There's no denying that the 2016 White Sox's catcher situation was an abject disaster. In trying to upgrade the offense at the expense of the defense, Rick Hahn somehow downgraded both, and now the team is left with virtually no palatable options. It's a position that every plan in the South Side Sox offseason project has addressed to one degree or another. Here, I'll review these plans to try to shed some light on what the Sox might do to fill their backstop vacancy for 2017.
I'm going to look at who was the starting catcher in each plan's final roster based on the spreadsheet I made summarizing the plans. And looking at the spreadsheet, there's one catcher that stands out, far above all the rest:
Jason Castro (44 plans)
Out of 109 plans, an astounding 48 called for the Sox to sign free agent Jason Castro. He's listed as the starter in 44 plans, including mine, pnoles', Josh's, KenWo's, and Jimmy's. He's extremely popular in contending plans, although he made his way into several rebuilding plans as well.
Castro seems like not only a measurable upgrade, but also a realistic target, in part because the White Sox were infatuated with him in the past. We know for a fact that they contacted the Astros about Castro in October 2013 thanks to the St. Louis Cardinals. Hahn offered up Hector Santiago for Castro, and floated the idea of a three-way trade involving Peter Bourjos. (Adam Eaton was a nice consolation prize, but I digress.)
In the present day, the White Sox desperately need someone behind the plate, and going with a defense-first catcher is appealing for two reasons. First, a skilled catcher can improve the performance of the pitching staff. White Sox pitchers suffered greatly with Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro behind the plate, and a better framer could help them to live closer to, and further outside, the edges.
Second, a player with Castro's skill set is a good value because catcher defense still doesn't make much money in free agency. Castro has averaged 2.6 WARP over the last four years (per Baseball Prospectus), yet every plan gave him a 2-year or 3-year contract, with salaries ranging from $5-9 million per year. Even MLB Trade Rumors' top 50 free agents list pegged Castro's contract at 2 years, $15 million, while acknowledging that a third year is possible. If you believe BP's valuations, the Sox could get significant surplus value from a deal like that, and if they're contending, they'll need to save dollars wherever possible.
Of course, Castro wasn't the only catcher our community members looked at. Here are some other popular choices:
Brian McCann (11 plans)
One of the more common trade targets in general was the Yankees' Brian McCann, who appears to be available with the emergence of Gary Sanchez. McCann, the Keeper of the Unwritten Rules, is going on 33 and is still a proficient hitter and a good framer, although he's no longer elite like he once was. Five different plans proposed swapping David Robertson for McCann, while others offered prospects like Carson Fulmer or Zack Burdi for McCann and cash to cover some of the $34 million left on his contract.
Blake Swihart (8 plans)
Twelve different people traded for the Red Sox's former top prospect Blake Swihart, and eight anointed him the starting catcher. Not surprisingly, 11 out of 12 plans acquired him for either Chris Sale or Jose Quintana, as he's fallen out of favor in Boston and could probably be had in such a mega-deal. Swihart's star is fading, but he represents a high-upside gamble that a rebuilding team can afford to take.
Nick Hundley (7 plans)
Nick Hundley represents the same kind of mediocre filler the Sox employed last year—he's a decent hitter, a terrible defender, and is barely above replacement level in his nine-year career. Curiously, 4 of the 7 plans where he's starting are trying to compete, so the catcher problem will go unsolved another year. Here's hoping Zack Collins is a quick, quick riser.
Austin Barnes (6 plans)
Like Swihart, Austin Barnes usually served as a secondary piece in a Sale/Quintana trade, but with the Dodgers. Barnes has been raking at AAA and has had good minor league framing stats; the issue is that he's completely blocked as long as he and Yasmani Grandal are both in LA. He's actually acquired in 17 different plans, but is on the bench or in the minors for the majority of them.
Wilson Ramos (5 plans)
Talk about catastrophic timing. Wilson Ramos was set to be one of the diamonds in the rough of this year's free agent class. Then he blew out his ACL in late September, missed the playoffs, tanked his value, and has to miss the beginning of next season. Signing Ramos to a long-term deal at this stage is definitely risky, but he was one of the game's top catchers in 2016. Whether he's a fit for a White Sox team that has to either compete or get off the pot is a different question.
Matt Wieters (3 plans)
After a couple injury-plagued seasons, Matt Wieters accepted the Orioles' qualifying offer last year to rebuild his value. He finally stayed healthy in 2016, but his bat failed to show up once again, and his defense hasn't been a carrying tool for years. He's a second-tier catcher that will require a first-tier investment because of his power. At least he won't be getting a qualifying offer this time around.
The remaining plans toss around a lot of different possibilities for starting catchers, including Alex Avila, Tyler Flowers, Tom Murphy, Derek Norris, Welington Castillo, Elias Diaz, Austin Hedges, Jeff Mathis, Miguel Montero, Kurt Suzuki, and Tony Wolters.
Omar Narvaez made it to the bench in 64 out of 99 plans with a full roster, although nobody listed him as the starter, since most plans either signed a free agent or acquired a young catcher as part of a rebuild. Avila hung around as the backup in eight plans, and Barnes, Suzuki, and Castro each got multiple mentions as well.