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Omar Narvaez takes advantage of White Sox catcher vacuum

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Disappointing performances by veteran catchers allow rookie to get long look

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Omar Narvaez started consecutive games for the second time in Tuesday’s night’s thrashing of Philadelphia, and he did what he’s been doing: blending in. He went 1-for-4 with a double, giving him a hit in 11 of his first 12 MLB starts. He has one hitless game. He has one two-hit game. The rest are one-hit games.

It’s a remarkably steady performance for a 24-year-old catcher without much high-minors experience, and it’s holding up under increased playing time. Robin Ventura has applied a fairly gradual stress test. Since making his debut on July 17, here’s how many days he’s gone between starts:

4-8-2-1-2-1-1-0-1-2-0

The walk rate has leveled off — he drew seven over his first seven starts, and none since — but otherwise, he’s good for seeing his share of pitches and making contact, some of which results in hits.

The bigger issues are defensively, where it looks like he’s a catcher tasked with receiving really good stuff for the first time. The good news is that Narvaez doesn’t look as rough as Adrian Nieto, which is the first bar for underprepared catchers.

Moreover, unlike Nieto, was thrust into MLB playing time when a natural timetable would have put him a couple years away, Narvaez is not being contrasted against one of the league’s best receivers. There was often a massive gap between Tyler Flowers and his backups -- not just Nieto, but Hector Gimenez and Josh Phegley, too — which made it difficult to get away from Flowers when there was no offensive upside, which, in turn, made a lot of Sox fans (and the front office) more fatigued than was warranted.

Narvaez doesn’t have that problem with Dioner Navarro, who had done the bulk of the work cornering White Sox pitchers into the league’s smallest strike zone while hitting a miserable .211/.267/.332. Narvaez isn’t providing much — if anything -- of a framing upgrade, but he’s clearing another low bar set by his fellow catcher. That allows him to try catching the pitchers with the best stuff. His test drive with Chris Sale didn’t go so well, but he appears to have found a fan in Carlos Rodon.

Rodon had praised Narvaez even before shutting down the Phillies on Tuesday. From a Dan Hayes story on Aug. 15:

Pitcher Carlos Rodon agrees with Salas and said he has quickly developed a nice rapport with Narvaez. Narvaez has caught each of Rodon’s three starts since he returned from the DL late last month (Rodon has a 3.44 ERA in that span) and the two also briefly worked together at Single-A Winston-Salem in 2014. In those two games, Rodon allowed an unearned run and struck out 10 in 6 2/3 innings. As much as Rodon likes throwing to Navarro and Avila, he hopes the White Sox keep Narvaez around when the latter comes off the DL.

"We’re always on the same page," Rodon said. "Don’t get me wrong, the other guys are great. They’re awesome, excellent. But I just feel really comfortable with Omar. He just calls well. I just see the glove big. I’m just comfortable with him."

Then Rodon went out and threw 6⅔ scoreless innings against Philadelphia, and credited Narvaez with an in-game adjustment by using his slider as a backdoor offering to righties:

"That's huge," Rodon said. "The slider wasn't working too good down and in, they'd take it, so Omar set up a tad outside and just brought it back in. It was nice. Had something to gauge off of to get that slider off the outside corner and it worked out well."

"We were like, 'Let's do it.' We won't lose anything," Narvaez said of the backdoor slider. "If we don't command one pitch, we can do another pitch. That was pretty nice."

Narvaez has caught all five of Rodon’s post-injury starts, and with stable results.

Date Opp IP H R ER HR BB K Pit/Str GSc
July 31 MIN 6.1 8 5 5 2 2 7 99-68 42
Aug. 6 BAL 6 5 2 1 0 2 7 106-60 61
Aug. 12 MIA 6 3 1 1 0 3 4 122-73 63
Aug. 18 CLE 6 8 2 2 0 0 5 100-61 53
Aug. 23 PHI 6.2 3 0 0 0 1 4 109-71 71

As was referred to in the first story, Narvaez has become conspicuous at a telling time for the White Sox. He’s on the roster because Alex Avila went on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, and he started getting more run only when it became evident that Avila wasn’t coming back anytime soon.

Now Avila is rehabbing again, starting consecutive games at Charlotte Monday and Tuesday. In the latter game, he drew two walks before being replaced at catcher in the sixth, and with no event in the game log suggesting an injury, it seems like a planned exit. With Avila, though, one can’t be certain.

Should Avila survive his assignment in Charlotte, it should force the Sox’ hand, as a locked-in DH (Justin Morneau) and shaky bullpen make three catchers hard to carry. If the Sox have to round it down to two catchers before rosters expand, there isn’t an "easy" choice.

If they base it off minor-league options: Narvaez heads down to Charlotte for 10 days. However, that seems pointless at this point in the season, as Narvaez is the only one they’re evaluating for 2017, and Ventura seemed to say as much:

Alex Avila (hamstring) is doing his rehab at Charlotte, but it remains to be seen how much of the catching workload he’ll handle when he gets back because left-handed hitting rookie Omar Narvaez will continue to play.

"You want to see as much of him as you can,’’ Ventura said.

If they base it off performance: The Sox would just DFA Navarro, or trade him for cash considerations if he cleared waivers.

If they base it off stability: The Sox should just DFA Avila, because as bad as Navarro has been, he stands a much better chance of staying healthy through September than Avila, or Kevan Smith for that matter. (Navarro also provides a right-handed complement, for what that’s worth in a non-contending September.)

None of these options would cause a ton of concern, because the Sox are likely to reset the position all over again, as catcher is one of the few deep markets over the winter. There are free agents like Wilson Ramos, Matt Wieters and Jason Castro, and Brian McCann is a good bet to be traded.

A Narvaez demotion, however, would be the only pointless course of action. He’s a third catcher on a sound depth chart, but with his handedness, batting eye and encouraging game-calling reports, he stands a chance at offering more. Based on the Sox’ action and words, the organization appears intent on finding out for themselves over the final month.