Gillaspie winning battle at third base

Conor Gillaspie doubled against the Brewers Monday at Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix. Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports

Conor Gillaspie has a few advantages when it comes to winning the Opening Day third base spot, most notably that he is playing the best among his competitors so far.

If the season started tomorrow, Gillaspie would likely be in the starting lineup over challengers at third base like Matt Davidson, Marcus Semien and Jeff Keppinger.

Davidson has been struggling at the plate, Semien is still projected for everyday play in the minor leagues, while Keppinger continues to nurse a sore shoulder. But it isn’t that Gillaspie is leading the pack by default.

After entering spring camp with a renewed focus on offense as well as defense, Gillaspie’s approach is gaining a heightened confidence level from the coaching staff. At the plate, the left-handed hitter had five hits in his first 18 at-bats (.278), while delivering a .500 slugging percentage, before his start Monday against the Milwaukee Brewers. He had a home run, three RBIs, three runs scored and just two strikeouts.

“To me, he’s just in a better spot this year confidence-wise, knowledge-wise on what he needs to do to play, offensively, defensively,” manager Robin Ventura told reporters in Arizona. “He actually had one game that wasn’t very good, but everybody has those and you have to be able to get over that and still have the confidence, and he’s done that.”

Limiting those rough games is the key to Gillaspie’s success. One of his worst ever came in September of last season when he made three errors in an eventual 9-1 defeat to the Detroit Tigers.

The former San Francisco Giants product came to the White Sox last year during a spring-training trade, bringing with him a reputation for shaky defense. But he seemed to turn a corner early with the White Sox, showing some spectacular glove work in the first two months of the season.

Things eventually turned, though, with Gillaspie often making miscues on routine plays or throwing wildly when he was rushed.

“Believe it or not, the most uncomfortable plays for me are regular ground balls, quite honestly,” Gillaspie said. “I’m comfortable going either direction or diving. I like those plays. Unfortunately a lot of the main plays you get are routine ground balls so I think if I can work on something that’s going to be what I stress this spring.”

Gillaspie’s .245 batting average and .320 slugging percentage last season in 408 at-bats didn’t exactly stamp him as a long-term answer at third base and it wasn’t surprising when the White Sox went out and added Davidson to the fold.

But Gillaspie was at least pleased last year that he could make solid contact with the bat in his first full major league season, even if the numbers didn’t show his ability to put the bat on the ball.

“The frustrating thing for me is that people look at it like, ‘Well, he didn’t do that great,’” Gillaspie said. “You can ask the staff members. Everybody lines out, everybody gets hard outs, but I had quite a few of them and I’ll stand by that until the day I die. Obviously it didn’t work out for the numbers parts so everybody can say ‘Oh yeah, look at his numbers.’”

Davidson, meanwhile, seems to be in a transition period of sorts. The White Sox are working with him to cut down his strikeout totals and there seems to be progress in that area as he has whiffed only three times in 18 at-bats.

On the flip side, though, it might have cost him some aggressiveness at the plate. He has just two hits this spring, both doubles, and entered play Monday batting .111 with a .222 slugging percentage, although it still remains extremely early.

He always knew that a trip to Triple-A Charlotte was a possibility, and while he would rather start the season with the major league club, his goal has always been to produce quickly and stick around for the long term when he does get his big league chance.

“Whatever the coaches are saying, I just want to take it in and make it a part of my game,” Davidson said. “Ultimately, I want to be able to help the team the best I can, even if that starts later rather than sooner. It will be fun. I’m just ready to contribute to the team. I don’t know what to expect. It’s awesome (to get the chance), but I’m not going to put to too much into (early results).”

Since Davidson still has minor league options, it is yet another advantage for Gillaspie, who is out of options. Maybe that has helped keep Gillaspie’s stress levels low.

“You hear so much about being confident and relaxed and just going about your business that way,” Gillaspie said. “I think I’m starting to figure out a little bit more instead of coming in here tense and thinking about the game at 11 o’clock or noon. There’s really no need for that. I’m starting to understand that won’t help you in the long run.

“Quite frankly, I have days like my poor games last year were games where I couldn’t let it go, couldn’t escape from trying so hard. I think my goal this year is that I want to be somebody that will not be flustered by anything, that doesn’t get down, doesn’t get super excited.”

While the White Sox would have loved for a hard decision at third base among multiple worthy candidates, there is a comfort level in having at least one player step up thus far. Davidson might be the third baseman of the future, but Gillaspie isn’t going to give up the spot so easily.

“He’s worked very hard in what he does,” Ventura said of Gillaspie. “Yeah, he’s a good player. He’s somebody who is very valuable to us.”