GLENDALE, Ariz. — Alex Rios was a different player for the White Sox last season.
Tapping all of his five-tool skills for extended stretches, the 30-year-old center fielder didn't look anything like the tentative performer he was during the final two months of the 2009 season after the Sox claimed him off waivers from the Toronto Blue Jays.
Off the field, however, Rios remained introverted, and most of his answers weren't much longer than the time it takes him to run from home plate to first base.
That's why more than a few pairs of ears perked up Monday morning after Rios reported to Camelback Ranch for spring training.
At the end of his typically abbreviated chat with reporters, Rios was asked if the White Sox are the team to beat in the AL Central this season.
“Oh, yeah,” Rios said. “Definitely. We're the team to beat. We have good additions to the team. The core is solid and with the additions we're even stronger. I think we're going to give a hard time to a lot of people out there.”
There is little doubt the Sox' offense is going to get a boost with the addition of left-handed thumper Adam Dunn.
Jesse Crain and Will Ohman join a bullpen that cut ties with Bobby Jenks and J.J. Putz, leaving Chris Sale and Matt Thornton to fight it out for the closer's role.
Add in returnees such as Paul Konerko, Rios, Alexei Ramirez, Carlos Quentin and the starting rotation in need of a healthy Jake Peavy and it's hard to argue with Rios' optimism.
But actually coming out and saying the Sox are going to win the AL Central caught some of his teammates by surprise.
“That's the way Alex feels,” catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. “I feel like we're another team with a chance to win. I'm glad he has confidence and he believes in this team, and we'll see what happens.
“As far as I'm concerned, the Twins won last year and we're behind them. We've got to catch them.”
Minnesota has some potential holes and might have a hangover from yet another first-round exit from the playoffs, but the Twins are the defending champs and they've won the AL Central six times in the last nine years.
“On paper we look good, but I wouldn't say we're the team to beat,” second baseman Gordon Beckham said. “You've got the Twins and they're always good. The Tigers reloaded and you never know what's going to happen with Cleveland and Kansas City. So I wouldn't say that.
“But I think everybody's excited to be here and we've got a good team and we're going to compete. It's the way we do feel; we feel like we should be the team to beat. But you know what? We've got to go out and prove it.”
If Rios can have a season like last year, maybe his prediction will come true. In addition to reaching career highs with 88 RBI and 34 stolen bases, Rios batted .284 with 29 doubles and 21 home runs.
“I just knew what I could do,” said Rios, who batted .199 in 41 games with the White Sox in 2009. “When you're confident of the things you can do, a lot of good things can happen. I don't try to be a superstar or a mega-superstar.
“I know what I can do and don't try to do things I can't do. I just try to keep it simple and go with the flow.”Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.