Yasmani Grandal’s renowned batting eye had been undermined by problems with his lower half, because apparently two knee surgeries in a calendar shouldn’t be undersold when the subject spends half his time squatting. He hit .185/.294/.237 before back spasms/leg issues put him on the shelf last month, and the slugging percentage informs the OBP. It turns out that pitchers are less afraid to challenge one of baseball’s slowest players when he’s only good for an extra-base hit every 10 games.
The numbers from his first nine games rehabbing shows that he’s still as selective when the pitching is less precise. He’s hitting .360/.579/.600 with 13 walks against four strikeouts over 38 plate appearances. He’s also popped a couple of homers — one for Birmingham, one for Charlotte — which is probably more indicative of his impact upon returning than drawing walks against non-MLB pitching.
While Grandal’s been in the lineup just about every day, he’s barely caught. He’s been behind the plate for just 19 innings, moving from catcher to first after five, seven and seven innings in the three games he started there.
It’s hard to tell if this is reflective of Grandal’s condition the rest of the way, or if the White Sox are merely slow-rolling Grandal’s rehab stint in order to preserve a catching order that has worked out pretty well for them.
Surprisingly, the tandem of Seby Zavala and Reese McGuire has held its own since Grandal exited the game on June 11. What’s more, Zavala has started the bulk of the games.
Zavala’s production at the plate has been a pleasant surprise, although a 3-for-22 slump heading into the break reflects life with a 30-percent strikeout rate.
The defensive improvement is a better indicator of his ability to hold an MLB job. Zavala received well enough last year, but it wasn’t enough to offset massive struggles with blocking and throwing. This time around, the framing is now top-20 stuff, and he’s patched the holes elsewhere. Here’s how his Called Strikes Above Average compares, along with the passed balls and wild pitches when extrapolated to match 2021’s innings total.
He’s graded out a little better than McGuire in the receiving stats, with McGuire possessing the better throwing numbers. It’s probably not worth getting that granular over a partial season of data, but it backs up the general sense that Zavala is a lot sounder than he was when sharing time with Zack Collins last year.
Zavala is out of options, and since he’s already been outrighted once, he could choose to go elsewhere even if he cleared waivers (he wouldn’t). McGuire is also out of options, which is the reason why he was available in spring training for the stomachable price of Collins.
If Grandal is more physically capable than he was before his IL stint, then he gives the White Sox a left-handed bat their lineup sorely needs. There just isn’t an easy way to accommodate him. Either they risk losing a catcher who’s meeting/exceeding expectations when Grandal might not be the best bet to last the rest of the season, or they add to their teeming logjam at DH/first base.
Option 1: DFA Zavala
The case for: He’s a year and a half older than McGuire, his strikeout rate has cleared 30 percent at both Triple-A and the MLB levels in each of the last three seasons, and the defensive improvements could be a small-sample success. He could also just be healthier than ever after having some recurring wrist issues, which is another way to say he could get hurt again.
The case against: The White Sox are 13-7 when he starts, with the equal-to-McGuire defensive stats also showing up in the pitcher performance categories. His righty bat is a better complement if Grandal is able to generate more torque with his left-handed swing this time around, although he’s done most of his damage against righties so far. He won’t be arb-eligible for at least one more season, so he saves the White Sox a little bit of money going forward.
Option 2: DFA McGuire
The case for: As his sample sizes have grown larger, his production has dropped off:
- 2018: 33 PA, 146 OPS+
- 2019: 105 PA, 130 OPS+
- 2021: 217 PA, 78 OPS+
- 2022: 160 PA, 58 OPS+
He’s yet to homer for the White Sox, and he’s only had one close call, so it’s hard to see where any impact contact is going to come from. He’s hitting righties better than Grandal did, but not in a way that resonates (.252/.289/.311). He’s been as advertised defensively, but Zavala just happened to improve. Collins has been a non-factor for the Blue Jays, so a half-season of positive defensive contributions probably means the Sox got their money worth. He’s probably more likely to slip through waivers, but there’s a catching shortage across baseball.
The case against: The scars of the Collins/Zavala pairing last season are a little too fresh, and should Grandal have to go back on the IL, McGuire and Zavala make a lot more sense as a tandem than Zavala and Carlos Pérez, who’s having a tough July. He’s also been healthier than Zavala over his careers, so he’s better ballast against general positional injury risk.
OPTION 3: Carry three catchers
This may already be the way they’re heading given Grandal’s gentle workload and Tony La Russa’s comment late last week.
“Especially when we get [Yasmani Grandal] back, you look at the composition of our roster, it’s pretty tough to lock up the DH spot,” said La Russa, who divides the DH spot among corner outfielders Andrew Vaughn and Gavin Sheets and first baseman Jose Abreu and will want to use Grandal, his No. 1 catcher, in that mix when he returns from the injured list after the All-Star break.
It’s possible, even if it’s inelegant. The cleanest swap on a healthy roster would have Grandal taking Sheets’ roster spot, with Eloy Jiménez, Vaughn and AJ Pollock rotating in the corners, Adam Engel picking up more time in right, and Leury García providing the bench cover.
But there are a whole bunch of questions independent of Grandal’s own condition.
Would replacing Sheets be robbing Peter to pay Paul? This was easier to answer in the affirmative before Sheets finished the first half in a 1-for-20 slump. Sheets is the easiest to shuttle back down and back up if things don’t look right for one reason or another. (This question may also be irrelevant given the following issues.)
How much outfield can Vaughn or Jiménez play? Vaughn has only played outfield twice in the last month due to vague leg. Jiménez had taken the starts in left upon returning, but then he had a relapse of tightness in his surgically repaired leg, and he missed the whole Minnesota series.
How much outfield can Luis Robert play? Robert departed early during Friday’s game in Minnesota with lightheadedness. There wasn’t much in the way of specifics, except that La Russa made it sound like Jiménez was more likely to appear, and neither one did. Robert is supposed to see a specialist during the All-Star break, but if this condition is open-ended like vertigo and lingers into the second half, then Engel is going to be needed to handle the bulk of the duties in center.
Given all the uncertainty, maybe Robert or Jiménez goes on the IL, Grandal takes that spot, and the outfield picture rests an uncomfortable amount on a second-half surge by Pollock.. At least there’s a logical consistency, what with Pollock being Rick Hahn’s biggest move in addressing the lineup during the winter. He’ll have to dance with who he came to the dance with, unless or until the trade deadline offers the possibility of new partners.