By Cee Angi-
(CBS) If you want a sense of just how difficult it’s going to be for the White Sox to upgrade at catcher, a position at which their players hit .196/.238/.325 this season, consider the market for backstopping talent is so competitive that this week the Reds jumped out ahead of the market to sign former Tigers reserve Brayan Pena.
Now, Pena didn’t cost the Reds much money—just over a million per season—but they are now committed to a player that has always been a backup and has a career OPS+ of just 75 to a two-year deal. The signing of Pena prompted a flurry of excited reactions asking if that maybe, just maybe, Ryan Hanigan would be made available—a guy who had a sub .200 batting average and hit just two home runs in 75 games this season. As many as 10 teams are rumored to be interested in Hanigan, further underscoring that it’s incredibly awesome to be a catcher right now.
Catcher is the only position where not only is weak offense excusable, you can have an on-base percentage below .300 and when the offseason comes around, teams will still beat down your door to offer you a contract just because you know how to fasten the buckles on your chest protector. At any other position we’d think teams were absolutely crazy for blowing up the phones of players whose offensive production matches that of DeWayne Wise, but for catchers, it’s the new norm. The days of Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk are long gone. The modern man behind the dish hits .245/.310/.388 with roughly 15 home runs per season.
The decline in production makes catcher the weakest offensive position (excluding pitchers) in the majors. Many teams are suffering a power outage behind the plate, but the White Sox’s catchers this season were even worse than their anemic peers. Tyler Flowers and Josh Phegley just weren’t ready (and may never be), proving to be even more frustrating than anyone could have fathomed. Both players have expressed confidence that they can do better next season if given the chance, but both were so bad that it would require a real act of faith or denial on the part of the White Sox to plan to rely upon them going into next season.
Maybe, just maybe, they do have some upside, but given the Sox’ overall lack of production, it would be safer to let another team be so lucky as to find it (in the case of the potential non-tender Flowers, another major league team; for Phegley, Chicago’s loss can be Charlotte’s gain). The Sox’ lineup has so little hitting that they need more security than either catcher can realistically provide.
Finding a suitable upgrade for catcher will certainly aid the Sox’ chances of competing, but it’s not easy to scavenge prime talent at a position at which there’s a shortage. The search gets even more complicated when you consider that several teams—including those with deeper pockets and better prospects to trade—are looking for an upgrade as well. Further, because the pool of available players is relatively weak, the Sox could be trading old problems for new ones.
If the White Sox wanted to break the bank and purchase the best catcher available, the target would be Brian McCann, who just finished his ninth season with the Braves. There’s no question that McCann has pieced together a solid career, but he’s reportedly seeking a seven-year deal north of $100 million. That would be an absurd commitment to make to a catcher who has already spent over a thousand games behind the plate and will be 30 next season (though someone will give it to him). McCann is a career .277/.350/.473 hitter, which puts him at the top of his profession just behind the MVP types like Buster Posey and (the now ex-catcher) Joe Mauer, and he’s a superb at pitch-framing, but for a team like the White Sox that is uncertain about the future, those contract terms don’t make much sense. Whether or not the Sox are actually interested in him is a question we can’t yet answer, but even if they are, they might not get the opportunity to negotiate with McCann, who may prefer to sign with a contender since four trips to the postseason without a ring probably weighs on him heavily.
If I were forced to endorse a candidate it would be Jarrod Saltalamacchia, but it would be great reservation and without a lot of fanfare. “Salty,” as they call him because a last name with so many vowels is hard to type and pronounce, is the best of the second-tier free agent options, and while he certainly looks good when viewed in isolation, it’s easy to chip away at the veneer and see what he’s really about. The Red Sox didn’t extend him a one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer, so it won’t cost suitors a draft pick to sign him, but he’s limited and that’s partially why the Red Sox didn’t want him at that price—the other reason being that the Red Sox have a stock of catching talent in the majors and minors and they just don’t need him much.
Signing Salty would certainly give the White Sox an immediate offensive boost over Flowers and Phegley, but he’s not going to swoop in and singlehandedly fix the team’s offense, either. This season was one of his best offensively (.273/.338/.446), but he was aided by (a) playing at Fenway Park and (b) a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .372, the latter of which suggests that some of his production this season was just dumb luck. Salty has a noodle for an arm and has thrown out just 23 percent of base runners in his career (which I guess isn’t bad for a guy who once had the yips), and struggles tremendously against southpaws (.218/.309/.319 career).
He has more skill than your average platoon player, and if Flowers or Phegley start hitting lefties (which they might even by accident given which side of the plate they stand on), it would certainly create a natural divide in playing time. But the biggest question is whether or not the Sox perceive that they need a solution for a three- or four-year term, and if they are going to be willing to pony up roughly $8 million per season to get him.
There is also a potential for a trade; the Orioles are entertaining offers for Matt Wieters and the Blue Jays may be willing to part with J.P. Arencibia. Arencibia is a poor defender and a bat-first catcher who can only do two things, homer and strike out. He’s like the gourmet version of what the White Sox already have. Pass. Wieters, a good glove and a solid hitter for a catcher who is coming off a down year, would obviously be better, but the Sox probably don’t have the talent to acquire a player of his talent in trade.
The market is full of lesser options as well, a plethora of players who meet the low-OBP and streaky power prototype of the modern catcher. These could be better options for the Sox, as they tend to be less expensive and on short contracts. Conceivably there is value in a veteran like Carlos Ruiz, Jose Molina, or even A.J. Pierzynski on the roster to balance workloads and share the wisdom of their experience. Of course, experience doesn’t pack a punch offensively, but it at least provides a safety net if something goes tragically wrong while freeing up money to be spent elsewhere. In whatever decision the Sox do end up taking, the amount they invest in terms of years and salary will be a direction reflection of what they perceive as the upsides for both Phegley and Flowers.
As with so much in baseball and life these days, there’s a clear divide between the haves and have nots, and that’s true of catching. The position is talent-poor, but it’s also so essential to their recovery that the Sox may have no choice but to spend on a long-term solution. Sometimes in order to dig your way out of a hole, you have to buy a shovel.
Cee Angi is a freelance sportswriter, whose work has appeared at Baseball Prospectus, The Platoon Advantage, The Classical, and is currently one of SB Nation’s featured columnists covering Major League Baseball. Follow her on Twitter @CeeAngi and read more of her CBS Chicago blog entries here.