From the "It's not easy being Tyler Flowers" files:
No. 1: He had another offseason surgery. Flowers is one of four White Sox on the mend after closing the season with a procedure:
The White Sox catcher already has pretty much full range of motion in his right knee and very little swelling after arthroscopic surgery to remove loose pieces of cartilage and take care of a baker's cyst.
No. 2: He acknowledged the ghost he's racing and will never catch. Scott Merkin talked to Flowers about his status on the team after his Flowersiest season to date, featuring a bat that slumped for weeks and framing numbers that shot up the catching leaderboard. He knows he's not the hitter than A.J. Pierzynski is, and he's not the fan favorite Pierzynski is, and so he doesn't even bother trying to make the offense comparisons the least bit flattering anymore:
"I guess we all just got spoiled with A.J. [Pierzynski] being here, hitting .300 with 28 homers, and it would be nice to contribute more offensively."
Pierzynski hit .300 once for the White Sox. He hit more than 20 homers once for the White Sox. These did not happen in the same season.
Whatever the case, Flowers hit .239/.295/.356 with a 29 percent strikeout rate in 2015. That's not good, but neither is the average major-league catcher (.240/.303/.379). And despite Flowers' not-at-all-fun-to-watch approach, he's close enough to average to allow his defense to make him a playable catcher overall:
2015 leaders in framing + blocking runs. Framing accounts for most of the variance. Posey helped most by blocking pic.twitter.com/EMdb1EBZQi— Baseball Prospectus (@baseballpro) November 2, 2015
Flowers is a top-three catcher when it comes to receiving pitchers. As Ron Darling told us, pitchers won't care what a catcher does at the plate if he helps that much behind it. Since Chris Sale only throws to Flowers, and since Carlos Rodon and John Danks were vastly more successful with Flowers behind the plate, the Sox seem to share that viewpoint. Understandably, so does Flowers, in a quote that might irk those who already don't like him:
"My expectation is to be the starter again and continue to improve on what we've done the last couple of years with me behind the plate and our staff in place. I guess we all just got spoiled with A.J. [Pierzynski] being here, hitting .300 with 28 homers, and it would be nice to contribute more offensively. Ultimately, the catcher's job is behind the plate with the pitchers, and I haven't fallen short in that aspect."
Life is a lot easier for everybody when the backup catcher can outhit Flowers, and Geovany Soto cleared that bar by enough of a margin to give the Sox a working tandem. Together, they provided middle-of-the-pack offense for the catching position, and since Soto wasn't a poor receiver himself, you could call them a top-half combination overall.
Can the Sox do better than Flowers? Certainly. Do the Sox have bigger holes elsewhere? Certainly. They saw the league's worst offense from second base and third base, and Avisail Garcia's defense in right field undermined his middling contributions from his bat. With such a paucity of catchers around the league -- Flowers could've easily started for at least five other teams with his bat alone -- upgrades are easier to pursue elsewhere.
The general managers of South Side Sox agreed, with more than 65 plans in the offseason project settling on Flowers as the starting catcher.
But it's still worth looking at possibilities at the position, because even if you're fully on board with Flowers' value, the Sox still need to find him a partner. Soto filed for free agency, and neither Rob Brantly nor Kevan Smith have risen above third-catcher status. If they pass on re-signing Soto, perhaps they can look for a catcher who has enough upside to make him a starting possibility at some point.
In-house options (46 plans)
- Geovany Soto: 35 plans
- Rob Brantly: Nine plans
- Kevan Smith: Two plans
Soto is a free agent, but better than one-third of the plans liked what he gave the Sox as a more offense-oriented option behind Flowers, and wouldn't mind having him back at a similar price. The Sox have until the weekend to keep him from the open market. Brantly and Smith were more the result of cost-cutting to create budget room elsewhere.
Turn back the clock (seven plans)
- A.J. Pierzynski (AHerguth, beautox, ChiSoxCharlie, DaBears05, eyrepuppy, MadManx, SoxFinFan)
Here's where I note that White Sox pitchers have plunked Pierzynski three times in 29 plate appearances since he left the Sox. That's tied for the most with the A's, who have had 75 chances. An uneasy alliance with Flowers would be fun to write about.
Major free agent (eight plans)
- Matt Wieters (baseballnut23, chisox100, GreekSox23, Hefty9, Killah_Priest, Munizzi23, rl_boiler, rspata)
I expected there to be a little more enthusiasm about Wieters, who is the best catcher on the market with a bullet. But besides the idea that the Sox have bigger fish to fry, the Orioles are going to slap a qualifying offer on him, and he's had a rocky recovery from Tommy John surgery. The former might be a bigger concern than the latter.
Backup free agents (nine plans)
- Alex Avila (larry, SouthSideShaft, W H Taft)
- Chris Iannetta (Steve_Bidochka, Melido Perez)
- Brayan Pena (soxsanta, GoGoSoxFan)
- Michael McKenry (Chisoxfan83)
- Jarrod Saltalamacchia (GreekSox23)
None of these guys are terribly exciting by definition, but Avila and Iannetta were valuable contributors as recently as 2014. Both have on-base skills and pop from their platoon-advantage side, which is a selling point for the left-handed Avila when paired with Flowers. In Iannetta's favor, his catching skills improved dramatically from 2014 to 2015, while Avila's fell off a cliff. Iannetta made a concerted effort to improve his framing, while Avila's decline may have stemmed from the injuries he's suffered the last couple years. He turns 29 in January, although his body might be 43 by now.
Saltamacchia was DFA'd in a surprising move by the Marlins, then found a second life with the Diamondbacks, hitting .251/.332/.474 over 70 games. He's had a rocky history, and if he's not hitting, he's not contributing.
McKenry and Pena are journeyman on the other side of 30. McKenry has shown flashes of hitting in the minor leagues, as well as some of his MLB small samples. Pena used to be a backup catcher for starters who seldom rested, but he maintained his replacement-level production as a half-season starter in Cincinnati last year.
Trade for a starter (four plans)
- Jonathan Lucroy (eyrepuppy, MattDavid777, Muzzkill7)
- Derek Norris (ontherise219)
Like Wieters, I figured Lucroy might be more popular. He was an MVP candidate in 2014, and maintained productivity despite losing more than a month of the first half with a broken toe. He's above-average on both sides of the ball and under contract for just $9.75 million over the next two years. Given that bargain, this might be the best time to buy low on him, as a rebound from his injury would offset the days ticking off his contract.
Norris is just entering arbitration. He's a good hitter for a catcher, and he tightened up his throwing game so it's no longer a huge vulnerability, but the Padres have Austin Hedges looking for playing time, so he might be made available if the Padres seek more action this winter.
(One plan had Wilin Rosario, who would qualify for this category if he still qualified as a catcher. He finally played himself off the position last year, as he was long one of the league's biggest safety hazards.)
Trade for a backup
- Bryan Holaday (DutchySox)
Holaday was included in a larger trade headlined by Nick Castellanos, so this was more of an incidental acquisition. As it should be, since Holaday is closer to third-catcher material.
Young catcher trade (17 plans)
- Andrew Susac (Bfow24, Captain_Wookie, Lil Jimmy, mjarney89)
- Christian Vazquez (ontherise219, raBBit-, WSBill)
- Austin Hedges (AlbertBelleFan, asinwreck)
- Austin Barnes (Eagle Bones, fotGoodnessSakeTakeAPitch)
- Kevin Plawecki (IslandSox, PolishPrince34)
- John Ryan Murphy (smittywhitesox05)
- Tom Murphy (whitesoxmatt)
- Max Stassi (Shoeless_Joe_)
- Ramon Cabrera (GrinnellSteve)
- Blake Swihart (gibby32)
As somebody who wanted the Sox to trade for Francisco Cervelli in 2014, the group of "young catchers who could use an expanded role" still intrigues me. It's a strange situation in baseball -- plenty of teams can use catchers, but there are plenty of catchers who might have a hard time catching a break.
Susac headlines this list, as he hasn't figured out a way to transfer his minor-league numbers to a role behind Buster Posey in San Francisco, and thus could theoretically be traded before he is confined to a backup role for the rest of his career.
Vazquez, 25, had a shot to stake his claim as a viable option for the Red Sox, but Tommy John surgery sidelined him for all of the 2015 season, and now Boston top prospect Blake Swihart is trying to take ownership of the catching duties. Vazquez could be a buy-low candidate, although his throwing arm is his best asset as a catcher. Or maybe Vazquez stays and Swihart goes.
The Dodgers received Barnes (and Andrew Heaney and Kiké Hernandez) from the Marlins in the Dee Gordon trade, and the soon-to-be 26-year-old has a .300/.390/.439 career line over 500 minor-league games. He's also stuck behind Yasmani Grandal. Hedges is a 23-year-old defense-first catcher who struggled in his MLB debut (.463 OPS over 152 plate appearances), but could use a better shot than playing behind Norris provides.
Plawecki is a former top-100 prospect who is skilled behind the plate, and has a better minor-league hitting record than he showed in his rookie season with the Mets (.219/.280/.296 line over 258 plate appearances). He might have a hard time getting reps if Travis d'Arnaud stays healthy. That conditional clause might keep Plawecki in their plans, although it'd be more beneficial to the Mets if Plawecki were a better thrower, as that would provide a better complement for d'Arnaud, who couldn't stop the Royals in the World Series.
John Ryan Murphy has been one of those perpetually tradeable Yankee catching prospects, but unlike Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez, Murphy stuck as a major leaguer. Here's another case where he might be more valuable to another team than he is as a backup to Brian McCann since he doesn't turn 25 until May. The Yankees had opportunities to trade him before, but maybe he's available now if the Yankees aren't puffing up Sanchez's maturity as the prelude to dealing him instead.
The Rockies have churned through a lot of catchers over the years, and Tom Murphy (no relation) is the latest option. But McKenry is a free agent because the Rockies outrighted him, so I imagine they're making room for their newest potential starter.
Back to teams with a pile-up at catcher: the Astros and Stassi. The Astros have a working pair between Jason Castro and Hank Conger, and while Castro is a year away from free agency, he has a Flowers-like relationship to his pitching staff. Stassi is still something of a project at 24 -- injuries have robbed him of reps needed to improve his strike-zone control -- but he is considered a strong defensive catcher.
Cabrera is the most modest target of the bunch. GrinnellSteve's plan acquired him as a throw-in from the Reds in a deal involving Joey Votto, Zach Cosart and Brandon Phillips. He turns 26 today and has only 30 MLB plate appearances, but he's shown some ability to control the strike zone in the minors.