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White Sox' Garcia working to get his speed back

Less of Avisail Garcia could mean more for the White Sox. The 6-foot-4, 23-year-old was pushing 270 pounds late last season, looking more like an NFL tight end than a major league right fielder.

“He gained some weight last year and he wasn’t not running as well as he used to,” one major league scout said, “but if he plays right field and he hits for power, who cares? He runs enough. But he has to watch his weight.”

Who cares? Garcia does. He wants to be more than a masher; he wants to be a five-tool star. Those who see the broad-shouldered Venezuelan in person for the first time, almost always have the same reaction, usually something like, “Man, he’s big.” So he certainly looks the part.

That he would routinely get thrown out on ground balls to shortstop by a half step at first base was all the more impressive considering his size. But that was in 2013 and spring training last year, before he got bigger.

“He’s huge,” the scout said of the August-September version of Garcia. “He used to be a 4.1 runner [from home to first] but [last season] he was barely average, 4.4 or 4.5, maybe below average.”

Sox strength and conditioning coordinator Allen Thomas attributed the increase to something that happens to men in their early 20s — they are still in a growing stage. General manager Rick Hahn said the Sox were just happy to see Garcia on the field during the last two months of 2014 after he suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder on April 9 and was thought to be out for the season. Hahn said losing Garcia in such a key season for his development was the toughest “gut-punch” he endured last season.

“Losing him and losing the chance to learn about Avi,” Hahn said, “that was tough.”

Garcia healed quickly from surgery and returned Aug. 16, playing almost every day and hitting .239 with five homers, eight doubles and 22 RBI over 156 plate appearances. He made 142 plate appearances playing winter ball in Venezuela, where he hit .312 with five homers, 22 RBI and four stolen bases.

Because he wasn’t getting to balls in the outfield gaps that he had reached before, or moving as well on the bases, Garcia was asked to shed weight during the offseason and it was obvious at SoxFest that he had complied.

“I can’t go there and be fat,” said Garcia, who was somewhat vague about how much he lost. “Maybe 15, I don’t know.”

Garcia gets why it had to happen.

“I want to be a five-tool player. I don’t want to lose speed, I don’t want to lose power,” he said. “I want to [have power and speed]. I can do a little bit of everything.”

“I give him credit,” Hahn said. “This is what he said he was going to come back like and it sure looks like he has. He sure seems to have slimmed down some.”

This is a big year for Garcia, who is viewed as a budding star and is being counted on to bat fifth in the Sox lineup behind Adam Eaton, Melky Cabrera, Jose Abreu and Adam LaRoche. Garcia acknowledged at SoxFest what everyone knows, that plate discipline is his biggest hitting issue.

“He’s still inconsistent,” the scout said. “He still gets in trouble with [chasing] the breaking ball but he has potential.”

Potential? Garcia belted a 468-foot home run against the Tampa Bay Rays’ Nate Karns on Sept. 21 in St. Petersburg, the ninth-longest blast of the season in baseball.

Defensively, the Sox thought he had center field potential when they traded for him at the trade deadline in 2013 but now they hope he can be a good right fielder.

“At times he makes great plays and then he’ll make a mistake, throwing to the wrong base or getting a poor jump,” the scout said. “He’s still inconsistent.”

And he’s still young. So there is time to improve.

“He has the ability to be a superstar,” Hahn said.