The White Sox outrighted Kevan Smith to Triple-A Charlotte on Friday afternoon, and there are two ways to process the news.
The fun way: The 40-man roster was previously full. Now there’s an open spot for accommodating a prospect who is not yet in the system. All aboard the trade train!
The boring way: The White Sox are starting their spring cleaning early.
Alas, I’m guessing the second one applies here, especially after factoring in the amount of depth at his position. The White Sox already had three catchers on their 40-man roster who aren’t Geovany Soto, and Soto will need a spot if he makes it out of spring training with functioning knees. They weren’t going to carry four catchers, the 28-year-old Smith is the oldest of those without significant MLB playing time, and he had back problems last year.
Rick Hahn might’ve telegraphed the short straw during SoxFest:
Hahn doesn't mention Kevan Smith when talking about catchers.— larry southsidesox (@SouthSidelarry) January 28, 2017
Assuming Omar Narvaez and Soto break camp in good health, Smith drops off into a battle for the front office’s favor for third catcher, and his lack of a 40-man status can allow the White Sox to pick a new favorite or two. It’s a fairly even fight on paper, although the outrighting knocks Smith down a peg.
Taken by the Sox in the seventh round of the 2011 draft, Smith was already at an advanced age as his baseball career at Pitt was delayed due to playing football for three years at Pitt before switching his focus to baseball. He has the most accomplished bat of the three. He hit .260/.330/.370 at Charlotte in 2015, then got off to a blazing start that prompted a promotion to Chicago when Alex Avila pulled a hamstring. His back locked up before he could make his MLB debut, and that caused him to miss the next two full months. He wasn’t nearly as effective when he came back, although he did last long enough to make it back to Chicago and collect a pair of hits (against six strikeouts in 16 plate appearances).
The strikeouts could be a product of his injury-hampered season, or it could be due to his swing, which Larry said might be exploitable. At his best in the minors, he provided a useful combination of contact and some strength. He needs it, because he doesn’t do anything particularly well behind the plate besides working with pitchers.
The White Sox claimed Gonzalez from the Astros during a setback of a season. He earned a spot on Houston’s 40-man roster by hitting .321/.409/.378 across three levels in 2015 including 33 games at Double-A, but an ugly start to his 2016 (.158/.236/.205) resulted in being designated for assignment. Gonzalez found a performance level in between those two extremes at Birmingham, hitting .296/.358/.341 and striking out just 22 times over 152 plate appearances.
His receiving jumps off his Baseball Prospectus page. He posted 13 framing runs behind the plate while throwing out an average amount of runners (34 percent). That combination makes him a better use of playing time at Charlotte, although he could be challenged by...
Another 24-year-old taken from the Astros — the White Sox signed him in November — Pena has the weakest offensive resume of the three. He hit just .237/.275/.342 over 114 Double-A games in Houston’s system, and he didn’t distinguish himself in 15 games at Triple-A Fresno last year. He makes contact and hits the occasional homer, but the hit tool hampers his production.
His framing is only average, but he has the best arm of the three. He’s thrown out 44 percent of baserunners over his minor-league career, including a 17-for-34 performance at Double-A in 2016.
Comparing strengths, weaknesses and ages, and the Sox could have absorbed losing Smith to a waiver claim, so it makes sense to open the spot even if another move isn’t imminent. Gonzalez and Pena are superior behind the plate, and if Smith can’t hang with MLB pitching, they might stand an equal chance with the bat, too. Either way, both of the new(er) guys are a good use of the playing time at Triple-A. If they both show well in spring training and Soto survives, the White Sox may not yet be done shuffling Smith.