White Sox catchers somehow made Welington Castillo an afterthought

When the situation looked its worst, Omar Narvaez and Kevan Smith started playing their best

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.

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Jim Margalus
Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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Josh Nelson

Good stuff, Jim. I wonder how they handle this situation for 2019 if Narvaez and Smith finish the season strong.

Lurker Laura

And if Seby finishes strong…

Otter

They still need a starting catcher.

35Shields

Seriously. It’s great that Narvaez is back to having 1-2 tools, but he’s still bad.

Josh Nelson

Do you trust that Castillo can be that?

Otter

For next year? Sure. His framing is fine and he has a wRC+ of 112.

I think the better question is who backs him up, for a while it looked like neither. But both are making cases to be that player. At this point it looks like Smith is the lower risk, lower upside backup while Narvaez is the higher risk, higher upside backup. Though a compelling case can be made that Narvaez’s framing/D are so bad, that the 10 AB he’d get each week don’t make up for it.

karkovice squad

Castillo’s receiving hasn’t been fine this season. It’s been bad. He’s also shown so much year-to-year variance that, regardless of how he performs when he returns from suspension, I don’t think we have any idea which version we’ll see next season.

Lurker Laura

But is Castillo that catcher, considering how he approached his first year with the Sox?

KenWo4LiFe

I miss him. He was a very capable starting catcher for my fantasy team! Plus the team does miss his dingers no matter how many bloopers smith and Narvaez can hit.

lil jimmy

Castillo is better at “catching” than either.

GrinnellSteve

That’s the key right there. That and the fact he’s under contract for next season. He’ll be welcomed back and given the starting job. Smith and Omar will duke it out for the backup job unless the Sox decide to keep both because one would be a better DH than Jose Rondon or someone.

35Shields

Is he though? He’s had one single season of being an above average catcher. Smith seems like he could at least challenge in that regard.

Otter

Smith needs to improve a lot, a real lot, defensively then. The bat isn’t there.

35Shields

He’s an average framer. The rest of catcher defense doesn’t matter that much.

Otter

Exactly, in order for him to be a starter, his framing and D need to be way better to carry a below average bat.

lil jimmy

Omar has past balls, bad framing, no power issues. Smith, no arm, no home run issues. Beef has the edge across the board.
Also, really good at cycling.(who knew?)

GoGoSoxFan

If Castillo was “really good at cycling”, nobody WOULD know.

lil jimmy

What about his dealer?

GoGoSoxFan

Honor among thieves and all that. His dealer would be the only one to know.

asinwreck

The timing of Castillo’s suspension means if a contender has a catching injury in August, either Narvaez or Smith might be flipped for the immortal Cash Considerations.

One of these three guys isn’t going to be on the 40-man roster next April. Time will tell which one goes, and why.

Patrick Nolan

It’s at least something to watch….Narvaez needs to take the next month or so and prove that the improved ISO is no fluke, though, else this decision becomes pretty easy. Smith’s historically empty batting average is really something, but xwOBA doesn’t see his overall production as particularly fluky.

Feel like Welington’s still the best guy.

karkovice squad

Feel like Welington’s still the best guy.

And that’s the sad thing.

Jason.Wade17

Despite their decent hitting, both guys require you to squint to barely make out a major league catcher. When Welington comes back, he should be the guy, with the other two sitting on the bench. By mid-May next year Zavala should be up to split time with Castillo and by August, Collins should join him and who cares

joewho112

Avi to DL. New guy from the Twins replacing him

As Cirensica

Micker Adolfo out 8-10 months with TJ surgery

WHATS IS HAPPENING?

This team used to be good at maintaining players healthy.

jorgefabregas

That’s not really new. We knew Micker was most likely going to need TJ sometime this season.

Milky✌️

It’s a wonder he was able to play (well, DH) as long as he did.

Willardmarshall

Good question. Maybe the infrequent-DL years were too small a sample size…..

joewho112

Wasn’t it like 20 years?

asinwreck

Speaking of DL stints, Micker Adolfo is getting Tommy John surgery, with hopes of being ready to play again next May. He finishes 2018 with a .834 OPS, 11 HR, and 33/91 BB/K in 78 games. Progress, and I hope 2019 sees him play more than 100 games.