'It's time': Avisail Garcia gets message with White Sox
Chicago — Batting seventh for Tigres de Aragua in the Venezuelan Winter League one day last December was Avisail Garcia, which bugged the opposing manager more than the easygoing outfielder.
The opposing manager was Ozzie Guillen, a good friend whose Tiburones de La Guaira team was facing Garcia’s. As subtle as a fastball under the chin, Guillen told Garcia he should be embarrassed as a major-leaguer hitting so low in the order.
“I loved it because Ozzie is a great manager and knows a lot about baseball — and he was right,” Garcia said. “I got the message. It’s time for me. I thanked Ozzie for that conversation. I always take the advice he gives me.”
Guillen still sees what the White Sox saw in Garcia when they made him the centerpiece of a three-team Jake Peavy deal in July 2013: a capable corner outfielder with enough raw talent to become a fixture in the middle of any lineup. Comparisons to former Tigers teammate Miguel Cabrera, whom Garcia resembles, initially set the bar unreasonably high. A disappointing 2016 season only widened the gap between Garcia’s production and potential. But Garcia leading the American League in hits (22) and batting average (.423) heading into Friday’s games suggests he finally might be closing it.
“Avi has all the tools,” Guillen said. “They know the window is starting to close ... but he’s starting to act like a veteran.”
The process began last winter, even before Guillen’s humbling reality check. Signing Garcia to a modest one-year, $3 million contract confirmed how ambivalent the Sox were about a player who had fallen short of expectations. The rebuilding plan could proceed with or without Garcia. It was up to him.
So began the most important offseason of Garcia’s career. The 6-foot-4 Venezuelan who could pass for an NFL linebacker had let his weight balloon to near 260 pounds. He started working out harder to shed the fat. The biggest change came in his diet, which previously consisted of whatever Garcia wanted whenever he wanted it.
“I was a little overweight and didn’t feel good,” Garcia said. “I was tired and my legs weren’t feeling right. I thought the only way to improve myself was losing weight, just eating smarter.”
He lost 20 pounds, now comfortably around 240. Red meat — a Garcia staple — was replaced by red snapper and other fish.
“I like salmon or sea bass best,” Garcia said. “Last year, I’d eat steak one night late after a game, and then I’d have steak the next night too. This year it’s fish or chicken — and lots of vegetables. Now I feel lighter, can run better, recuperate better.”
General manager Rick Hahn supported that idea, telling reporters in New York the increased flexibility in Garcia’s upper body “allowed him to unleash the torque a little more easily from his swing.”
But for all the attention paid to Garcia’s trimmer physique, a fitter body helped his mind focus. He returned a smarter hitter as well as eater, showing better plate discipline at work too. After striking out 256 times the last two seasons combined, Garcia has cut down on his rate. He looks more comfortable going to the opposite field and putting more balls into the air, using his head to complement his hands.
On a winning home run against the Twins, for example, Garcia made Ryan Pressly pay when the right-hander went back to the outer third of the plate two straight pitches. The pitch was up and Garcia deposited the 98 mph heater in the right-field stands.
More evidence came Tuesday against Yankees starter Luis Severino. Garcia struck out twice but approached the third at-bat sitting on Severino’s wicked slider. On a 2-0 pitch, Garcia saw it and the ball sailed 429 feet into the left-field bleachers.
“It’s always good to have the kind of success I’m having right now but you have to stay humble and not try to do too much,” Garcia said.
Still only 25 — the same age as Cubs star Kris Bryant — Garcia has 423 major-league games and 1,609 plate appearances on his resume.
Having made his debut for the Tigers at 21, Garcia laughed when asked if fans often forget how young he is.
“Sometimes I think they do,” Garcia said. “But I can’t control that so ...”