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White Sox trying to benefit from carousel of catchers

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If Dioner Navarro's peers are any indication, cost-effectiveness might be driving the decision to overhaul their backstops

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The White Sox have yet to announce the signing of Dioner Navarro, as the move is pending a physical, so let's resume our speculation.

Last winter, Navarro was blindsided by the addition of Russell Martin. Neither side could be faulted -- the Blue Jays acquired one of the best catchers in the game, while Navarro had a good season at the plate as a full-timer for Toronto in 2014. He wanted to keep playing 100 or more games, and when it became clear that he wasn't going to come close with the Jays, he hoped for a trade.

That didn't happen, and maybe it was to Navarro's benefit. The Blue Jays snapped a two-decade postseason drought by winning the AL East, and Navarro had his own success story by being connected to Marco Estrada's rotation-changing turnaround.

The "maybe" comes when we find out what's in it for Navarro to join the White Sox one week after they signed Alex Avila.

A straight platoon wouldn't seem to be enough, because Navarro is stronger against left-handed pitching, and White Sox catchers only had 145 plate appearances against southpaws last season ...

  • Tyler Flowers: 73
  • Geovany Soto: 63
  • Rob Brantly: 9

... which is well short of the 192 plate appearances Navarro accrued behind Martin. But Navarro is only a year removed from a satisfactory performance against same-sided pitching:

  • 2015: .237/.291/.333 over 151 PA
  • 2013-14: .275/.321/.405 over 573 PA

However, because Martin is also a righty and the superior catcher, Navarro didn't see much playing time against left-handed pitching. More than three-quarters of his plate appearances came against his weaker side, so, in this sense, a straight platoon would be an upgrade for his performance, especially on a one-year deal.

And seeing Avila as the other catcher might not unsettle Navarro the way Martin did. Avila played poorly over 67 games due to injuries and lost his grip of the future in Detroit to James McCann. Yet Avila came to Chicago with intentions of gaining a more even split, albeit presumably with Flowers at the time of his announcement. Without hearing from the parties involved on the Navarro signing, and only going off of Avila's quotes and career trajectories, my first thought is that Navarro could get 90 starts.

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The other thing we don't know is the money involved, but based on the way the catchers market has spun, it could very well be the biggest catalyst in the shift from Flowers.

Catchers are flying off the board this winter relative to other positions. Navarro has an argument for being the most effective hitter among his peers, but he wasn't able to distinguish himself from the others with his limited opportunity in Toronto in 2015.

Old New PA BA/OBP/SLG wOBA FRAA bWAR fWAR
A.J. Pierzynski ATL ATL 436 .300/.339/.430 .333 -13.7 1.6 2.1
Geovany Soto CHW LAA 210 .219/.304/.406 .311 -2.3 1.0 1.1
Chris Iannetta LAA SEA 317 .188/.293/.335 .302 13.7 0.7 1.7
Alex Avila DET CHW 219 .191/.339/.287 .306 -10.6 -0.1 0.3
Hank Conger HOU TB 229 .229/.311/.448 .329 2.0 0.4 0.5
Dioner Navarro TOR CHW 192 .246/.307/.374 .296 -3.1 0.7 0.5
Brayan Pena CIN STL 367 .273/.334/.324 .295 -8.0 0.4 0.2

As a result, it seems like the league is more or less regarding them as interchangeable parts. All but Conger were free agents, and all but Pena received one-year contracts, with not much separation between the high end (Iannetta at $4.25 million) and the low end (Avila and Pena, $2.5 million) in terms of average annual value.

Maybe Navarro found a team later than the others because he demanded more money, but if his base salary ends up starting with a "3," it becomes more clear why the Sox wouldn't tender Flowers for MLB Trade Rumors' projection of $3.5 milliion -- especially since he exceeded his projection by a considerable amount last season.

Underscoring this point further is the return that Houston received for Conger in a trade with Tampa Bay: cash considerations.

Conger has selling points, most notably as a switch-hitting catcher who pounded right-handed pitching last year (.892 OPS!). But he also carries a potentially fatal flaw, as he threw out just one of 43 baserunners in 2015. So even though Conger's only projected to make $1.8 million, the Astros could only get value by selling him.

If that was all Houston could get for Conger, then maybe Flowers would have been difficult to move. The White Sox certainly wouldn't have leverage, but they might have a headache from trying to finalize the Navarro deal. I wouldn't blame him if he wanted a firm understanding of the catcher situation based on his experience last season.

So I'm guessing the White Sox got Navarro at a good price, especially relative to what they might've been obligated to pay Flowers. If Navarro ends up costing something like $5 million, then I'll return to not understanding the urgency.

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One more note on Conger: Ben Lindbergh at FiveThirtyEight dug into Conger's throwing stats and discovered that his 2.3 percent success rate gunning down runners was the result of a perfect storm: sluggish pop time, low velocity, and a pitching staff that didn't pay much attention to runners.

Conger started the season 0-for-5.

He finished the season 0-for-37.

In between, on May 31, he threw out J.B. Shuck.

Lindbergh goes into the details.

Conger got the throw off more quickly than usual (pop time of 2.01 seconds) with just a little more juice than usual (77.6 mph). But he also had help from Shuck. The runner’s speed was in line with the MLB average for attempted steals of second, but he got a bad jump, which isn’t visible in the video. Shuck’s first step was slow, and his primary and secondary leads — his distances from the first-base bag when the pitch was released by pitcher Josh Fields and caught by Conger, respectively — were between half a foot and a full foot off the league average. As a result, it took him almost two-tenths of a second longer than the typical runner to reach second. That slow start might explain why Shuck has been a bad base-stealer overall, going 7-for-12 last season and 19-for-27 over the past three years.

It took a perfect confluence of events — a fast Fields delivery (1.33 seconds), a bad jump by Shuck and an accurate, unusually rapid release from Conger — to put the catcher on the scoreboard. And the Rays just made him a trade target.

Sometimes it's like White Sox position players only exist to make others feel better about themselves.