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.
- Zack Collins (29 plans)
- James McCann (7)
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.
- Tyler Flowers (27)
- Austin Hedges (2)
- Jeff Mathis (2)
- Yadier Molina (1)
- Mike Zunino (1)
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.
- Kurt Suzuki (6)
- Erik Kratz (4)
- Wilson Ramos (2)
- Austin Romine (2)
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.
- Jason Castro (12)
- Sandy León (2)
- Alex Avila (1)
- Matt Wieters (1)
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)
Was Narvaez released by the Brewers? I know he had a difficult year in 2020, but he handles the bat well is left handed and is almost average defensively. However, I would really like to get McCann back. Overpay and get him/Grandal some DH at bats. I feel that Giolito and McCann have great chemistry. Would hate to lose that.
Not yet. He is a candidate to be non-tendered, though.
What would be the likely financial/contract threshold at which McCann would not sign with another team? Seems unlikely he would settle for a platoon but I guess anything is possible this year. Which teams need catching?
Those that will spend? Phillies, Yankees, Mets, Angels, Braves.
Then probably at least a half dozen others who could stand to upgrade but might go fishing in the shallower end of the pool: Brewers, Rangers, Astros, Cardinals (if they don’t re-sign Molina), Red Sox, D-backs, Rockies.
Invest in the future, grab McCann but not at the expense of filling the gaps.
If injuries and failed potential thins the herd, we have enough talent. If we are lucky enough to have too many good players at DH, 1st and C, then we trade in the summer.
I know its a new concept for JR but they need to take advantage of having too much talent instead of having almost enough. That is what got us in rebuild mode 2016.
I wonder if the LaRussa connection makes a Molina signing more likely.
I hope not. I can see it now, Molina gets a couple hits one day, then the next day Grandal has a passed ball, and then LaRussa plays his guy Molina for the next nine days in a row.
How about sign McCann and trade Grandal for Blake Snell or Sonny Gray and Hunter Greene or another front line pitcher?
No, and for lots of reasons. McCann looks great when deployed strategically, but there are still legitimate reasons to doubt what he can do when overexposed to everyday duty. Grandal provides a sorely needed skill set to the lineup with his batting eye. The pitching needs can be addressed through free agency without giving up assets other than money.
Also, you’d still need a second catcher, which was the crux of the post.
I somewhat agree, but McCann is looking for starter money and is relying on a team to regard him that way. He wouldn’t agree with your comment about everyday duty. Also, I don’t believe the Sox will give up on Collins without giving a #1 draft choice at least a fair chance with 60-70 games. I do think Reinsdorf will spend if the right opportunity presents, but they still have to address right field and the bullpen and I doubt they will just buy those AND a front line pitcher. Anyway, I hope you are right. I just don’t want them to settle for a back of the rotation starter or other lesser pieces and this seems like a way to afford a front line starter and right fielder.
Yes, I’m sure McCann thinks he can play every day, but his history suggests otherwise, as do his career numbers against RHP. Your plan of trading Grandal for pitching might strengthen the rotation but subtracts a valuable player in Grandal, which might not net an improvement to the team. Also, as to the specific proposals you mentioned, that type of deal would seem out of character for the Rays. As discouraging as it might seem, the upgrades to next season’s roster will likely depend on Reinsdorf’s willingness to spend.
There’s a reason Zack Collins doesn’t catch, he’s awful, Sox have to make a trade