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Deep Dive: Birmingham and Charlotte Catchers

Yermín Mercedes, Seby Zavala and two significant Rule 5 candidates highlight this list of Sox system backstops.

Yermín Mercedes and Carlos Pérez started out very differently this spring training, but by year’s end they were teammates in Charlotte.
Sean Williams/South Side Sox

“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization.

Welcome to another year of Deep Dive, where we analyze the past, present and future for each position in the White Sox organization. Each position is broken into five parts:

  1. Depth in the rookie levels (Dominican through Arizona)
  2. Depth in A-ball (Kannapolis and Winston-Salem)
  3. Depth in the higher levels (Birmingham and Charlotte)
  4. Under the Radar-type detail on one of the White Sox players
  5. Free agent options

With Yermín Mercedes and Seby Zavala both surpassing rookie qualifications this year, that means that no catcher ranks in the Top 30 among White Sox prospects per MLB Pipeline. This doesn’t mean, however, that the organization is devoid of talent. Below are the catchers who finished the year in Triple-A and Double-A ball (Charlotte and Birmingham).

Ages are as of April 1, 2022

Charlotte Knights

Yermín Mercedes
245 pounds
Age: 29
Bats/Throws: R/R
Other positions played: 1B, 3B
2018 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 42
2019 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 49
2020 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 24
2021 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 19

Mercedes has had a roller-coaster ride throughout both his minor and major league careers. The Yerminator, a Dominican native, spent his first three years with the Washington Nationals Dominican squad before getting released during the 2013 season despite posting solid offensive seasons. After he was released, he played for independent teams like the San Angelo Colts, Douglas Diablos and White Sands Pupfish in 2014 before being signed by the Baltimore Orioles. Mercedes slowly worked his way up Baltimore’s system during the next three years, eventually working his way up to Double-A Bowie. When he was made available in the minor league phase of the 2017 Rule 5 draft, the White Sox were happy to snatch him up.

Mercedes enjoyed a solid 2018 with the Winston-Salem Dash, as he slugged .289/.362/.478 with 14 homers, 40 walks (9.8%), 67 strikeouts (16.3%) and a 136 wRC+. As an encore in 2019, he combined to slash .317/.388/.581 in 95 games with Birmingham and Charlotte by hitting 23 homers with 41 walks, 67 strikeouts and posting a combined wRC+ of 153. Despite playing just one game for the Sox in the abbreviated 2020 season, he was intent on becoming a regular for 2021.

When given the opportunity to begin the 2021 season on the active MLB roster thanks in large part due to the injury of Eloy Jiménez, Mercedes immediately ran with it by bashing hurlers with a .415/.455/.659 line in 22 games with five doubles, five homers and six walks. He eventually fell to earth, but the descent was far more rapid than expected. In May, Mercedes slashed just .221/.292/.326, and June was even worse with a .159/.221/.220 line. Included in that May line was the infamous incident on the May 17, when he clobbered a 3-0 pitch during a lopsided win over the Minnesota Twins — thereby incurring the wrath of his manager Tony La Russa. At the time of the incident, Mercedes was indeed struggling (his batting average at the time had “slipped” to .364) but the slump seemed to escalate after being called out. With his struggles continuing for the remainder of May and June, Mercedes was demoted to Charlotte in the beginning of June.

After a brief three-week stay with Charlotte, he hastily announced his retirement, which was rescinded shortly afterward after a conversation with La Russa. While his stats were good in Charlotte, they weren’t quite up to Mercedes’ usual standard as he slashed .271/.32/.404 in 59 games with 11 homers and a 102 wRC+. In 18 games behind the plate (the rest were spent either at first base or DH), he struggled defensively, with nine passed balls and allowing 20-of-23 successful stolen base attempts.

Clearly, Mercedes is better suited as a designated hitter but is blocked in the major league roster by a plentitude of athletes there (Andrew Vaughn, José Abreu, Jiménez, Gavin Sheets, Zack Collins and Yasmani Grandal to name but a few). Mercedes has two options remaining. The White Sox may look at trading him elsewhere to give him an DH opportunity — perhaps even to the National League if the next CBA grants those teams a DH position. If kept, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Mercedes ask for a release for the purpose of signing a contract in either Korea or Japan. Of course, the opportunity still remains that Mercedes could battle for a spring training spot as a third catcher/DH for 2022 as well.

Seby Zavala
205 pounds
Age: 28
Bats/Throws: R/R
Other positions played: 1B
2018 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 16
2019 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 20
2020 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 31
2021 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 26

Zavala was part of the final recruiting class of MLB Hall-of-Famer and San Diego State coach Tony Gwynn. After hitting a combined four homers in his first two years with the Aztecs while spending significant time in the outfield, Zavala became a full-time catcher during his junior season which, along with a boost in power, significantly improved his draft position. In that 2015 season, Zavala hit .290/.399/.537 in 231 at-bats with 13 doubles, one triple, 14 homers, 67 RBIs, 30 walks (10.6%) and 52 strikeouts (18.3%).

After the White Sox selected him in the 12th round, Zavala did damage to the AZL by slashing .326/.401/.628 in 129 at-bats by hitting 17 doubles, five triples, four homers, 35 RBIs, 15 walks (10.2%) and 27 strikeouts (18.4%)

Zavala spent the entire 2016 season with Kannapolis, where his numbers unsurprisingly dipped against the stronger competition, as he slashed .253/.330/.381 with seven homers in 93 games. The next year, 2017, saw Zavala really begin his ascent up the prospect rankings. With Kannapolis and Winston-Salem that year, Zavala combined to slash a more robust .282/.353/.499 in 107 games as he produced 21 doubles, 21 homers, 72 RBIs, 37 walks (8.5%) and 104 strikeouts (24.0%).

Zavala struggled through injuries that sapped his overall production during the 2018 season with Birmingham and Charlotte, but he still managed to slash .258/.317/.418 in 104 games while producing 22 doubles, 13 homers, 51 RBIs, 33 walks (7.8%) and 109 strikeouts (25.7%). The 2019 season saw Zavala seemingly begin sacrificing contact for power as he slashed just .222/.296/.471 with 14 doubles, 20 homers, 45 RBIs, 26 walks (7.9%) and 116 strikeouts (35.0%). Zavala did see action in five games for the White Sox that year, but had just one single in his 12 at-bats with no walks and a whopping nine strikeouts.

After the pandemic cancelled 2020, Zavala was nothing if not consistent for both Charlotte and the White Sox in 2021. In 155 at-bats for the Knights this year, he slashed just .168/.263/.355 in 155 at-bats with five doubles, eight homers, 20 walks (11.2%) and 75 strikeouts (41.9%) with a 63 wRC+. For the Sox, he slashed .183/.240/.376 in 93 at-bats with five homers (three came in one game!), six walks (5.8%), 41 strikeouts (39.4%) and a 66 wRC+. Other than a slight improvement in strikeout rate for the Sox and decline in walk rate, Zavala’s numbers in both cities were nearly identical.

The Sox have another option on Zavala, so the Sox will have to decide if they want to keep him on the 40-man roster for next year. He threw out base runners at a 33% clip for Charlotte and a 27% rate for the Sox.

Because of his leadership and game-calling skills, he seems to be a relatively safe bet for the Sox to retain Zavala and keep that option.

Carlos Pérez
205 pounds
Age: 25
Bats/Throws: R/R
Other positions played: 1B
2020 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 90
2021 SSS Top Prospect Ranking: 59

Pérez, whose older brother with the same first name played in the majors from 2015-18, signed with the White Sox as an international free agent prior to the 2014 season. In two seasons with the DSL club, Pérez was quite the hitter (albeit without power) as he combined to slash .323/.380/.397 with 29 walks (11.3%) and just 12 strikeouts (4.7%) in 257 at-bats. The 2016 season saw Pérez struggle, which is not an uncommon occurrence for someone playing Stateside for the first time. Combined with the AZL White Sox, Great Falls and Kannapolis in 34 games totaling 116 at-bats, Pérez slashed just .198/.218/.259 with four doubles, a homer, 14 RBIs, three walks (2.4%) and four strikeouts (3.3%).

After a solid rebound season with Great Falls in 2017, Pérez enjoyed what has been his best offensive Stateside season to date in 2018 with Kannapolis. In 78 games totaling 276 at-bats, he slashed .290/.298/.395 with 18 doubles, one triple, three homers, 32 RBIs, four walks (1.4%) and 31 strikeouts (10.8%). Pérez increased his walk totals in 2019 for Winston-Salem, at the sacrifice of a few hits here and there. For the Dash, he slashed .263/.316/.327 with 14 doubles, two homers, 33 RBIs, 24 walks (7.0%) and 26 strikeouts (7.6%).

Like nearly everyone in the system in 2020, Pérez missed the season due to the pandemic. Despite struggling in an abbreviated four-game stint with Charlotte to close the season, Pérez staked his claim as the best catching prospect in the White Sox system in 2021 as he slashed .264/.313/.418 (102 wRC+) with Birmingham over 409 at-bats with a career-high 13 homers, 25 walks (5.7%) and 45 strikeouts (10.2%).

Pérez’s calling card is his defense, as he has above-average skills behind the plate. While his arm strength is basically average, his quick release makes up for it. This year with both the Knights and Barons, Pérez thwarted 30-of-71 stolen base attempts for a nifty 42.2%. He limited his passed balls to just four, which really isn’t bad compared to others in the system. With his plus ability to make contact, combined with his defense (as arguably the best defensive catcher in the farm system), Pérez may still have future as a backup catcher in the majors. He will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft this December, and will most assuredly be selected if not added to Chicago’s 40-man roster beforehand.

Nate Nolan
205 pounds
Age 27
Bats/Throws: R/R

Nolan flashed enough power and arm strength at catcher during his junior season in 2016 with St. Mary’s to garner interest from various scouts, despite his propensity to strike out. In 58 games for the Gaels that season, he slashed .261/.360/.468 with 17 doubles, nine homers, 36 RBIs, 29 walks (11.2%) and 86 strikeouts (33.1%). Hoping to correct those strikeout issues, the White Sox selected him in the eighth round of the 2016 draft. That year with Great Falls and Kannapolis, Nolan slashed just .138/.241/.203 in 36 games with a combined two doubles, two homers, 11 RBIs, 14 walks (9.9%) and 62 strikeouts (43.7%).

Thanks in part to solid production with Great Falls, Nolan enjoyed his best season to date in 2017 with Kannapolis and Great Falls, where he combined to slash .215/.293/.395 with seven homers over 56 games. The 2018 season saw him spend the entire campaign with Winston-Salem, where he hit well below the Mendoza Line, at .173. In 51 games with three teams (Winston-Salem, Birmingham and Charlotte) in 2019, Nolan slashed just .183/.249/.314 in 2019 with four homers, 17 RBIs, 12 walks (6.5%) and 71 strikeouts (38.4%).

Stuck behind three catchers who spent significant time in the majors this year after missing 2020 due to the pandemic, Nolan struggled for playing time and the sporadic playing time may have impacted his production. In 54 games totaling 153 at-bats, Nolan slashed .157/.216/.314 with six doubles, six homers, 11 walks (6.6%), 80 strikeouts (47.9%) and a 37 wRC+. Although his defense was still solid, Nolan was successful in curtailing only 18% of attempted stolen base attempts.

At this point, Nolan appears to be simply organizational depth at best and will be eligible for the upcoming Rule 5 draft in December.

Birmingham Barons

Xavier Fernández
245 pounds
Age: 26
Bats/Throws: R/R
Other positions played: 1B

Fernández, as a Puerto Rican prep star, was selected in the 11th round by the Kansas City Royals in 2013. Since that time, he’s done a respectable job both offensively and defensively, with the exception of a difficult rookie league campaign in 2014 with Burlington. Fernández’s rise was slow but sure in the Royals system until things picked up during 2018, when he acquitted himself quite nicely after a midseason promotion to Double-A Northwest Arkansas, where he slashed .328/.382/.504 (138 wRC+) in 36 games with three homers, 10 walks and 17 strikeouts in 36 games.

Fernández was eligible for the Rule 5 draft that year, and Drew Osborne of The Royals Farm Report stated “Fernández is a solid catcher who will be a big league catcher at some point in the near future ... he could be a backup immediately in the majors. His defense is outstanding. Fernández blocks well and is a tremendous receiver with soft hands that frame well. As far as throwing, he has gunned down minor league runners at a 39% pace in his career and 41% this season in NWA. His throws are low, on the money, and carry well.”

Perhaps it was due to his lack of power, but for whatever reason, Fernández was not selected in that Rule 5 draft and received a promotion in 2019 to Triple-A Omaha, but opted for free agency upon season’s end. The Sox snatched him up in 2020 but didn’t receive any playing time thanks to Covid-19.

After beginning the season with Winston-Salem for an injury rehab assignment in mid-June, Fernández slashed .283/.353/.446 for Birmingham in 58 games with five doubles, nine homers, 21 walks (9.5%) and 44 strikeouts (19.9%). His defense was outstanding for the Barons, and he threw out 11-of-27 attempted base-stealers (40.7%)

It’s somewhat surprising that a player of Fernández’s ilk has only played 39 games of Triple-A ball. His profile is actually quite similar to Carlos Pérez who, like Fernández, will again be eligible for the Rule 5 draft. It seems that the White Sox would be likelier to protect Pérez than Fernández, simply because Pérez is a home-grown talent.

If not selected, the underrated Fernández would be an excellent candidate to begin 2022 with Charlotte, depending upon roster adjustments elsewhere in the organization’s upper levels.