Countdown to Camp: Who needs big year?

Alexei Ramirez averaged 17 home runs a season between 2008-11 but has hit just 15 combined the past two years. AP Photo/Paul Battaglia

With Chicago White Sox spring training set to begin Saturday when pitchers and catchers report in Glendale, Ariz., we're taking an early look around the diamond.

While a much-needed rebuild has begun, the Chicago White Sox still have too many question marks to start printing playoff tickets, so this year's player to count on has a nod to the future.

We'll hit Alexei Ramirez with the tag of player who needs to have the big season. Count Dayan Viciedo as a close second in the voting.

There really is justification for anybody to carry the burden of the tag, from Jose Abreu and the pressure of living up to a $68 million contract, to Chris Sale and the need for him to keep establishing himself as a staff ace. There's the need for Nate Jones to seamlessly embrace the closer's role and Adam Dunn to finally give the White Sox something special for their original $56 million investment.

Yet the focus falls on Ramirez because he was the player the White Sox believed would lock down the shortstop position for the long term after he was given a contract that could extend until 2016 if a team option was utilized.

Ramirez, who will be 33 by the end of this season, was projected to grow each year when he was given his current four-year, $32.5 million deal with the possibility that it can become a five-year, $41.5 million pact.

Instead, Ramirez seems to have regressed in each season since finishing second in the rookie of the year voting in 2008. He did win a Silver Slugger award in 2010 after collecting 18 home runs with 70 RBIs while posting a .744 OPS, but those numbers were all lower than they were in his first season.

To make matters most pressing for the White Sox is that shortstop and catcher are the only two positions where a top prospect isn't closing in on a major league job. At first base Jose Abreu is set to take over, second base has guys such as Carlos Sanchez, Marcus Semien and Micah Johnson coming soon, and third base could end up being Matt Davidson's for the long haul.

The current outfield is already young, and then there are prospects such as Trayce Thompson, Keenyn Walker, Courtney Hawkins and Jacob May on their way. Erik Johnson, Charlie Leesman, Chris Beck and Andre Rienzo represent a wave of pitchers ready to come to the forefront.

The White Sox do have a top shortstop prospect in the system in last year's top pick, Tim Anderson, but he is just 20 years old and has only played at the low Class A level thus far, putting him three years away from Chicago minimum, and that's if he gets on the fast track.

When looking at Ramirez's inability to gain any traction in recent seasons, it only made sense that Anderson was gobbled up as the third overall shortstop selected in the first round.

Ramirez was dealing with a family tragedy in 2013 so any lack of focus last year was understandable. If the White Sox can provide him with a comfortable atmosphere this year, it stands to reason that his numbers could creep upward again.

Perhaps adding to his comfort level this season is the arrival of Abreu from his native Cuba. It would form a trio of starters who hail from Cuba, along with Viciedo.

One sign of a Ramirez turnaround could come in the opening month. Early production could mean that good things are on the way from the notoriously slow starter. Ramirez's March/April batting average (.231), OPS (.587), home runs (7) and RBIs (39) make it the least productive month of his career, and by bucking that trend, it could provide him with the foothold he needs in 2014.

OUTLOOK: While the offense gets the most attention, the defensive side of Ramirez's game hasn't been as sharp, either, as his career has progressed. Once thought to be able to join the Gold Glove conversation if he could combine his range, arm strength and fielding ability into one solid package, that aspect of his game has never fully come to fruition. Reports on the fielding ability of Abreu at first base suggest an average defender, something the White Sox have already disputed. If his ability to dig balls out of the dirt is refined, that could go a long way toward helping the defense not only of Ramirez, but of the rest of the infield, as well.