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Alejandro De Aza gears up for heavy duty with Sox

Alejandro De Azrole player 2011 has been penciled as White Sox’ starting center fielder leadoff hitter. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Alejandro De Aza, a role player in 2011, has been penciled in as the White Sox’ starting center fielder and leadoff hitter. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 4, 2012 8:08AM

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The center field and leadoff jobs are Alejandro De Aza’s to lose. His showing in center last season earned high praise from general manager Ken Williams during the offseason, and Williams touted De Aza as the leading candidate to take Juan Pierre’s spot at the top of the order.

“It makes me feel great, but I come into camp every year hustling and playing hard to keep myself in the game,’’ De Aza said.

De Aza, who turns 28 in April, knows it’s his time to step up from role player to regular. The Sox don’t have another strong leadoff candidate, but De Aza will suffice after posting a batting average that matched Pierre’s .329 on-base percentage in 2011. De Aza had a .400 on-base mark in 2011.

“I’ve hit as leadoff man for 11 years,’’ De Aza said. “I feel comfortable there and know what work I have to do as a leadoff man. I don’t have a preference, I just want to be in the lineup.’’

De Aza stole 12 bases in 17 attempts in 54 games, so he could steal 30-40 in a full season. His other offensive numbers were good: In 154 at-bats, he had 29 runs, 23 RBI, four homers, 11 doubles and three triples. Against left-handers, De Aza batted .263, so he doesn’t appear to be overmatched in that regard.

Playing 18 games in center last season, De Aza fielded the position more aggressively than Alex Rios, even while shagging balls during batting practice. He makes a habit of going all-out after every ball that’s hit anywhere near him.

If there was one position De Aza felt slightly uncomfortable for a while last year, he said it was right field, where he played the most games, 25. Rios is tentatively plugged in there after playing all of his 138 games last season in center. Rios has played 701 games in right during his career and said this week he’s fine making the move.

After having a subpar year with the glove — he was tentative breaking in on balls at times and didn’t always run good routes to balls in the gaps — Rios wouldn’t seem to be in a position to complain. De Aza isn’t about to be choosy, either.

“I’ll play anywhere in the outfield,’’ De Aza said.

Dayan Viciedo, who had switched from corner infield to right last spring training, is taking balls in left and figures to start there when the season begins.

Manager Robin Ventura said Viciedo is athletic enough to play left, considered the less demanding of the three outfield spots because of the shorter throw to third base.

Ventura’s hopes that the new alignment upgrades a problem area of 2011 — outfield defense. Kosuke Fukudome, who can play right or center, was added late in the offseason to provide depth. Utility man Brent Lillibridge can play all three.

NOTES: The weather, near perfect until high winds cut Friday’s workouts short, suited manager Robin Ventura for cutoff and steal-situation drills.

“It’s a good day to do it when it’s windy,” Ventura said. “April will be like that for us. It wasn’t quite as cold, but you get more done sometimes when it’s breezy and not nice and easy.”

Ventura’s demeanor is calm and laid-back but his attitude about defensive execution is far from that. He has said all along that he expects the game to be played “the right way.’’

“That’s just the right way to play baseball,’’ he said, “and just what we believe how we’re going to play this year, how guys understand their responsibilities and what we expect. Every team goes over it, so we’ll revisit at certain times.”

◆ Left-hander Chris Sale and right-hander Gavin Floyd will start in the first intrasquad game of the spring on Saturday morning.

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