Around The Diamond: Catching Conundrum

Our positional previews continue with a look behind the dish. While there is a heck of a lot to be excited about when it comes to the 2015 Chicago White Sox, the catcher position leaves much to be desired.

In most people’s minds, there are four, maybe five names to watch for when it comes to White Sox catchers when it comes to 2015. When you hear each name, you’ll probably groan or sigh, as none of them exactly bring the excitement of the other positional upgrades we have seen Rick Hahn make to this roster.

However, the reality of Major League Baseball in 2015 is this: the catching situation on the White Sox isn’t much different than the situations on a lot of teams. Long-term, or even viable short-term catching options, don’t hit the open market very often and certainly don’t grow on trees. Plus, upon being drafted, promising catching prospects are often moved elsewhere on the diamond in order to preserve the length of their careers. Even though Russell Martin was out on the market this season and there were a couple of decent short-term plugs in recent years (such as Kurt Suzuki), it’s definitely the toughest position to upgrade in the game.

So, with all of that being said, the best in-house option at this point appears to be … Tyler Flowers. Yes, I know, I just cringed too, but the fact of the matter is metrically, he wasn’t all that bad in 2014. He ranked 20th in the MLB in WAR at catcher (minimum of 300 plate appearances), coming it at a 1.8 according to fangraphs. In addition, he actually ranked 15th in defensive WAR at 7.2, ranking higher than guys such as Buster Posey and Miguel Montero in that category.

When you take a look at those numbers along with his traditional hitting line of .241-15-42, there’s a positive spin you can put on Flowers going into 2015 as the catcher. However, we’re also talking about a guy who led all MLB catcher in K% (36%), ranked in the bottom ten in walk rate (5.7%), and led all catchers in BABIP by a WIDE margin at .355 (next closest was Russell Martin at .336).

Plus, he was second of all catchers in wild pitches allowed (51) and tied for third in passed balls (nine). Obviously, every wild pitch is not on the catcher, but these numbers, along with the eye test, leave me wondering how did Flowers even end up with a positive defensive WAR last season, let along rank as average?

Regardless of what we all think of Flowers, he’s going to be catching Chris Sale on Opening Day barring an injury, trade, or complete surprise. That’s because the options behind him do not look all that enticing either.

We’ll start with the incumbent: Adrian Nieto. The rookie showed some positives last season as the backup backstop, especially considering he never played an inning above A-ball before last season. However, there were plenty of moments where he looked overmatched, and more consistent playing time would be a benefit for him. Since his bat likely is not enough to outshine Flowers’ at this point and he was inconsistent defensivley, the consensus seems to be that Nieto starts the season as the everyday catcher in Charlotte.

Fortunately, there are two catchers who will attend Spring Training this season with MLB experience: Rob Brantly and George Kottaras. Brantly is just 25 years of age, and the lefty comes to the Sox from Miami after a mixed bag in two Major League seasons. He performed well in 2012, hitting .290 with three home runs and an .832 OPS in just 100 at-bats. However, he followed that up with a putrid 2013 (.211/.263/.265/.528 in 223 at-bats), leading to a demotion to AAA last season where he hit .255.

Kottaras has the most experience between the two, having been in seven different organizations and with four different MLB teams since being drafted by the Padres in 2002. Also a left-handed bat, the 31 year-old has shown decent pop throughout his career, slugging 32 home runs with a .215/.326/.411/.737 slashline in 722 MLB plate appearances. However, he played in just 18 games at the MLB level in 2014 after having the worst season of his career in 2013 with Kansas City (hit just .180).

While neither Brantly and Kottaras are strong defensively, the fact that Rick Hahn brought in two left-handed hitting backstops to counter the right-handed hitting Flowers leads me to believe one of them will earn the backup role over Nieto. Brantly appears to be more of a contact guy (despite a rough last couple of seasons) while Kottaras is well documented as an all-or-nothing like hitter similar to Flowers himself. It all depends on what Robin and the Sox want out of that backup role, and I’d expect this will be the battle to watch this Spring.

However, there’s one backstop who found his way onto the 40-man roster recently. Kevan Smith, a 26 year old right-handed bat the Sox took in the 7th round out of the University of Pittsburgh back in 2011, has put together a quality season at every level he’s visited. A .296 career minor league hitter with a .374 OBP and .845 OPS, Smith hit .290 with 10 home runs for AA Birmingham last season. The Sox liked him enough to send him to the Arizona Fall League, where he it .244 in 45 at-bats.

Most reports say Smith’s struggled a bit more defensively with each promotion, but he’s not going up against defensive stalwarts for the backup job anyways. It’s tough to say at this point how big of a chance Smith has at the backup job, but the Sox sending him to the AFL at least shows he’s on the cub’s mind.

It’s easy to see how catcher is the main offensive concern for this ball club, as it’s full of unexciting or unpromising candidates with little intrigue (aside from Smith, who hasn’t played past AA). If the White Sox are competitive as we expect them to be, it wouldn’t be a shock to see this team look to upgrade the catcher position mid-season via trade, as it’s hard to see one of these options becoming a viable man on a playoff contender. Heck, crazier things have happened in baseball though, and who knows where this position will be at come June.

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About lukestanczyk

Broadcaster for BenU Sports in Lisle, Illinois as well as a Sports Information jack-of-all-trades for the Athletic Department, baseball ADDICT who played one year in college and still plays in two men's leagues in the Chicagoland area, spent my early childhood living minutes away from The Cell, parents met through the Sox Supporters group in the left field bleachers in the 70s. Yeah, White Sox baseball is in my blood.