Spring training cut sobering for Josh Phegley

Adrian Nieto benefits from reduction in the White Sox's catcher ranks

Throughout spring training, Josh Phegley made a point to not talk himself out of the starting catcher job. Even when Robin Ventura effectively named Tyler Flowers the No. 1 catcher, Phegley reestablished the plot:

Phegley wants to be a starter, and he said playing in a backup role would be something he would have to get used to. Ventura said the Sox will consider whether Phegley would be better served playing every day in Triple A.

"I've always been a starter, and that's my goal," Phegley said. "I don't want to be stuck as a backup my whole career, but Tyler did the same thing, backed up, and he learned a lot from that experience. It has helped him in the starting role, so hopefully I can make that same transition."

Phegley found out on Wednesday that he won't have to get accustomed to a bench role, because he's heading back to Charlotte even while the White Sox's backup job is still up in the air.

When asked what the Sox needed him to work on, Phegley hesitated to answer, and then talked around the issue (starting at 1:23).

Steve Stone was more blunt about it when talking to Dan McNeil and Matt Spiegel on The Score 670 that same day.

With Phegley, there was some thought he might actually win the job; it was kind of an open competition. But I think one of the biggest problems with Josh is ... he's got to refine his catching. I mean, he was missing fastballs in the zone. They were going to the screen. That's something that you can't have from a catcher.

The hope is that Phegley has at least internalized that reality, but it's understandable if it takes a day or two to register, because we've seen his stock fluctuate wildly over the last two years.

Entering the 2012 season, he was an offense-first catcher who struggled to hit, some of it due to early-career health problems and the Sox's typically aggressive promotion schedule. Then he won an International League Gold Glove in 2012, even though it flew in the face of his scouting reports, and he followed that up by raising his OPS at Charlotte nearly 300 points year to year. That was good enough to get a major-league starting job for the second half of the 2013 season. Fittingly, he gave the White Sox a hot start, and then he couldn't have finished any colder.

The results over the last two full seasons have provided a ton of mixed signals. If he gave the flattering evaluations and statistics more weight, then this news comes as more of a pretty stiff reality check -- especially since Adrian Nieto and Hector Gimenez remain in camp.

Merely losing a numbers game is one thing, but the timing of this demotion takes a power washer to Phegley's track record, and the objectives for 2014 now look more stark. In order to change some minds, Phegley will have to:

  1. Repeat his offensive production at Charlotte, or at least come close.
  2. Significantly improve his receiving.

At least if he wants to force the issue on his own merits. He'll theoretically be a foul tip away from returning to Chicago, which is reason enough to keep his head up, but sticking is a whole different animal.

Star-divide

The news of Phegley's reassignment is most beneficial to Nieto. It's good news for Gimenez, too, but he's a known entity who isn't on the 40-man. The White Sox know what they're getting there, and they're not under any obligation to revisit this option until they've exhausted every other idea.

Nieto is the mystery box. Since the Sox have to play him on their 25-man roster or risk losing him (either through waivers or the Nationals taking him back), the circumstances encourage blind, what-the-hell optimism. Based on the quotes from Dan Hayes' story, people around Camelback Ranch are finding reasons to like him:

"This kid made some real nice strides in 2013 in terms of development," [Rick] Hahn said.

"He’s trying to work on a game plan for the pitcher," [Mark] Parent said. "He shows energy and life during a game. … His ears have been open."

"Between innings he’s talking about certain things, certain situations, ‘Why’d you shake this pitch? What were you thinking here? Did I make the right call?’ " [John] Danks said. "Just wanting to learn, wanting to soak it all in. It has been fun to throw to him just because his excitement to be in the game."

Nieto doesn't look overwhelmed at the plate this spring (..267/.353/.333), but not many hitters do in Arizona, especially this time of year. The Sox have scored 33 runs over their last four games, and they've given up 44, so it's an NBA All-Star Game out there. Should the Sox decide to roll with Nieto behind Flowers when they leave Arizona, the decision will be based on nothing much better than a whim and a hope that he'll be a 2007 Jesus Flores kind of acceptable. Fortunately for everybody involved (besides Phegley, at least) this is the year they can afford to take roster risks.

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