It’s Sunday and, for White Sox fans, that conjures up images of the "Sunday Lineup", in which Ozzie empties his bench and shuffles his lineup. A usual cornerstone of such lineups is AJ Pierzynski getting a deserved day off and the backup catcher getting the start.
Finding a suitable backup for AJ has long been a bit of a mess. Most recently, Kenny Williams signed Toby Hall to a two-year deal prior to the 2007 season. The idea was good – Hall is a righty and, while not a defensive maven, his offense against lefties should have been an ideal complement to AJ. Unfortunately, late in 2007 Spring Training, Hall suffered a labrum tear and separation in his throwing shoulder and the theory never translated into reality.
This year, there’s no clear front-runner for the role of backup catcher. Kenny has resisted the temptation to bring in a veteran such as Paul Lo Duca and instead appears to be satisfied to let a mix of retreads and youngsters fight it out.
And Ozzie has echoed this sentiment:
So, it looks as if the reserve role will be played by Chris Stewart, Donny Lucy or Corky Miller. Cole Armstrong is a left-handed hitter, so he probably won't back up Pierzynski, while Guillen admitted that top catching prospect Tyler Flowers would become the team's starter if something happened to Pierzynski.
While it’s nice to know that somebody must be reading Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA when determining that Flowers should be the starter if AJ goes down, it’s hard to see a catcher being handed a starting major league job who can’t really catch that well and who hasn’t done anything above high A ball. Be that as it may, that assertion still doesn’t solve who will be the backup. So let’s go through the six (less than inspiring) in camp candidates after the jump, starting with the man already on the 40 man roster and then moving on to the non-roster invitees.
Cole Armstrong: This 25 year old was acquired prior to the 2006 season via the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft. He profiles as a backup in the majors – so problem solved, right? Not quite. As Merkin notes above, while like all catchers Armstrong throws righthanded, he bats lefty and thus is ostensibly less than suitable as a backup to the lefthanded AJ. However, as Sox Machine pointed out to me in a recent conversation, AJ has actually hit better against lefties than righties the past two seasons, so (assuming that's trend) having the two of them on the same team isn't so ridiculous. He’s a good defender and he’s got a bit of pop but he doesn’t hit for average and doesn’t get on base. His PECOTA projection for 2009 is .193/.238/.299.
Tyler Flowers: This 23 year old was acquired in the offseason via the Javier Vazquez trade. Both Kenny and Ozzie say he’ll be the starter if AJ gets hurt – so, again, problem solved, right? Well, not quite. While he’s a catcher, he’s really not that good at it. A large part of that shortcoming is that he played sparingly at the position in 2006 and 2007 due to injury. His bat, however, is legit - great power and excellent plate discipline. While this righty's PECOTA projection of .247/.340/.410 actually is superior to AJ’s, he’s never played above A ball and needs serious work at catcher. Having him play infrequently as a backup would stunt his defensive growth.
Chris Stewart: Some fans may remember this guy as he was drafted by the White Sox and made his major league debut for them in 2006 before being traded to Texas. He had a couple cups of coffee for the Rangers and Yankees the past two seasons but the 27 year old righty is now back as a non-roster invitee. He’s a plus defender with an excellent arm. However, he can’t hit worth a lick. His PECOTA projection is .219/.279/.313. A leading candidate.
Donny Lucy: Some fans may also remember Donny as he had a cup of coffee with the team in September 2007. His age 25 season, however, ended early in Charlotte due to a severe knee injury. This 2004 second round pick does have a good glove and arm and he actually ran quite well, too, before his injury. But his bat is simply not that good (no 2009 PECOTA projection available). He was outrighted off the 40 man roster after the 2008 season – and no team bothered to pick him up. That should tell you something. Is discussed as being in the mix but is a huge question mark coming off injury.
Corky Miller: What to say about this guy. First, his name is Corky. I mean, seriously? Second, he’s 33 and his career line is .176/.264/.290 in sporadic play over the last 8 seasons. He’s a good defensive catcher (sense a pattern?) but that line is pretty ugly – and we don’t need PECOTA to tell us what to expect. Still, a leading candidate.
Francisco Hernandez: Signed by the Sox out of the Dominican in 2002, this switch hitter is a solid defender with a good arm but his offensive skills have never been more than just adequate. Having never played above A ball, he's not a serious candidate and, at 23, it’s now or never for him to produce in the minors. And, unfortunately for him, Flowers now is likely to be taking playing time from him at Birmingham further making that never more probable.
My take is that this tallest midget contest is wide open – and I wouldn’t rule out other candidates appearing as rosters are trimmed – but Chris Stewart, due to his defensive prowess and familiarity with some of the pitchers and organization, is the current leader. Since the candidates are largely similar, it's likely that both spring training performance and rapport with the pitchers and coaching staff will be weighed heavily.