Monday, February 10, 2014
Countdown to Camp: Catching
By Doug Padilla
Tyler Flowers (right) helped Chris Sale and the Sox pitchers post a combined sub-4.00 ERA last season.
With Chicago White Sox spring training set to begin Feb. 15 when pitchers and catchers report in Glendale, Ariz., we're taking an early look around the diamond.
Tyler Flowers and Josh Phegley have one more chance to prove themselves this season, otherwise the next phase of the White Sox’s restructuring will take place behind the plate.
And for those still disgruntled about the end of the A.J. Pierzynski era, it really is time to move past it. The White Sox weren’t going to bring back an aging Pierzynski for $7.5 million last season, and they weren’t even in a youth movement back then.
Now that they are going young, spending over $8 million on a 37-year-old catcher for this season was never going to happen.
Flowers knew he was in the unenviable position of being the guy who had to replace “the guy.” Adding to the challenge of replacing a fan favorite was a shoulder injury that eventually led to an early end to the season and surgery in September.
This season, White Sox fans might not be able to completely forget Pierzynski, but they should see some better offensive production from their catchers. That prediction is an easy one after the catching group combined to rank last in the American League in runs (47) and OPS (.564), second to last in hits (108) and third from the bottom in batting average (.196).
Not only does a healthy Flowers suggest better results in 2014, but a more experienced Phegley should help as well. Phegley batted just .205 last season with a .522 OPS, but key for him moving forward are the 204 at-bats of experience he received in 2013.
While both also have room for improvement behind the plate, there are some positives in that department. The White Sox starters were one of eight AL staffs with a combined ERA under 4.00, and the only one with a losing record in that group. When you add in the relievers, the entire pitching staff was one of nine AL clubs with a combined ERA under 4.00 and they again were the only team in that group that finished the season under .500.
Conversations with Flowers this offseason have revealed an edgier player who has completely poured himself into his offseason routine.
An interesting development in the catching scenario for 2014 is the arrival of Rule 5 Draft selection Adrian Nieto from the Washington Nationals. If Nieto doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, the White Sox are required to offer him back to his former team at half of his $50,000 selection price. It’s possible the Nationals would decline to pay $25,000 to get Nieto back, although then the White Sox would have to get him through waivers.
There aren’t any likely scenarios where Nieto breaks camp with the team, though. Even if he played well in the Cactus League, the White Sox probably won’t be willing to play him every day in the major leagues. Using him as a backup would stunt any development the 24-year old could make.
Even if Flowers won the job hands down in spring training, proving he was capable of catching six days a week, the White Sox might still go with non-roster invitee Hector Gimenez as the backup with Phegley returning to Triple-A Charlotte to get consistent playing time.
The White Sox figure to explore a deal with the Nationals where they could keep Nieto and send him to the minor leagues. But given a report in December that showed Nieto had a connection to performance-enhancing substances, there is no telling how much patience the White Sox might have with him if he struggles.
OUTLOOK: Flowers is expected to be 100 percent healthy by the start of camp and the additional dedication to his craft makes him the favorite for the Opening Day catching spot. Phegley struggled badly after he burst upon the scene last year. One thing about the Indiana native, though, is that after a short adjustment at each new level he reached, he began to settle in nicely. If Flowers and Phegley start to grade out evenly this season, Phegley is the better long-term fit because he comes at half the price and isn’t into his arbitration years yet like Flowers is.