Whatever's the opposite of "hotly contested," that describes the race for the White Sox's starting catcher job.
And whatever you think of Tyler Flowers, he's the guy who won it.
Robin Ventura said on Sunday that Flowers will open the season as the Sox's starter "unless something drastically changes," which I'd like to think is a verbal elbow to Rick Hahn's ribs.
That's not so much a knock on Flowers, because even the shoulder surgery doesn't alter his outlook to a recognizable extent, he still serves a purpose on a 25-man roster. Last year's early slump aside, he blocks well enough. He receives well. He keeps the trains running on time. The other catchers in camp might have better individual tools, but Flowers bundles all of them up into something pitchers want to throw to. Toss in the occasional Murder Time homer, and that's a backup catcher you can trust.
But Flowers is the face of the problem for two reasons:
- Flowers went virtually unchallenged.
- There aren't any other comfortable backup catchers.
Look down the list, and every option for a time-share is unsavory.
You don't want Josh Phegley to be your backup catcher. He throws better than Flowers, but he gave away a lot of that edge by fumbling the exchange or poor decisions. He framed pitches better than expected, but his receiving is still rough, and criticisms of his game-calling surfaced in a way that it never did for Flowers while he learned the staff.
That doesn't even factor in his bat. He hit worse than a Flowers who needed surgery, which he attributed to pressing. He's underperforming an outperformable Flowers this spring too, which he attributed to being "overanxious." He's still young enough to improve, but these shortcomings won't fix themselves while sitting five times a week.
You don't want Adrian Nieto to be your backup catcher, through no fault of his own (unless you count the 50-game suspension). He hasn't even spent time at Double-A, so take the note about improvement with Phegley and apply it to Nieto, but more so. The Rule 5 rules force the Sox to place him on the 25-man roster or offer him back to the Nationals, but Washington shored up its upper-levels catcher ranks by acquiring Jose Lobaton, so the Nats might be willing to work out a trade instead of merely taking Nieto back for $25,000.
You don't want Hector Gimenez as your backup catcher, because he was the backup catcher last year, and Ventura didn't want to play him even while Flowers was at his worst. All those machinations behind the plate that make him somewhat entertaining also contribute to his slow pitch-calling and worse pitch-framing. Here's how Baseball Prospectus grades out the catchers in terms of framing runs per 7,000 chances over their career, limited sample sizes and all:
- Flowers: 7.6
- Phegley: 4.0
- Gimenez: -1.5
So yeah, when you look at Flowers headlining the depth chart once again, and Gimenez having a shot at backing him up once again, this is a reasonable visceral reaction:
That's why I think there's something to the Francisco Cervelli rumors.
Hahn said during SoxFest that he didn't have an interest in acquiring a catcher who could hold a roster spot but wouldn't offer developmental upside, especially if he required playing time at the expense of catchers who could theoretically improve.
If you interpret this notion to the letter, than Cervelli -- 28 years old with a turbulent professional history and struggles against right-handed pitching -- doesn't fit a neat profile:
When you think of White Sox catching outside of who they have, think long term fit. That probably is not Cervelli— Scott Merkin (@scottmerkin) March 15, 2014
But if you believe the defensive metrics, then that changes the discussion. Cervelli is among the best pitch-framers in the game (career: 12.3 runs above average per 7,000 chances). BPro also grades him out as an above-average blocker, and his success rate with basestealers has fluctuated, but appears adequate.
Reading the Pinstripe Alley thread on the Cervelli-Gordon Beckham rumor, there doesn't appear to be a consensus on his worth. The post posited that such a trade is an "awful idea" for the Yankees, but others didn't see why Cervelli should have a significant asking price. I haven't seen nearly enough of Cervelli to know which side has a better shot at being right.
But when you compare Cervelli's chief flaw (starts hot, can't stay hot) against the shortcomings of the in-house catcher options, you can see why Hahn might want to give him a long look. The Sox don't have a guy behind Flowers who gives Ventura even one real reason to play him except "because he's there," or "because maybe..." if you're charitable.
Assuming Cervelli's skills have held up through a weird last couple of years -- broken foot, broken hand, Biogenesis scandal -- he brings something to the table on any given day. If a change of scenery brought a little more out of his bat, that's at least a backup catcher who could be played liberally over the next three years at a cost that's easy to absorb. That's not quite as good as "starting catcher of the future," but that's something of a "long-term fit" by the standards of a position. Look at what the Rays are doing with Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan.
I can't say with any certainty whether Cervelli himself fits that description, but Sox don't need to set their sights on a potential 120-game catcher to firm up a forecast for 2015 and beyond. Paying a stomachable cost to acquire a 20something catcher who doesn't need to explain why he's on the roster would be a sizable step in the same direction.