd Ritchie (11-15). While he would like to go lefty-righty-lefty, Manuel doesn't know how far along Jim Parque (0-3) is in rehabilitating from labrum surgery that cost him all but five starts last season.

"We just have to be careful (with Parque)," Manuel said. "If it doesn't work out, then we will have to make some adjustments."

Sinker specialist Jon Garland could be No. 4, and No. 5 is wide open. Manuel rattled off a string of possibles for the final slot that included Lorenzo Barcelo, Dan Wright, Gary Glover and Matt Ginter. Rocky Biddle (shoulder surgery) is the lone White Sox pitcher being held back.

White Sox fans can even expect Bob Howry to start games this Spring. Not to worry, the set-up man is only being "stretched out" in an effort to get him into situations he hasn't seen in past years. "He hasn't pitched much over his career," Manuel said. "We want to get him all the way out to four or five innings."

Three players Manuel and Pitching Coach Nardi Contreras want to take long looks at are right-handers Ryan Kohlmeier, Matt Guerrier and Edwin Almonte. The manager indicated that he'll keep as many left-handers around as possible, meaning rostered pitchers like Thomas Jacquez and Onan Masaoka plus Spring invitees Corwin Malone, Arnaldo Munoz, Mike Porzio and Dennis Ulacia.

Manuel confided that his biggest concern this season is the health of his club, particularly a pitching staff that accounted for 919 of the club's 1,197 missed games.

"I do think we are a lot better insulated that we were last year," the skipper said. "I know over the course of a year you're going to sustain some injuries, but I think the difficult thing is those season-ending ones that really test whether or not you have any serious depth. I think we do have that, and I think we can withstand those type of injuries."

While the pitchers spent a lot of Saturday's workout time fielding grounders back to the mound, their batterymates took a short batting practice and drilled on mile-high popups before catching bullpen sessions.

Manuel doesn't see veteran Sandy Alomar Jr. being unseated by either Mark Johnson or Josh Paul, but knows he can only keep one backup. The manager would like to see Alomar catch about 80 games in his 13th big league season. "If that equates to say four games a week and he's performing at a high level, I think that would be a good scenario for him."

The White Sox are being tabbed as the American League Central's champion in many forecasts, but who ever remember preseason predictions. "We feel like the division is wide open and we have as good a chance as anybody," Manuel said. "You still have to go out and do it. Those things don't carry any weight with me. One year we were picked to finish last and we won."

Manuel added that probably every manager in the division feels the same way.

"We need to get three or four guys coming out good offensively to take the pressure off slow starters," he said. Case in point might be Frank Thomas, who missed all but 20 games with a torn right triceps. A cluster of streaking teammates out of the gate would allow him to find his way back quicker.

One calendar year certainly changed Buehrle's status but not his outlook. "Last year I came in as probably being in the bullpen, fighting to make the team," said the 22-year-old. "Now I'm in the starting rotation, being close to the top guy. I don't want to come in here with a big head. I'm trying to have the same attitude I did last year."

Buehrle received good news from Manuel. He'll get the ball Opening Day, solidifying his stature as the club's ace.

"From Day 1, he's always wanted the ball," the manager said. "Even during the course of the season, he'd come in and say, 'Hey, I can go on three days rest. We're facing so-and-so and so-and-so, so give me the ball.' "

"I want to continue with that make-the-team attitude to show the other guys that I haven't changed," Buehrle said. "I remember a pitcher a couple year ago. He came in as the No. 2 starter, didn't have a good Spring Training and a month into the season he was in Triple-A. Even though they've got me slotted there now, if I don't do my job, there are so many other guys in here who can take over my job."

One player who could prove beneficial to Buehrle and the other young Chicago pitchers is 30-year-old Todd Ritchie.

"I think we had the youngest staff (in the majors) last year and it's always good to have a veteran around," added Buehrle. "He's the old man on the staff, but he's still not that old."

Ritchie laughed at the "old man" label. "I don't feel like I'm the old guy," he said. "It's definitely a change. I've always been one of the younger guys in camp."

The former Pittsburgh right-handed admitted there is a difference, though not a generation gap. "I'm getting to know these guys," he said nodding toward the blaring stereo. "Just by gauging their interests so far, they're definitely on a different wave length, but I'm sure we're going to work well together. I hope they make me younger and I don't make them older."

Ritchie joked that when he opened 2001 with an 0-8 record his harshest critic was his wife -- "You've got to get a win here and there." But he rallied to go 11-7. "Hopefully, nobody in here has to go through it, but if it does happen I'm sure I can help somebody as far as keeping your focus and staying with it.

"People don't understand what it takes to get a win in the Major Leagues," he said. "A lot of factors go into it. Sometimes you don't get the breaks. Sometimes you do."

LIEUTENANTS PROMOTED: General Manager Ken Williams announced the elevation of Rick Hahn to assistant general manager and Duane Shaffer to senior director of player personnel.

Hahn has been with the White Sox since November 2000, responsible for contract negotiations, arbitration, the club's budget as well as its compliance with Major League rules and baseball's Basic Agreement.

Shaffer, who begins his 31st season with Chicago, has been senior director of scouting the past 15 months. His duties have included assisting Williams with evaluating the big league club, special assignment scouting, player development evaluation and covering the organization's amateur and professional scouting coverage.

"Rick and Duane have been invaluable to me since taking over as general manager, and I feel these promotions are extremely well deserved," Williams said. "Rick will continue to be responsible for our Major League operations, while Duane's evaluation skills, whether in scouting or player development, are unmatched."

TARDY PLAYERS: Three players are having visa problems and will be late reporting to camp. Left-handed pitcher Arnaldo Munoz and catcher Humberto Quintero missed the opening workout for pitchers and catchers. Outfielder Julio Ramirez is expected to miss the first full-squad workout on Feb. 21.

The three are non-roster invitees are awaiting completion of paperwork in their native Dominican Republic.

BABES IN DESERT When the position players arrive, Chicago expects to have 54 players in camp. The average age will be 25.8 years.

The 40-man roster will average 26.5 years, with pitchers at 25.3 years and remaining players at 27.8. The non-roster invitees will be at 23.6 years, 21.8 for pitchers and 25.0 position players.

Gary Rausch is an MLB.com reporter based in Arizona. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.