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Healthy Danks looking to regain old form, help White Sox rebound from rough season

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GLENDALE, Ariz. - John Danks is feeling rather carefree these days.

The left-hander insisted his shoulder problems are a thing of the past and he's intent on regaining his old form on the mound as the Chicago White Sox try to climb back to respectability.

"I don't have any worries about the arm, I really don't," he said. "It was nice to have an off-season to really focus on getting in shape and focusing on the season. ... I feel great coming into this year. I'm very optimistic and excited to get the game going. It's been a tough few years."

Particularly the past two.

Danks has shown he's capable of winning 15 games, starting a season opener and landing a big contract. He's trying to get back to that level after two difficult seasons, and the White Sox are looking to re-establish themselves after dropping 99 games a year ago.

A healthy and effective Danks could go a long toward helping them accomplish that.

After all, he was one of their top starters from 2008-12. He posted ERAs of 3.32, 3.77, 3.72 and 4.33 during that stretch, won 15 games in 2010 and landed a $65 million, five-year contract extension before the 2012 season. He started the opener that year, but things quickly took a bad turn.

He started feeling soreness in his left shoulder and made just nine starts before having surgery to repair a capsule tear and remove debris in the rotator cuff and biceps. Danks was hoping to be ready for the start of last season but began the season on the disabled list, and after he came back in late May, things didn't exactly go smoothly for him.

He laboured through 138 1-3 innings, finishing with a 4-14 record and 4.75 ERA in 22 starts. He gave up 28 homers, matching a career high, but as tough as last season was, there were a few positives.

One was that he gave up a career-low 1.8 walks per nine innings.

Another was that he cleared a hurdle simply by getting out there. Although Danks sounded optimistic before last season, the White Sox knew that his comeback wasn't going to be an easy one.

It was going to take time to regain his arm strength, and that's something he thinks he now has.

"You name it. I'm stronger," Danks said. "Not having to force things quite as much. The ball is coming out of my hand night and day better than it was last year and hopefully it will continue to improve. But I feel good about things and confident. I have high expectations for myself and we'll see. We got to go do it."

The White Sox have an All-Star at the top of the rotation in Chris Sale. No. 2 starter Jose Quintana had a 3.51 ERA in 33 starts, but beyond that, there are some questions, starting with Danks.

The main one: Can he be the Danks of old?

If he can, that would go a long toward solidifying the rotation with right-handers Erik Johnson and Felipe Paulino on the back end. But for now, Danks is sort of a wild card.

"It's not a surprise the ball wasn't coming out of his hand quite the way it had in the past," general manager Rick Hahn said. "This was always going to be the litmus test, 18 months post op, which is where he will be sitting on Opening Day or sometime in March. And to hear how he's talking about his comfort level and how the ball is coming out of his hands is encouraging."

Danks, meanwhile, seems like a guy with a big weight lifted off his shoulders even if he still has something to prove.

He married country singer Ashley Monroe during the off-season. Life is good for him right now. And if he truly is back to his old ways, well, it'll be that much better.

Pitching coach Don Cooper sees some similarities between where Danks is at now and where he was following the 2007 season. He got knocked around as a raw rookie, going 6-13 with a 5.50 ERA.

"We were doing stuff with John Danks at the big league level with mechanics that really should be done at the minor leagues," Cooper said. "Gotta get them taller, gotta close him up, he's this far open — all that stuff. And we had to give him a cutter. We had to really work the changeup. And oh, by the way, you've got to go pitch against Boston and the Yankees. That's a big thing. What John showed me was he was mentally tough enough to do all of that, take his lumps and come back even stronger that next year. I'm hoping that this is kind of similar to that."

NOTE: Reliever Nate Jones dismissed his strained glute muscle as "not that big of a deal" and said he would be able to pitch if it happened during the season. The right-hander said the problem is on his left side and he expects to be back on the mound in a few days. The problem cropped up seven to 10 days ago.

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