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Chicago baseball report: White Sox pitchers are fine-tuning — while the Cubs are working on positional flexibility

Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS

The Chicago Cubs’ first day off of spring training Monday sets up the final two weeks of big-league camp. The big question: Will right-hander Jameson Taillon’s lower back tightness cause him to be sidelined at the start of the season?

Regulars in the White Sox lineup, meanwhile, are staying in games longer as the 2024 season inches closer.

Every Monday and Friday during spring training, Tribune baseball writers will provide an update on what happened — and what’s ahead for the Cubs and Sox. Want more? Sign up for our new Cubs and White Sox newsletters.

Cubs preparing for positional flexibility

Manager Craig Counsell wants players to be ready to play different positions, even if someone isn’t expected to get much time there in season.

With Ian Happ still sidelined by a left hamstring strain, Seiya Suzuki got the start in left field Friday. He has started only in right field in his first two seasons in Chicago. However, Counsell explained it falls under something that could happen later in the season.

Counsell talked to Suzuki and asked, in the event he needs to be used in left field later this year, would he want some experience there during spring training?

“Simple as that,” Counsell said.

Michael Busch, who hit his second homer of the spring Sunday, is expected to be the regular at first base, where he continues to get Cactus League starts. The versatile infielder has gotten some pregame work at third base, but it’s not a priority for Counsell to start him there in games. He sees more value in the innings Busch logs at first base.

“One of the things you get in spring training is you try to prepare for every possible scenario that a guy is going to play nine innings or 12 innings in a position, like, you don’t always get to do that,” Counsell said. “So I’m going to prioritize the things we think are going to happen most, and that’s Michael playing first base. He, to me, lacks enough experience over there.”

Busch started only seven games at first at Triple-A Oklahoma in 2023 with most of his starts coming at third base (61) and second base (25). Counsell certainly will have options when he looks to maximize the offense with Cody Bellinger and Patrick Wisdom also able to play first.

Fine-tuning continues for White Sox pitchers

Garrett Crochet followed Michael Soroka in Saturday’s Cactus League game against the San Diego Padres in Peoria, Ariz.

Soroka likes what he has seen from the left-handed Crochet this spring.

“It’s easy velocity, and he’s attacking hitters,” Soroka said.

Crochet had his longest outing of the season, tossing 2 1/3 scoreless innings in the 1-1 tie. He struck out four and allowed three hits as he continues to get stretched out while trying to make the move from the bullpen to the rotation.

“Nice to keep taking steps forward, for sure,” Crochet said. “Just got to stay where my feet are.”

Crochet said he threw 55 pitches, too many for his liking.

“A lot of foul balls,” he said. “Probably had the chance to put some guys away with my slider but just didn’t.”

Manager Pedro Grifol didn’t mind that aspect of the outing.

“When you’re a hard-throwing pitcher like that and you have great stuff, you get a ton of foul balls too,” Grifol said Sunday. “Sometimes they swing and miss at those and sometimes they foul them off. That’s part of being electric.”

Crochet has seven strikeouts and no walks in 4 1/3 scoreless innings during his three spring outings.

It was a weekend filled with fine-tuning for Sox pitchers.

Erick Fedde allowed one run on two hits in three innings Friday against the Cleveland Guardians in Goodyear. Fedde induced five grounders, including two double plays, in his second start.

“Double play is a best friend right there,” Fedde said. “It always gives me a chance to get out of innings. Quick innings. After the first (outing), I was kind of frustrated with my inefficiency. And (Friday) was pretty much the exact opposite.”

Soroka allowed one run on two hits with five strikeouts in three innings during Saturday’s start, his second of the spring.

“The second and third inning were much more of where I wanted to see everything,” he said. “I was being more patient, letting it play and letting the athlete in me do the work.”

Chris Flexen worked out of early trouble Sunday against the San Francisco Giants in Scottsdale. The Giants had a walk and a single in the first and second innings, but Flexen escaped the jams without allowing a run. The right-hander pitched three scoreless innings, striking out two and walking two in his second spring appearance.

“Something I brought up last week was first-pitch strikes, win 1-1 counts,” Flexen said. “I still walked a couple of guys (Sunday) and had a few three-ball counts, so you look at results like that in a bad way. But to go three scoreless is still positive. It’s still early. Continue to build and work through these (games).”

Number of the week: 47

The Cubs made two rounds of camp cuts Friday and Saturday, dropping the number to 47 still with the big-league team: 24 pitchers (which includes six nonroster invitees), five catchers (three NRIs), 11 infielders (three NRIs), six outfielders (one NRI) and one infielder/outfielder.

Week ahead: Cubs

  • Monday: off

  • Tuesday: vs. Brewers, 8:05 p.m., Marquee

  • Wednesday: at Guardians, 3:05 p.m., Marquee

  • Thursday: vs. Athletics, 3:05 p.m., Marquee

  • Friday: at White Sox, 3:05 p.m.

  • Saturday: vs. Royals, 3:05 p.m., Marquee; at Angels, 3:10 p.m.

As part of his first big-league camp experience, left-hander Jordan Wicks is learning what he needs to do to be where he wants for the start of the season.

Wicks pitched 4 1/3 innings in Sunday’s 5-1 win against the Texas Rangers. His stuff looked sharp, recording seven strikeouts without walking a hitter. He allowed one unearned run and two hits. Wicks’ biggest goal in the outing was landing his breaking balls.

“We always talk about the first up-down is the worst part of spring training because it’s the first time you’ve done it in forever, but now it’s just stacking them on,” he said. “It becomes easier and easier each time out, getting in better shape. I say all the time, you can’t simulate game shape. You can try as much as you want to, but until you get out there and actually do it, you can’t simulate it.”

Wicks’ approach this spring has centered on simplifying and attacking one area in his bullpen sessions with the goal of building off each spring outing.

“I was really happy with the curveball command,” Wicks said. “I thought it had really good shape to it, really good in zone. The slider showed flashes, showed improvement, which is good. As far as landing it, I thought the shape was still really good, so I thought it was definitely a step in the right direction.”

Week ahead: White Sox

  • Monday: vs. Rockies, 3:05 p.m.

  • Tuesday: at Reds, 8:05 p.m.

  • Wednesday: at Brewers, 3:10 p.m.

  • Thursday: vs. Angels, 3:05 p.m.

  • Friday: vs. Cubs, 3:05 p.m., NBCSCH

  • Saturday: vs. Giants, 3:05 p.m., NBCSCH; at Mariners, 3:10 p.m.

  • Sunday: at Athletics, 3:50 p.m.

Jake Woodford saw action as a starter and reliever during four seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals.

The nonroster invitee has worked in similar fashion for the Sox. He’ll get his second start Monday against the Colorado Rockies at Camelback Ranch.

Woodford has a 3.86 ERA in two spring appearances, including one start. He has allowed two runs on four hits with four strikeouts and three walks in 4 2/3 innings.

“He’s a strike thrower, a sinkerball guy, puts the ball on the ground,” Grifol said. “There’s a lot to like about him. He’s versatile. He can pitch in the pen, he can start. He’s competing. He’s in the mix.”

Woodford is penciled in for three innings, with Michael Kopech also in line for three innings.

“(The) ball is coming out of his hand well,” Grifol said of Kopech. “Everything is looking pretty good. Just got to get that feel where he feels he can consistently pound the strike zone.”

What we’re reading this morning

Quotable

“A pretty damn good two-hole hitter if he puts his mind to it, which we’re going to make sure his mind is right.” — Grifol on third baseman Yoán Moncada