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Back in 2015, the White Sox had a perfectly acceptable and affordable catcher combination with the framing-first Tyler Flowers and the bat-first Geovany Soto. Rick Hahn had appeared to upgrade it after the season by signing Alex Avila to play alongside Flowers. Avila wasn’t much of a receiver, but his advanced eye and occasionally impactful left-handed bat stood a great chance of complementing Flowers, especially if he were only expected to cover 60 games a year.
A week later, they non-tendered Flowers in order to sign Dioner Navarro. That unforced error marked the start of a five-year wander through the wilderness that resulted in a different primary catcher for every Opening Day since (rank in fWAR parenthesized), and production that never escaped the bottom half of the league.
- 2015: Tyler Flowers and Geovany Soto (9th)
- 2016: Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila (28th)
- 2017: Omar Narvaez and Kevan Smith (16th)
- 2018: Welington Castillo and Omar Narvaez (16th)*
- 2019: James McCann and Welington Castillo (20th)
(*Smith played more than Castillo due to Castillo’s PED suspension.)
The 2020 season made it six different catchers in six years, but the first one that didn’t rely on unproven improvement to be a viable long-term solution. It was especially refreshing because the White Sox actually saw “unproven improvement” pay off with James McCann’s career year in 2019. They could have easily rationalized settling, but instead, the White Sox set a franchise record by handing a four-year, $73 million contract to Yasmani Grandal, relegating McCann to the second string.
The White Sox were rewarded for their proactiveness. Grandal met expectations, McCann proved that his breakout 2019 wasn’t a fluke, and they combined to form baseball’s most effective catching combination over the course of the abbreviated 2020 season.
The White Sox’s search for a new No. 1 catcher is over, but with McCann reaching free agency, the team now has to contend with a likely drop from the top. Unless they choose to stick with the combination that worked so well for them? It’s a luxury, but as we saw for the White Sox’s first winning team since 2012, it’s one that can be put to use.
It comes down to what McCann can command. It doesn’t make sense for the White Sox to pay for two 120-game catchers, but if McCann only finds 100-game offers out there, there might be ways to justify a reunion for all sides.
Here’s how the position broke down among our 100+ general managers in the Sox Machine Offseason Plan Project.
An in-house solution won the plurality of votes, but four times as many GMs chose to roll with Collins over McCann. It came down to putting starting catcher money to better use, and seeing enough offensive upside and defensive competence in Collins to allocate resources elsewhere.
Here’s where I’ll note that Collins was traded away in 21 different plans, behind only Reynaldo López (26) and Dylan Cease (24). The thought seems to be that if Collins can’t get an opportunity with the White Sox, they should try to find him playing time somewhere else.
As Flowers ventures into his mid-30s, his offense has declined into the production that White Sox fans saw (.217/.325/.348 in 2020). He’s still one of the game’s better receivers, so it’d be like he never left. He’s a better hitter than Mathis (.575 OPS) or Hedges (.521), although the latter’s free-agent availability relies on Cleveland non-tendering him. Zunino might be the new Mendoza, as he hit .161 during his two years in Tampa Bay to lower his career average to .200. Molina would be new to backup work as a 38-year-old. He’d prefer to return to St. Louis, but a contender interests him above all else. The Mets, Yankees, Padres and Angels are supposedly involved.
Now 37, Suzuki’s offense has aged gracefully (.267/.325/.414 over 672 games in his 30s), while his defense has absorbed all the wear. It’s basically what happened with A.J. Pierzynski. Ramos’ OPS dropped below .700 last year, but he hit .288/.351/.416 in his first year with the Mets, so he might have rebound capabilities with a normal franchise. Romine had to play more than half of Detroit’s games due to Grayson Greiner’s struggles, and exposure didn’t suit him well (.582 OPS, only average defense). Kratz announced his retirement a couple weeks after the Offseason Plan Project launched.
Castro looked like a good fit for previous White Sox teams, and he still checks some boxes (lefty, decent defense) even if his 92 plate appearances with the Angels and Padres in 2020 weren’t his best (.188/.293/.375). Avila is wringing a lot of mileage out of his batting eye, owning a decent OBP (.328) over the last three years despite a terrible batting average (.184), León is what it looks like when that kind of batting average is supplemented by no other offensive skills (.177/.248/.280 the last three years), and his defense is no longer exceptional. Wieters went 7-for-35 in his limited 2020 sample. The latter two are switch-hitters, for what that’s worth.
- Austin Barnes (1)
- Anthony Bemboom (1)
- Victor Caratini (1)
- Curt Casali (1)
- Sal Perez (1)
- Jacob Stallings (1)
Barnes: Suggested by MrStealYoBase, who figured the Dodgers might want to loosen their catcher logjam by dealing their long-tenured backup. Barnes is a great defender with an OK bat, but the last time he backed up Grandal, he ended up usurping him in the postseason.
Bemboom: Suggested by beautox, who liked Bemboom’s production against righties in a very small sample in 2020, combined with reliably above-average receiving. He can be under team control for five seasons if everything works well.
Casali: Suggested by whitesoxjoey, who sees a good receiver with some pop getting blocked by Tucker Barnhart and Tyler Stephenson.
Caratini: Suggested by WilliamKin04, although I wonder if Willson Contreras is the catcher who gets moved, because the Cubs are going to need actual talent in return from whatever franchise-resetting trades they make, if they make them.
Perez: Suggested by rock_beats_papr, which is the boldest solution of the position by far, but it’s hard to imagine Jake Burger headlining the return for a guy who hit .333/.353/.633 last year, even if he’s entering his contract year. Given the Perez-Royals connection, “contract year” might not mean all that much.
Stallings: Suggested by iamkarnold, who saw a guy with a respectable bat (.256/.326/.380) and better glove (fourth-highest Catcher Defensive Adjustment) who might be too old (31 next year) and expensive ($1.7 million) for Pittsburgh’s long-term plans.
(Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)