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White Sox avoid settling, at least at catcher

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Welington Castillo signing will eventually have company if he can last a couple of years

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody would have blinked if the White Sox rolled their 2017 year-end catching tandem into the start of the 2018 season. Omar Narvaez and Kevan Smith were replacement-level between them over the course of the season, but they were a watchable kind of replacement level, especially given the way they finished year. Their lines over the last two months:

  • Kevan Smith: .310/.341/.466 over 124 PA
  • Omar Narvaez: .293/.398/.391 over 109 PA
  • Total: .303/.368/.433 over 233 PA

If Smith and Narvaez could go from posting a .800 OPS over two months in 2017 to six months in 2018, that’d be a neat trick. Only four teams cleared that bar with their catchers this past season, and the league average was .726. If the White Sox wanted to spend a rebuilding year seeing how much of August and September was for real, I’d understand it.

Welington Castillo’s sudden presence explains the other side of the argument.

Look at Baseball Prospectus’ catcher metrics for Narvaez and Smith. Whether you judge them based on their framing, blocking or throwing, it’s all red ink. That might be an unfair characterization in one regard, as Smith’s framing could be rounded up to average. On the other hand, his blocking and throwing grades out as worse than Narvaez’s (whose receiving hasn’t made strides with more reps).

Banking on Smith and Narvaez is banking on two catchers with one definable strength between them. Narvaez can work a walk better than anybody on the Sox, but that skill is diminished by an inability to hit the ball over the head of outfielders with any regularity. If their BABIP dried up, whether due to luck or pitchers executing the book, there’s not much there.

Castillo, on the other hand, brings a long history of blocking and throwing well, as well as hitting the ball over the fence (career line: .259/.319/.428). The sudden surge of his framing numbers may be attributable to offseason work with Jose Molina, or maybe it’s a blip and he’s no better than Smith and Narvaez going forward, but his game as a whole is far sturdier than anything the Sox had.

Instead of crossing fingers with two iffy catchers, the White Sox now have something resembling MLB depth at the catching position. It’s easy to envision Narvaez and/or Smith being a decent backup, and the other being an enviable third catching option in Triple-A.

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The rest of the roster has a long way to go to match it, which is why it’s surprising to see Castillo end up with the Sox. They basically signed the catcher they would’ve signed if they were gunning for the division, and they didn’t even have to stretch for it. Compare his contract to the one Jason Castro signed for the Twins last year:

  • Castro: Three years, $24.5 million after 3.9 WARP across 2015-16.
  • Castillo: Two years and $15 million with a club option for $8 million after 3.7 WARP across 2016-17.

If Castillo’s performance with the Orioles represents a new standard rather than a peak, the Sox got a bargain. If he regresses a little, it’s still a fair price. If he hits a wall the way catchers in their early 30s often do, the last year is a club option, and he won’t interfere with any graduating minor-league catchers.

But let’s go with the first two outcomes, because we’ll have plenty of time for disgruntlement if Castillo flops. Those are the ones Hahn is counting on, and he laid out his vision for Castillo’s purpose in the post-signing conference call. For the next couple of years, Castillo would provide some veteran know-how behind the plate for both the pitching staff and fellow catchers, while allowing minor-league backstops like Zack Collins and Seby Zavala to develop on their own schedules.

That’s one potential course for Castillo’s career, but I see at least two more. If Castillo is performing well enough but not essential to the operation, he could be traded for a team needing competency at the position. It’s not a Derek Holland-type deal where trading him is the whole idea behind signing him, but I can see it.

The other one requires a bit more dreaming.

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Over the past few weeks, we’ve had a recurring discussion about the window of contention (aka “victory orifice” for those who have grown tired of hearing about “windows”).

Right now, the trajectory Hahn describes is along the lines of:

  • 2018: True rebuilding year.
  • 2019: A second wild card would require a lot of pleasant surprises that can’t be forced.
  • 2020: OK, now we’re talking.

The Castillo signing could be framed as an aspirational move by a team with designs on contending, which is why it was surprising to see the Sox land him in a rebuilding year. As it stands, Castillo is aboard to help the young pitchers and catchers line up for 2020. It’d be great if Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and others had somebody who could reduce the amount of baserunners they have to deal with, be it with extra strikes and/or strong throws to second.

However, if Castillo can replicate his Baltimore success next season, that’s one of those developments that make a big win-total jump in 2019 a little more tangible. A 2019 plan won’t require Collins or whomever joining the club and contributing immediately, which would be a tall order with all the other young players who would also need to figure out the big leagues around that time. Nor would it involve a new free-agent acquisition who would drain resources from elsewhere. In this scenario for 2019, getting contender-type production from catchers will only require the incumbents to merely look like themselves.

There’s still a lengthy list of positions that need to change their statuses in a similar fashion over the next calendar year to make a dark-horse contender argument hold water. Also, the last starting catcher the Sox tried signing as an immediate solution only made things worse, so we can’t be sure they’ve solved anything here yet. There should be plenty of things telling you to not get over your skis.

But as we continue talking about when the Sox can start shooting for contention in earnest, the Castillo signing is one to keep in mind. If the Sox indeed landed a starting veteran whose game was as advertised for a fair price, then the path to an accelerated curve is a little clearer than it used to be. And if the Sox’ pro scouting department can actually start delivering, that’s another point that didn’t exist before.