Phegley, Flowers searching for redemption behind the plate

Phegley, Flowers searching for redemption behind the plate
February 17, 2014, 4:15 pm
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GLENDALE, Ariz -- Since last July, the retooling, renewing and rebuilding Chicago White Sox have added a right fielder, a center fielder, a first baseman, a third baseman, a starting pitcher, and three veteran arms in their bullpen.

But one position and one big question still remains.

Will they acquire a veteran catcher?

Josh Phegley spent the winter wondering just that.

“I was hoping they wouldn’t,” he said.  “With how last year went, I don’t know if I could blame them to try to get a fix.”

In the White Sox biblical calender, 2013 was 1 A.P. -- the first year after A.J. Pierzynski. Phegley and Tyler Flowers struggled mightily trying to replace the South Side icon.

Flowers batted .195 with 10 homers and 94 strikeouts before losing his starting job to Phegley. Flowers then required season-ending shoulder surgery in September.

“I don’t really look at last year as a complete negative, but obviously there weren’t that many positives to go with it,” Flowers admitted.

After batting .316 in Triple-A, Phegley got called up in July and became an overnight sensation. In his very first week in the majors, Phegley homered off David Price, Matt Garza and Anibal Sanchez, and was crowned the White Sox catcher of the present and future.

That was until two weeks later.

Major league pitchers caught up with Phegley, learning his strengths and pitching to his weaknesses. Suddenly, the 25-year-old rookie entered a deep, prolonged slump covering most of the remainder of the season. He ended the year batting .206 with 42 hits and 41 strikeouts.

“The big leagues is new. I was trying so hard to do everything right. The pressure can really get to you,” Phegley said. “You ask any of the veteran guys around here, you know the key is to relax and get comfortable and just play your game.”

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Becoming a major leaguer for the first time should have been the highlight of Phegley’s life. But struggling under the bright lights with a last place team that was being dismantled all around him, the experience was nothing like he expected.

“It was very interesting,” Phegley said. “Coming up in the middle of the year when everyone is disappointed and dragging a little, it was a tough transition because you want to be excited. You made the big leagues, but to have that season roll on, nothing was going right. It was tough.”

Things got so bad that veterans such as Paul Konerko frequently went up to the young players on the team to tell them, “It’s not always like this.”

“I heard that a lot last year,” Phegley said. “With the way things went, some of the crazy endings to some of those ballgames, that’s going to be tough to repeat if we tried. Just the luck was not on our side and we just didn’t get anything going our way. So when they were saying, ‘It’s not always like this,’ we were hoping that was the case.”

Meanwhile, Flowers is hoping the nagging pain that took residence in his shoulder all season and never left is now gone for good.

“I feel great, and that helps you in the game we play which is such a physical, mental and psychological demand,” Flowers said. “To get rid of those other distractions will be a really big positive.”

Unless general manager Rick Hahn acquires a veteran catcher during spring training, Flowers and Phegley will fight for the starting job -- along with 24-year-old Adrian Nieto, who the Sox selected in the Rule-5 draft but has never played higher than A+ ball in the minors.

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Whatever happens, Flowers knows he’s going to have to prove himself, probably more so than any other time in his career. He welcomes the competition.

“Even though I was basically handed the job last spring, competition took me out of the starting job and put someone else in halfway through,” he said. “I’m just trying to be a part of this team, no matter what position or what role I end up in. We’re all happy to be in this organization and help the team win.”

Flowers might have been diplomatic about wanting the starting job. Phegley just came right out and said it.

“My goal is to win the starting job and be the catcher of this team,” he said.

They both have the next six weeks to prove it.