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The White Sox are more than halfway through Welington Castillo‘s suspension for blood-doping. and it hasn’t turned into the full-blown catching crisis most of us imagined.
Panic was most definitely an option at the time Castillo was escorted from the premises. Omar Narvaez was hitting .180 with four extra-base hits, a ballooning strikeout rate and the league’s worst defensive numbers. Worse yet, Kevan Smith was on the disabled list with an ankle injury, leaving the overmatched Alfredo Gonzalez as the most qualified backup available.
The first week without Castillo foreshadowed doom. Narvaez went 2-for-16 with three walks, sinking his OPS to .506. Gonzalez went 0-for-6 with three strikeouts. The White Sox went 1-6 and allowed an average of 6.6 runs per game.
But since Smith healed and returned to Chicago on June 5, the White Sox’ backstops flipped the script on what a 2018 without Castillo looks like.
Narvaez has hiked his offense above average with a torrid last month. He’s hitting .400/.438/.583 over 65 plate appearances since June 1, and he’s making outfielders turn around at an unprecedented rate. His 10 doubles and two homers match his career highs from last season, and in roughly half the playing time. His framing and blocking remain atrocious, although I think the latter category has improved in recent weeks. He’s restored the bat to his bat-first profile if nothing else.
Since joining the team on June 5, Smith has posted the most extreme version of his profile. He’s hitting .321/.346/.346 with 23 singles and two doubles, and his OBP-BA separation comes more from HBPs (two) than walks (one). Baseball Prospectus is indifferent toward his receiving, which is a major net positive for the pitching staff. Nobody can deny his throwing issues. He still hasn’t thrown out a runner this season, and the stolen bases are starting to accelerate on his watch, with 18 in 20 games.
The warts — Narvaez’s receiving, Smith’s throwing — were known issues entering the season. The question for the tandem, both before the Sox acquired Castillo and after the suspension, was whether they’d be able to improve in other ways to offset their weaknesses.
Well, over the last 30 days, White Sox catchers are hitting .352/.386/.454. Only the Rays have done more with the bat from that position, and Wilson Ramos is starting for the American League in the All-Star Game because of it. Ichiro Suzuki won an MVP award with that slash line…
… although mostly because the Mariners won 116 games that year. The White Sox are 12-22 with the best Smith and Narvaez can provide, which is still a 104-loss pace even you round down. Smith and Narvaez’s gains were washed out by the worst slump of Jose Abreu’s career, Bruce Rondon’s implosion and an outfield devoid of Garcias, to name a few factors. Moreover, I wouldn’t assume either has much trade value at the deadline due to their critical vulnerabilities, so this surge looks merely like a pleasant development without greater meaning in a lost season. Basically, we’re getting an idea of how the Sox would’ve fared if they didn’t seek an upgrade during the winter, which is usually the kind of thing left to speculation. I suppose that’s kinda neat.
With the record already torn to shreds, it’s more worth watching to see if they can sustain this stretch closer to Castillo’s return date, because the White Sox have never dealt with such a situation, and nobody knows the kind of grudges some might hold.
Castillo is eligible for reinstatement for the last week of August. The 24th is the earliest date he can return, assuming no rainouts. The Sox can tune him up in the minors beforehand to facilitate a return on the earliest date — Minnesota’s Jorge Polanco spent the last week of his suspension playing for Fort Myers and Rochester — but if Smith and Narvaez continue to serve as middle-of-the-pack catchers against considerable odds, would the Sox kick one of them down to the minors, even for a week to 10 days, to welcome back a player who screwed up that badly?
Postseason ineligibility is the biggest non-financial deterrent for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. When that doesn’t come into play, the biggest threat might be a team learning it’s fine going without. Smith and Narvaez have made it surprisingly easy to forget Castillo exists, and with Castillo forfeiting half his salary for a team with a bare-bones payroll, he hasn’t been felt on the books, either. I’m guessing Castillo will be welcomed back, whether out of forgiveness or necessity, but against considerable odds, there’s now a chance that his return will be an inconvenience for a team that didn’t miss him all that much.