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White Sox’ Brent Morel returns from back injury, wants to compete for third-base job

The Chicago White Sox Brent Morel fields ground ball during their spring training Camelback Ranch Glendale AZ Tuesday February 19

The Chicago White Sox Brent Morel fields a ground ball during their spring training at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, AZ on Tuesday, February 19, 2013. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 21, 2013 6:35AM

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The back problems that sidelined White Sox third baseman Brent Morel have subsided, giving him a new lease on a career that went off the tracks last season.

‘‘It feels great; it feels normal,’’ Morel, 25, said. ‘‘No restrictions, no pain or anything.’’

You name it, everything feels
better. Baseball feels better. Reaching into the refrigerator for a gallon of milk feels better.

‘‘Just with everything,’’ Morel said. ‘‘From waking up in the morning, swinging the bat, standing around, taking ground balls, everything.’’

During camp last spring, third base was Morel’s position to lose. After hitting eight home runs and posting a .340 on-base percentage in September 2011, he came in brimming with optimism. Then the back issues settled in.

‘‘Watching him now, he’s different than he was last year as far as physically going out there and
doing things,’’ manager Robin Ventura said. ‘‘I’m excited to see what he can do. I’m happy for him just to be out here without mental things going on in his mind of maybe not being as healthy as he wants to be. It’s good to see him go out there.’’

When hitting coach Jeff Manto worked with Morel before SoxFest, he said Morel’s bat speed was like it was when he was fully healthy in the minors.

‘‘There was something different in his eye,’’ Manto said. ‘‘He’s coming in ready to compete for a job, and he’s making no secret about it.’’

Morel has seven more weeks to prove his health is good enough for him to make the Opening Day roster, whether it’s as a starter or utility infielder. The Sox signed Jeff Keppinger as a free agent to play third base because of Morel’s
uncertain health.

‘‘My mind-set stays the same no matter whom they bring in,’’ Morel said. ‘‘I’m going to try and win an every-day job at third base.’’

Because of his ability to play shortstop, Rule 5 draft pickup
Angel Sanchez appears to have a job as an extra infielder. If Keppinger is the starter at third, Morel might find himself in a battle for
the last roster spot with any potential fifth outfielder.

In 2010, Morel played 17 games at shortstop for Class AAA Charlotte without making an error. Ventura said he probably will look at Morel at different spots in the infield.

‘‘They haven’t talked to me, but I’ve played short, second, first — everywhere — in the past, and I feel comfortable everywhere,’’
Morel said. ‘‘But that’s not my goal. I want to play third every day. If it comes down to that, if somebody beat me out and they want me to move around, then I’d be happy to do it. But not right now.’’

Whether Morel settles into a utility role or becomes a starter again is ‘‘primarily health-dependent,’’ general manager Rick Hahn said.

‘‘We need to be cautious at this point,’’ Hahn said. ‘‘Based on what he showed us in the winter and what he showed us in the first couple of days, we can be cautiously optimistic. But we need him to continue to show where he is physically once he gets into playing on a daily basis and diving for balls and running the bases and playing the game at full speed. So far, everything has been real encouraging.

‘‘Prior to all these health issues, we saw a guy who has been a strong defensive player, who hit for some power and was developing a level of plate discipline that made him a pretty good all-around hitter. It’s a lot of upside for a guy. Unfortunately, he was derailed last year by injury. Hopefully, he can get back to being that player again soon.’’

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