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Your Morning Phil: Rios, Sox, Sveum

Phil Rogers

On Baseball

8:12 AM CDT, April 1, 2013

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Talking baseball while congratulating the Louisville Cardinals for winning one for their horribly injured teammate, Kevin Ware.

1. Growing up in Puerto Rico, Alex Rios idolized Juan Gonzalez. If the White Sox are going to contend this season, they need him to elevate his game and drive in runs like Gonzalez.

There were lots of reasons not to trust Gonzalez. He went on the disabled list at the drop of the hat – once missing half a season with back problems suffered bending down to tie his shoe in spring training – and worried so much about style he once wouldn’t play in a game because his pants did not fit. He made the worst contract decision in history, turning down a $140 million contract extension from the Tigers and opting for a run at free agency, which netted him a one-year deal for $10 million.

Oops. But Gonzalez could hit – both for average and power, and often in clutch spots. He also played a very strong right field in his prime. A lot like Rios.

When Rios was a teenager, Gonzalez was twice named the American League’s Most Valuable Player. It doesn’t seem that Rios believes he can be that kind of player, but that’s exactly what the White Sox need as he hits in front of the aging Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn. Somehow this lineup was fourth in the AL in runs last season, scoring 22 more than the powerful Tigers, but the departure of A.J. Pierzynski raises the demands on everyone.

I asked Rios if he think he’s capable of stepping up his production from a year ago, and he answered with a response about his team.

“We did pretty good last year with the people we had,’’ Rios said. “We played good baseball and competed against good teams. I don’t think we have to do differently (this year). We need to do the same thing we did last year, play as a team.’’

Rebounding from a disastrous 2011, when he changed batting styles constantly and wound up hitting .227 with only 13 home runs, Rios stood taller at the plate in 2012 and turned into the kind of hitter he was in 2006 and ’07, when he was one of baseball’s youngest All-Stars.

Rios finished last season batting .304 while setting career highs with 25 home runs and 91 RBIs. He was the only White Sox player who received MVP votes, finishing 15th. That’s a long way from the Miguel Cabrera-Mike Trout argument but it’s a start.

There’s more talent there, and with this being Rios’ age-32 season, it’s the time to put up maximum numbers. Every team has a guy who is the X Factor, the one who will make the difference between a good years and a bad one, and like it or not Rios is that guy on Robin Ventura’s roster.

I took a second chance at asking Rios if he feels he needs to build on the year he had in 2012.

“I’m going to try to do the same thing I did last year,’’ he said. “My approach is going to be to help the team, obviously, help the team win games, without looking at any individual stuff like that. I don’t want to think about mechanics. Instead focus on my approach and keep doing the same things I’ve been doing up to this point.’’

Rios hates the public discussion of his hitting styles, like the deep crouch he settled into in 2011.

“Hitting is an evolving art,’’ Rios said. “You don’t see any player use the same mechanics all the time. You evolve.’’

For Rios, the ultimate evolution would be to become a player who gets his team over the hump and into the playoffs. Dunn and Rios rank first and fourth, respectively, among active players in games played without a trip to the post-season.

Robin Ventura is smart to hit Rios third this season. He could score 100-plus runs with Dunn and Konerko behind him. I say the arrow is pointing up for Rios on Opening Day.

Here’s a look at some other Chicago players:

Starlin Castro, arrow up – A new father, he seemed happy and ready to go when the Cubs were in Houston over the weekend. It’s a mystery how his batting average slid to .283 last season. I thought he could hit .300 for 10 years in a row. That’s how talented he is. He seemed to be getting himself out less often this spring, and comfortable with Anthony Rizzo and Alfonso Soriano behind him.

Konerko, arrow down – Every time anyone has doubted Konerko, he has answered with a productive season. This season may not be any different but he’s 37 and his deteriorating defensive metrics suggest he has slowed down. He’ll get more rest this year, regardless, with Dunn playing more in the field. That’s probably a good thing for both of them.

Alfonso Soriano, arrow up – Scouts raved about his approach in spring training, when his hustle stood out. He’s been hitting the ball hard and seems locked in. It won’t be a surprise if he makes his first All-Star team since 2008 and elevates his stock entering trade season.

Anthony Rizzo, arrow down – He compiled 76 spring plate appearances without a home run. That didn’t seem to bother him, as he was working counts and taking walks all the way to the end of last weekend’s series in Houston, but it’s hard to ignore 65 at-bats without a homer for a guy who hit one every 16.3 at-bats last year.

Jake Peavy, arrow up – He’s a critical guy for the White Sox, and it was a great sign that his velocity was up this spring, along with his confidence. He is throwing better than he has since he joined the Sox. Now if he can only stay healthy.

Welington Castillo/Dioner Navarro, arrow up – While Tyler Flowers is going to have to prove himself against the standard set by A.J. Pierzynski, the Cubs won’t miss Geo Soto. Castillo and Navarro could prove to be one of the National League’s best tandem of catchers, with Castillo’s arm strength and Navarro’s switch-hitting skills both assets. Navarro’s career has been in a long slide but he showed signs of a turn-around this spring.

Jose Quintana, arrow up – Little noticed this spring in Glendale, the quiet lefty has gotten himself ready for a strong second season. The A’s were helpless against him late in spring training at Phoenix, when Quintana used a deceptively good fastball and a swing-and-miss breaking pitch to strike out nine.

Scott Feldman, arrow down – He wanted a chance to start and the Cubs have given it to him. But opponents batted .396 off him in spring training, leaving him looking for fixes with the regular season here.

Alexei Ramirez, arrow down – While fellow Cuban Dayan Viciedo figures to build off his up-and-down 2012, there are no signs that Ramirez can reverse the downward arc of his hitting totals since his rookie season in 2008. With on-base machine Carlos Sanchez in Triple-A, Ramirez and Gordon Beckham will be the subject of trade speculation at some point. The Sox need Ramirez to step it up if they’re going to move him, as he’s still owed $27.5 million through 2015. He’s a terrific fielder but the Sox need him to start being a tougher out.

2. The White Sox open the season with a tough opponent, as Kansas City has upgraded its rotation and scored the most runs in the majors this spring. But the Sox should be rested and prepared. Here’s a tip of the cap to Jerry Reinsdorf, Ken Williams, Rick Hahn or whoever else set the team’s spring training schedule, as it does not reflect the greed the Cubs showed with 39 scheduled exhibition games, including the trip to Houston on the way to Pittsburgh. The Sox had regular days off throughout the spring, only one split-squad game and then got home to Chicago last Wednesday night, with only a bus ride to Milwaukee in the four days leading up to Opening Day. That was good planning.

3. Dale Sveum will have goosebumps today, and not just because it will be around 40 degrees at PNC Park. Here’s his take: "Opening Day is the most special day of the year, until the day you start competing for the playoffs. It’s one day that brings you back to when you were 8 years old and couldn’t wait for the Saturday Little League game." The season starts in a few hours. Enjoy.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers