- Doug Padilla, ESPN Staff Writer
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If there is anything a couple of guys from a pair of edge-of-the-desert California towns have in common it's that they know how to take the heat.
Brent Morel of Bakersfield and Mark Teahen of Yucaipa should do just fine when the blazing sun settles over Arizona's parched soil, but how they hold up in the battle for the starting third-base job will be one of the intriguing dramas of spring training for the Chicago White Sox.
"I'm really excited, like everybody else here," said Morel, who claims he isn't anxious or struggling with nerves as spring training approaches. "Everybody is really excited to get things going. It's only my first year but just the vibe around the whole team, everybody just wants to get to camp and get this thing going and start the year. Just being able to go out there and being able to win will be fun."
It's a battle that could say as much about manager Ozzie Guillen as it will about how Morel can block out distractions and how Teahen can rebound from a disappointing season.
Morel will be the third-base candidate backed by nearly unanimous White Sox fan support. In just one month in the major leagues last year, he showed a well-above-average glove and a disciplined, up-the-middle hitting style that produced flashes of power.
Teahen appears to have little to no support among the team's faithful. His three-year, $14 million contract extension, signed after he was acquired from the Kansas City Royals before last season, raised eyebrows. And when he struggled to start the 2010 season and then hit the disabled list with a finger injury, it didn't help him win anybody over.
Morel is obviously the popular choice heading into this season, and Guillen could have given the fans what they want, if not by saying Morel had the job, then at least by saying that he was the favorite to land it.
Looking at the big picture, though, Guillen decided to leave the third-base job wide open, saying before SoxFest began that not doing so would be a slap in the face of Teahen.
Guillen has now created a situation in which Morel knows he still has plenty to prove, and Teahen knows that he isn't being written off after his disappointing stumble from last season.
"It's nice to hear [the battle at third base will be open], but at the same time, even if Ozzie hadn't said that that's the way I was going in assuming it was," Teahen said. "I just have to go in and play the way I have to play. I know the team is better if I'm in the lineup, in my opinion."
With that, Teahen chuckled. He knows that opinion might not be shared by many, but if he can get things going quickly this year, he feels his ability can tell a different story.
"I came in last year and started having problems with my arm in the spring," Teahen said. "That's excuses or whatever, but last year didn't wind up the way I wanted it to. I've been in the big leagues for awhile, and I know I can perform in the big leagues. I'm not worried about it. I'm just excited to get in this spring, get a little more comfortable and get going."
Teahen said he doesn't pay much attention to the heavy criticism from fans, which continued on into the offseason. But it's clear that he will have to prove himself far more than Morel in order to be fully embraced.
"Are we going to look for more offense or are we going to look for better defense?" Guillen said. "What will be Teahen's situation? How will he play?"
Knowing that his offensive potential would give him an advantage over Morel, Teahen appeared to have bulked up over the winter. Any work he might have done to help his defense wasn't as transparent.
"Morel's going to have a good, long big league career; he's a great third baseman, and he's going to hit at the big league level," Teahen said. "It's good to have competition, but at the same time, whatever is best for the team, that's what we want to do. With that being said, I'm coming in with a job to do, and I want to do the best job I can."
Morel insists he is up for the challenge, too.
"I had a chance to meet [Teahen] down at Triple-A when he was down for rehab and one thing about him is he's not going to try to do anything to harm me or anybody else," Morel said. "He went out of his way to come talk to me. He gave me all the pointers he could. We have a good relationship. It's just an open battle, and whoever's going to play better is going to win the job."
And despite being the guy with more fan support, it is Morel who could have more at stake this spring. If he doesn't win the starting job, he likely will be sent back to Triple-A Charlotte. If Teahen doesn't win the starting job, he still figures to make the roster as a utility man.
"Getting a little taste last year really helped," said Morel, who still has his rookie status despite his big league experience from a year ago. "I got a little taste, got to meet the guys, got to meet the coaches. I got my feet wet a little bit. I don't think there is too much pressure on me.
"With the team we have, I really have to just go in and win the job and just play my game. I don't think they're asking me to do too much. I have my own expectations, but I don't think there is too much pressure on me. Hopefully I can ease right in there."
Doug Padilla covers the White Sox for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.
2hAnthony Witrado, Special to ESPN.com