CHICAGO -– White Sox position players officially don't report to Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz., until Feb. 17.
But hitting coach Jeff Manto already was spraying to all fields concerning his offense during a Thursday afternoon conference call.
Manto was scheduled to work with left fielder Dayan Viciedo and catcher Tyler Flowers as part of special hitting sessions in Florida sometime in mid-January. That workout was moved to the U.S. Cellular Field batting cages in Chicago and took place a couple of days before SoxFest.
Instead of Viciedo and Flowers, the group became Flowers, Brent Morel and Gordon Beckham. And Manto handed out rave reviews for what he saw from the trio.
Flowers becomes the most interesting case quite possibly on the entire roster. His primary responsibility will be handling a pitching staff that ultimately could determine whether the White Sox are playoff contenders. He will be executing such a role while getting his first chance for everyday at-bats at the big league level.
To top off this impressive challenge, Flowers will be replacing a catcher in A.J. Pierzynski who not only stood as a highly productive left-handed hitter but also was an organization staple and fan favorite for eight years. Manto admitted that the staff is well aware of the pressure placed upon Flowers and the pressure he will be placing upon himself.
"We anticipate that, expect that," said Manto. "He wants to try to do well and win over fans and make an immediate impact. The challenge will be to keep him focused on what he can do. Like all young players, there will be mistakes he makes, but he needs to move quickly from them."
From the hitting sessions supervised by Manto, assistant hitting coach Harold Baines and even manager Robin Ventura, at times, Manto spoke of the adjustments made by Flowers all offseason to keep his back side from collapsing. Flowers had been sending Manto video of his workouts from the past few months, and Manto would make suggestions and critiques.
"When I got to Chicago, I was pleasantly surprised with his progress," continued Manto.
Morel provided an even greater surprise for the coaches. The incumbent third baseman at the start of the 2012 season battled back issues throughout the campaign, and the worry with Morel not only centered upon getting him healthy but also making sure he didn't carry over bad habits picked up while trying to compensate for the pain at the plate.
Back at the end of November, Morel told MLB.com that his back felt as strong as it had since the end of the 2011 season. His recent swings in Chicago supported that notion.
"He looked great, with no reservations about swinging the bat," said Manto of Morel, who hit .177 with five RBIs in 35 games for the White Sox last season. "He had the same bat speed that I saw when I watched him in the lower Minor Leagues.
"There's something different in his eye. He's coming in ready to compete for a job, that's for sure. He's not making it a secret either."
Even with Morel looking healthy and competitive, it's unlikely he breaks camp as a utility player. That starting third base nod currently goes to Jeff Keppinger, who immediately becomes the team's most versatile hitter, an offensive weapon who pretty much does everything with the bat but strike out.
Having a sturdy Morel and the presence of Minor League phenom Carlos Sanchez gives the White Sox depth along an infield area that previously had been a weak spot in the organization. Manto spoke of how Beckham swung the bat during the Chicago workout with the same high confidence he exhibited when finding something positive within his offensive approach during the final month of 2012.
Viciedo and Manto never crossed paths in Chicago, with Manto returning to Philadelphia before Viciedo came to town. Manto is not worried about Viciedo adjusting to the implementation of a leg kick as a timing mechanism on his swing, a change Manto spoke about to MLB.com one month ago.
Twenty-five homers and 78 RBIs put up by Viciedo in his first full big league season could be just the start for the 24-year-old, who needs to improve his .225 average against right-handed pitchers.
"What he put up, he can sit on those numbers. It wasn't a fluke what he did," said Manto of Viciedo. "He's going to get better once he gets the timing down.
"That's what is scary about this guy. He didn't do a lot of things right and he had those numbers. Once he calms down and understands what pitchers are doing to him, he can be a big-time impact player."
Baines serves as another great source of information for the hitters, with Manto and one of the most accomplished hitters in franchise history on the same page. Manto said that he turned to Baines quite frequently in 2012 to pick his brain on certain hitters.
As for Baines and Manto working with a lineup featuring only Alejandro De Aza and Adam Dunn as left-handed hitters in the everyday batting order, Manto still has more excitement for what he does have than what is missing.
"I don't think it's going to be a problem," Manto said. "It might show up once in a while but it's not going to be an issue to say why we won or lost."