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White Sox turn page on costly catcher decision

Nothing forced the team to sign Dioner Navarro, which makes bad season even worse

Dioner Navarro was a disaster. There are no two ways about it.

When the White Sox acquired Navarro to replace Tyler Flowers -- Alex Avila signed before him, but Flowers was still in the fold — everybody knew they would be losing strikes, as the Sox went from one of the best receivers to one of the worst. The Sox wanted to gain offensive production from the position, and Navarro switch-hit .276/.328/.417 over the previous three seasons with the Cubs and Blue Jays.

I looked forward to the arguments between the value of strikes versus the value of hits. I have a sense of their weight, but I hadn’t seen it play out extensively over the course of the season, so the move piqued my curiosity, even if I didn’t understand the urgency.

Those arguments never materialized, because neither did Navarro’s bat. He was the worst of both worlds, losing more strikes than any regular catcher while hitting worse than Flowers did as a White Sox starter.

  • Navarro, 2016: .210/.267/.339
  • Flowers 2013-15: .228/.284/.372

This is the charitable comparison, too, as it includes Flowers’ injury-shortened 2013 while disregarding what he’s doing this year with the Braves (.265/.361/.430). Combine the surprising offense output with his usual bang-up job expanding strike zone, and Flowers is worth 2.2 wins this season according to Baseball Prospectus. Navarro, on the other hand, is the least valuable regular in baseball at -2.4 WARP. The Sox are approaching five lost wins of production because of a move that didn’t make sense on paper, whether in terms of productions, finances or future planning.

Navarro doesn’t approach the Adam Dunn/James Shields tier of mistakes, as it would take at least a half-dozen Navarros to tie up the same amount of payroll. He’s already off the books, as the Blue Jays didn’t require any additional money from the Sox while sending a mildly intriguing low-minors lefty reliever, Colton Turner, in return.

Still, it’s almost as troubling as a big-money mistake because nothing forced the Sox to do this. With Shields, you can see how the Sox ended up rolling those dice, as they were trying to plug a hole in the rotation before the market provided better options, and San Diego included a ton of cash. "We were desperate" isn’t a defense for a bad decision, but at least it suggests that the Sox could’ve done better at a different time.

With the catcher overhaul, this was supposed to be their good, careful, reasoned idea that was not dictated by market forces. Signing Avila, non-tendering Flowers and signing Navarro — that’s how they chose to open their offseason. At the very least, it was a curious plate to start improving the team, and Rick Hahn’s initial assessment of the trade-off does not look better with age:

"We feel like from a run-scoring standpoint we are stronger," Hahn said. "And, frankly, (on defense) there may well not be that significant of a difference from where we were in 2015."

BPro’s Fielding Runs Above Average metric says there was a very significant difference.

  • Flowers and Soto, 2015: 11.9 FRAA
  • Navarro and Avila, 2016: -25.1 FRAA

Navarro and Avila cost White Sox pitchers a boatload of strikes, especially low ones, and you didn’t even need to see it to know it, because Hawk Harrelson’s complaints about the strike zone increased exponentially this season. The Navarro signing also didn’t result in more thwarted caught stealing attempts, which wasn’t that big of a deal to begin with since the White Sox’ lefty-heavy rotation is a natural deterrent. Navarro did yield far fewer passed pitches than Flowers, but not nearly enough to offset all the strikes White Sox catchers hemorrhaged.

In the end, the severely pessimistic viewpoint won the day, with pnoles saying it was a failure before the Sox even played a game:

The Navarro signing would have been palatable had Flowers not been right there for the taking, but it's impossible to view this decision as anything but a straight choice between two players. The White Sox chose the one who's older, worse, slightly more expensive, probably less durable, and comes without a pre-existing positive reputation for working with most White Sox pitchers. Defenses of this move are rooted in the White Sox knowing something we don't about framing or conjecture that they can teach it to Navarro. Using data that's publicly available, it registers as a mistake.

Decision Grade: F

Results like these make pessimism the new pragmatism, because they reinforce the theme that Hahn and Kenny Williams would be better off doing nothing instead of trying to improve the team (Flowers and Soto have a 5.3 FRAA between them in 2016, even with injuries). When these are the conditions, it’s easy to be apprehensive about another offseason regardless of the direction. For instance, Hahn said the team’s course would be clear by their "first or second transaction," but based on recent history, that may already be two moves too many.