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Deep Dive: Catcher Edition, Part 2

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Choose your poison: Sluggers who can’t catch, or fielders who can’t hit

Minor League Baseball: Southern League-All Star Game
Helpful Hardware Man: Zack Collins, seen here after winning the Southern League Home Run Derby, is the ninth-ranked White Sox prospect according to MLB Pipeline.
Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the White Sox organization. Each position will be a four-part series:

  1. Depth in the lower levels (Dominican through Kannapolis)
  2. Depth in the higher levels (Winston-Salem through Charlotte)
  3. Under the Radar-type detail on one of the White Sox players at that position
  4. Free-agent options at that position, plus sneak peeks into available players in the upcoming 2019 MLB Draft.

Now, let’s focus on the catching depth in the organization by providing small bits of information on players who caught for Winston-Salem, Birmingham, and Charlotte.


Charlotte Knights

Kevan Smith
6´4´´
230 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 30

Smith has spent each of the last three seasons splitting time with Charlotte and Chicago. As a result, he’s not a lock to begin the 2019 season with the White Sox. He hit .268/.331/.411 for Charlotte in 2018 with four homers, 16 RBIs, eight walks and 18 strikeouts over 112 at-bats. He earned his promotion on June 5 to Chicago, where he hit .292/.348/.380 with three homers, 21 RBIs, 10 walks, and 18 strikeouts over 171 at-bats. He thrived in September, as he improved his launch angle: .333/.415/.556, with two of his home runs.

Smith seems best suited in a platoon role; he hit .438/.481/.625 against southpaws and just .236/.293/.285 against righthanders at the major league level. Smith’s a decent defender, but his Achilles heel is his inability to stifle the running game; he thwarted just nine of 66 (13.6%) combined stolen base attempts during his stints in Charlotte and Chicago. If the White Sox can actually trade Welington Castillo during the offseason, Smith should be able to again team with Omar Narvaez to form a nice offensive (but defensively-challenged) platoon for the White Sox. If not, Smith will either return to Charlotte to begin the 2019 season, or find himself traded in order to make room for an additional spot on the 40-man roster.

Seby Zavala
5´11´´
215 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 25

Zavala had a fairly uneven year with Birmingham and Charlotte. He started off really well with the Barons, hitting .315/.411/.616 in April, with six homers and 19 RBI in just 73 at-bats. However, because of a nagging wrist injury that sapped his production the rest of the year, Zavala’s results were relatively pedestrian afterward. With that said, he did earn a promotion to Charlotte in June due to a combination of his hitting abilities and improved defensive prowess. He hit .271/.358/.472 with 11 homers, 31 RBIs, 27 walks and 65 strikeouts in 199 at-bats with Birmingham; for Charlotte, he hit .243/.267/.359 with two homers, 20 RBIs, six walks and 44 strikeouts in 181 at-bats.

With improved health, Zavala’s numbers should see an increase in hitting-friendly Charlotte. The White Sox will have to protect him in the 40-man roster in order to avoid losing him in the Rule 5 Draft. Providing they hold on to Zavala, he should spent time with Zack Collins behind the plate at Charlotte, but should get plenty of at-bats at first base and/or DH as well. Zavala threw out 32.7% of attempted base stealers in 2018.

Brett Austin
6´1´´
210 pounds
Bats: Both
Age: 26

Austin, as a fourth-round pick, is the last remaining hitter from the White Sox’s 2014 MLB Draft class. He’s spent far more time on the DL than he has on the field over the past couple of years, culminating in just 34 at-bats this year with Charlotte. He hit .235/.381/.294 in those at-bats, generally improving upon his five-year career line of .211/.296/.328.

Austin is known as a good defensive catcher and game-caller, and his ability has to throw out base stealers has improved greatly over the past couple years (28-for-68, 41.2% in 2017-18). However, his inability to stay on the field and his relatively weak hitting have now shifted Austin into an organizational role. While there is a possibility he returns to Charlotte, a greater potential exists that he’ll begin 2019 with Birmingham instead due to the expectations that higher-rated prospects Collins and Zavala will man catching duties for Charlotte. This only will happen, of course, if Austin avoids getting released during the offseason.

Dustin Garneau
6´0´´
200 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 31

Garneau has now spent parts of four seasons in the majors with the Colorado Rockies, Oakland A’s and White Sox; in 2018 he went 1-for-2 after getting called up by Chicago when Smith went on paternity leave. In 252 career MLB at-bats, Garneau has hit just .194/.269/321. In 139 at-bats for Charlotte this year, he actually did quite well: .252/.340/.468, with seven homers, 22 RBIs, 16 walks and 38 strikeouts over 139 at-bats. He was recently optioned, so he’s now off the 40-man roster.

Although he did quite well in the organization in 2018, Garneau is at a disadvantage because of the emergence of Zavala and Collins, the presence of Austin, and perhaps the emergence of Yermin Mercedes as well. Garneau, I believe, would have the makings of an excellent bullpen or pitching coach (if not a manager) someday, as he’s shown fine leadership abilities. However, with his age, he definitely seems like the odd man out here.


Birmingham Barons

Zack Collins
6´3´´
220 pounds
Bats: Left
Age: 24

Collins had a decent year at pitching-friendly Birmingham, but still had frustrating issues with contact and defense. For the year, this former first-round pick hit .234/.382/.404 with 15 homers, 68 RBIs, 101 walks and 158 strikeouts over 418 at-bats. He hit .242/.390/.433 against righthanders while hitting just .212/.357/.317 against southpaws, so a future catching platoon with Zavala appears imminent unless the Sox find ways to get them both playing at the same time.

A far more interesting split is seeing the damage Collins did with Eloy Jimenez batting behind him, compared with everyone else. In 48 games with Eloy batting directly behind him, Collins hit .291/.391/.503; otherwise, he hit just .198/.339/.340. Thus with proper protection in the lineup, Collins still can be quite a hitter.

His defense is still a work in progress, although he did reduce his passed balls a bit. Opponents ran like gangbusters against him, swiping 93 bases in 74 games; Collins did throw out runners 29% of the time. I have him projected to begin the season with Charlotte — perhaps combining with Zavala and/or Mercedes in rotating catcher/DH/1B roles in order to ensure proper playing time for everyone involved.

Alfredo Gonzalez
6´1´´
225 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 26

González spent nearly an equal time with Charlotte and Birmingham in 2018; in Charlotte, he struggled to the tune of .193/.288/.211 in 109 at-bats, with no homers, five RBIs, 13 walks and 37 strikeouts. For Birmingham, González hit much better: .298/.342/.413 with two homers, 12 RBIs, six walks and 26 strikeouts in 104 at-bats. He even had a short three-game stint with the White Sox, getting a run-scoring single in the process.

González also gave up an ungodly number of passed balls (46) in his 66 games behind the plate this year, but did throw out 36.1% of attempted base stealers. I believe he’s now a minor league free agent, so if he re-signs with the White Sox, I have him returning to Birmingham.

Casey Schroeder
6´2´´
225 pounds
Bats: Both
Age: 25

Schroeder suffered through an injury-riddled campaign in 2018 for Birmingham. He was hitless in his seven at-bats, walking twice and striking out thrice in the process. Birmingham was a bit of a stretch for him, considering he hit just .201/.282/.388 for Kannapolis the year before. Schroeder threw out just one of six attempted base stealers last year, and has been successful just 22% of the time during his four-year minor league career. Schroeder is eligible for the Rule 5 draft, but any front office drafting him, based on his injury history and career .225 average, will need to submit to immediate drug testing. He’s on the outside looking in for a roster spot in the White Sox organization, but with the history of injuries to catchers last year from Winston-Salem to Charlotte (e.g. Brett Austin, Daniel Gonzalez, Nate Nolan), Schroeder still may find a spot either in Birmingham or Winston-Salem.


Winston-Salem Dash

Yermin Mercedes
5´10´´
175 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 26
Additional position: First Base

First off, looking at videos of Mercedes, he’s far closer to 215 than his listed 175 pounds. Mercedes had a very solid season with Winston-Salem in 2018, hitting .289/.362/.478 in 360 at-bats with 14 homers, 64 RBIs, 40 walks and 67 strikeouts. He isn’t noted for his defense, as he committed 11 passed balls in just 79 games behind the plate; with that said, Mercedes does have a solid arm, thwarting 41.7% of stolen base attempts (40 of 97).

Mercedes will be Rule 5-eligible, and it’s not likely he’ll be protected. If he isn’t selected in the draft, where will he play in the White Sox organization? A lot depends upon what happens to Kevan Smith. If Smith isn’t traded and the Narvaez/Castillo tandem begins the season with Chicago, the White Sox could probably keep Smith in Charlotte in a C/1B/DH triumvirate with Collins and Zavala. However, if Smith is on the White Sox roster, that means Castillo or Narvaez will have been traded.

Because he’ll be turning 26 soon, Mercedes would be more age-appropriate for Charlotte, where he could play the DH role and fill in when needed at catcher and first base when Zavala and/or Collins need a rest. The White Sox could take the conservative route and promote him to Birmingham instead, but Charlotte will be the best spot for him.

Daniel Gonzalez
6´1´´
190 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 23

Daniel Gonzalez was placed on the DL thrice during the course of the 2018 season, and he earned just 54 at-bats in the season as a result. He hit .241/.328/.296 in those at-bats, with one homer and five RBIs, walking six times while striking out 14. He’s a .263/.328/.296 hitter over the course of his six-year minor league career, and though eligible in the Rule 5 draft, but won’t be selected. He doesn’t hit with much authority, but at least Gonzalez avoids the strikeout; he’s only whiffed 108 times in 745 at-bats. He’s considered a solid defensive catcher, but gunned down just 22.7% of attempted base thefts under his watch. I have Gonzalez returning to Winston-Salem in 2018, as he’s a better hitter than the next guy on this list.

Nate Nolan
6´1´´
210 pounds
Bats: Right
Age: 24

Nolan also missed time this year with the Dash, playing in just 50 games this year. He struggled mightily in his 162 at-bats, hitting just .173/.251/.284, three homers, 20 RBIs, 16 walks and an incredible 78 strikeouts. In fact, his career 228 strikeouts in 485 at-bats (over three years) is quite eye-popping. He’s got more pop than Daniel Gonzalez, but is unlikely to put the bat on the ball. Nolan has good defensive skills and a solid arm, thwarting 27% of stolen base attempts in 2018. While I don’t project Nolan on Winston-Salem’s Opening Day roster, with injuries there is a possibility he’ll still earn a spot anyway.


Summary

The catching in the upper levels of the White Sox system is a mixed bag. The catchers from Charlotte to Winston-Salem are either sluggers with limited defensive capabilities, or injury-prone, defensive catchers who have difficulties hitting their weight. Without a doubt, the White Sox may look into a catcher in the upcoming draft, one with a both offensive and defensive skills — a combination that has proven to be quite elusive for the White Sox.