Sox's Morel hopes to leave back pain behind

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White Sox third baseman Brent Morel stretches during spring training Friday in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Brent Morel, considered the White Sox’s third baseman of the future, was poised for a breakout season.

Ready to build off a strong finish to 2011, Morel reported to Camelback Ranch eager to prove the expectations were warranted. However, those expectations quickly turned into a year-long battle to overcome a lower back injury that cropped up during the middle of spring training last year.

Now, Morel has one of the most unwanted labels in baseball, especially for a third baseman: a ball player with back problems. Last month was the first time he felt normal in nearly a year. There’s still concern Morel could suffer a setback.

“There were always question marks because it felt good, but I kind of had to slowly progress into hitting and throwing,” Morel said. “It felt good, but I never knew how it was going to end up. Finally, it got to point last month where I was hitting every day for a long time and there was no pain.”

Morel wasn’t prepared for the mental impact of battling a long-term, reccurring injury. As Morel described the situation, “it was depressing not being able to be in the clubhouse.”

Manager Robin Ventura and fellow former Sox third basemen Joe Crede and Bill Melton, all of whom encountered back problems during their careers, have been sounding boards for Morel during his ordeal. Some of their feedback included better ways to warm up and cool down, and stretching techniques. Morel, who feels fine, is under no restrictions during spring training.

“Prior to all these health issues, we saw a guy who has been a strong defensive player who was able to hit for some power, and at the tail end of his rookie season he was developing a level of plate discipline, too, that made him a pretty good all-around hitter,” Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. “It’s a lot of upside for a guy. Unfortunately, he was derailed last year by injury, and hopefully he can get back to being that player again soon.”

Hahn didn’t buy into the idea that Jeff Keppinger, who primarily plays third base, is blocking Morel from making the team. Hahn praised Keppinger’s versatility and reiterated the Sox will take the best 25 players when camp breaks, hinting Morel could be the backup shortstop, too. But Morel hasn’t played shortstop in three years, appearing in 17 games for Triple-A Charlotte. Morel said he feels confident playing any infield position, but he doesn’t plan to get extra work at second base or shortstop unless the Sox approach and ask him.

“You can never be frustrated by a team trying to get better,” Morel said. “[Keppinger’s] a great player, and he’s going to help the team. I’m just going to go out and try to do what I can do make the team and get playing time.”

The health of Morel’s back is the most pressing issue. Back injuries are notoriously unpredictable. One day it feels fine, the next day it can be impossible to swing a bat. Morel wants to forget a 2012 season that lasted only 35 games with the Sox, his last coming against the Angels in Anaheim on May 17.

Morel’s future with the Sox is murky because it’s primarily dependent on his health. Ventura, who endured back issues of his own during his playing days, disagreed that Morel has an uphill battle to make the team, let alone have a successful career. But as anyone who has suffered a back injury understands, pain or discomfort is capable of flaring up at any time.

“He looks healthy,” Ventura said. “He has a lot more bat speed with him coming through and moving around when he throws. The back can be debilitating, but it’s nice to see him as healthy as he is."

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