There are thirty-nine more days until pitchers and catchers report to Camelback Ranch. Baseball will be back, and we can all emerge from the disappointment of last season in hopes of succeeding again. However, before the Sox can get their feet off the ground, there are still some question marks across the diamond and the starting rotation. It is imperative that the Sox coaching and player development staff use Spring Training to identify impact players who can help the big league roster and to sort out the best lineup from what they have been given.
Starting out the competition will be utility infielder Jeff Keppinger versus incumbent third baseman Brent Morel. Keppinger was signed this past offseason to a 3 year, $12 million deal in order to be the team’s starting third baseman, and he is presumed to be the favorite as of right now. Despite, the signing of Keppinger, Morel is still young and has time on his side. In 2009, Future Sox’s scouting report on Morel projected him to be an average third baseman, and if he can do that he will win the job handedly. Morel’s defensive abilities combined with his decent power could easily net him twenty home run/eighty RBI seasons, but he needs to put it all together first. Last year was not pretty, but we start over again every year, fresh starts, so that players can try again. Here’s to Morel finding his way back to where he is expected to perform, but until then, based on last year’s performance, Keppinger has the third base job locked up.
Another war to be waged in the Arizona desert will be for the backup starting catcher job. With the departure of AJ Pierzynski, it is now safe to safe to say that Tyler Flowers will be the starting catcher, but who the backup will be is a whole different beast. Currently the White Sox 40-man roster lists three catchers, Flowers, Hector Gimenez, and Josh Phegley. Phegley is ranked as the 11th prospect in the White Sox farm system, and is my personal favorite to win the job. Phegley is twenty-four years old and has only had four years of minor league experience as opposed to Gimenez who has had a ten-year minor league career with four different organizations, including the White Sox. If he was anything special, I feel like he would have shown it somewhere before his age thirty season.
Despite my feelings toward Gimenez I can also see why the White Sox would like Phegley to remain in AAA for one more season. Phegley regressed a little last year, though his average spiked about fifteen points, his on-base percentage dropped, which indicates impatience at the plate. The Sox are already stacked with impatient free swingers (see Alexei Ramirez, Dayan Viciedo, and Gordon Beckham), what the Sox need is someone who can control the strike zone, and take walks. Another year in the minors would allow Phegley to identify bad pitches and try to take more walks instead of taking himself out of at-bats. In addition, Phegley has blood disorder, ITP, which lowers the body’s platelet count. Side effects are increased risk of bleeding and Purpura, which are disgusting red or purple skin discolorations caused by bleeding under the skin. Another year in the minors would be beneficial to see how well Phegley can continue his playing career in spite of having the blood disorder.
The final battle that will be interesting to watch unfold is that of the fifth starter. The White Sox rotation this upcoming season will consist of John Danks, Jake Peavy, Chris Sale, Gavin Floyd, and Jose Quintana or Hector Santiago. Though trade rumors continue to surround Gavin Floyd we will assume the Sox break camp with him. Hector Santiago was an unknown last year when spring training came around, but he broke camp with the Sox and ended up winning the closer job for the first week of the season (before eventually losing it to Addison Reed). Santiago wasn’t exactly a stellar reliever, but he was good enough for about half of the season. The Sox then decided that Santiago would be best fit as a starter and sent him down to Charlotte to stretch out. He came back and made a start against Cleveland on October 1st, and pitched a gem; only allowing one hit over seven frames. The case for Santiago is a little shaky though based on his losing of the closer job, and him also only making one start against one of the worst teams in the AL Central.
Jose Quintana’s story is quite similar, an unknown, he didn’t even break camp with the Sox. Quintana was toiling away in AA when the Sox came calling. John Danks had just been placed on the disabled list and the White Sox needed a spot start. On May 25, against the who-would-have-guessed-it Cleveland Indians Quintana took the bump for six innings, allowing two runs, walking three, and striking out four. This would cement Quintana’s place in the White Sox rotation, and he would go on to make twenty-three more starts for the Pale Hose, winning six and losing six.
In my opinion, this competition will be close, both pitchers are very similar in stuff, but when in doubt, experience is always the tie-breaker. All in all, this Spring Training should be no different than others. Battles will be fought, positions will be won, and the Sox will be absolutely terrible compared to the Cubs in Spring Training play, prompting Cubs fans to tease us until the regular season begins and everything goes back to normal. Will the battles won in Spring Training help us overcome the Everest that has become the Tigers? I hope so. But the only way to find out is in seventy-five days when Chris Sale takes the bump at US Cellular Field against the James Shields and the new look Royals.
Catcher is the toughest position to play on the baseball field. The catcher controls the pitchers during the game, prevents runners from taking extra bases, blocks the plate from both balls trying to find their way to the backstop and runners attempting to score, and through all this he must still be a productive member of the lineup and hit. Finding a catcher who is just a right mix of all the above is very tough to do. There are maybe a hand full of catchers who I think fit this description closely: Buster Posey, Carlos Ruiz, Joe Mauer, and Yadier Molina, and they are all highly valued by their respective teams and will probably never see the free agent market due to their high value. But because finding that right man to play catcher is so difficult it is often challenging to transition from an established starting catcher to an inexperienced and unproven one. Unfortunately, this is the situation the South Siders find themselves in this offseason, they can bring the incumbent backstop AJ Pierzynski back but on a huge contract for 36 year-old-to-be or they can pass the gavel to Tyler Flowers who is ten years younger and has stated that he is ready for the starting job. Despite Flowers’ confidence in being able to take over the job, the White Sox have continued to explore other options such as shopping Flowers to the Mets and giving youngsters Josh Phegley and Hector Giminez looks behind the plate as well. Here I will breakdown the Hahn’s options for a starting backstop and tell you why or why he should not pursue the option. I have the likelihood of the move happening on a 1-to-5 scale, with 1 being the most likely option.
Free Agents: Rod Barajas, Henry Blanco, Russell Martin, Mike Napoli, Miguel Olivo, Ronny Paulino, Humberto Quintero, Brian Schneider, Kelly Shoppach, Yorvit Torrealba, and Matt Treanor
Well this is quite an unimpressive list of major league catching talent. Guys who would sing on for less than AJ Pierzynski’s asking price are old and have never had much consistent success at the plate, so Paulino, Quintero, Treanor, Blanco, Schneider, Barajas, and Torrealba all are out. The rest: Olivo, Martin, Napoli, and Shoppach would all most likely be out of Hahn’s price range, as the Sox still need to address the third base spot and hopefully some bullpen weaknesses; so it seems as though free agency will not be the way to go for Rick Hahn.
Trades: JP Arencebia & Jarrod Saltalamacchia
The Blue Jays have let it be known that they have a top prospect just itching to get out of Triple-A and they will deal all of their catching in order to get him in the clubhouse, thus making JP Arencebia available. In addition, the Red Sox have brought in veteran backstop David Ross and have prospect Ryan Lavarnway sandwiching slugger Jarrod Saltalamacchia out of the picture in Boston. While neither Salty or Arencebia are a picture of consistency, they do something the White Sox like when looking at potential players, they hit home runs. Saltalamacchia had 25 home runs last year while driving in 59 runs, and Arencebia crushed 18 home runs while driving in 59; while neither of their RBI totals are impressive, they could definitely improve with better lineup placement and better players around them. Considering both Salty and Arencebia would be coming from the 5th and 4th place team in their division respectively, it is a given that they will have a better supporting cast. As the GM in this situation I would rather pursue Saltalamacchia than Arencebia because Saltalamacchia has a higher on-base pecentage, slugging percentage, and on-base plus slugging percentage than Arencibia. The best thing is that both Arencebia and Saltalamacchia can probably both be had a for a mid-level prospect or two low-level prospects.
For most Sox fans this is the preferred route to take. We know AJ will provide a solid defensive presence, he is an average to above average hitting catcher, and he knows how to handle a pitching staff. On top of that all AJ is one of two remaining members of the core of our 2005 World Series team and is a popular figure with the fanbase. Unfortunately, the fans have to realize that AJ is going to be 36 years old this season, and he is not getting any younger. The only direction for a 35 year old catcher who just had a career to go is down, I can promise you that unless AJ signs for two years at $4 million or less a season, he will not live up to any contract the Sox will give him. History is not on his side. I don’t see any conceivable way — except for the hometown discount — that AJ stays on the South Side after this year. It’s a shame, but AJ has left on the franchise and when he returns someday all old and wrinkly he’ll still be embraced by the Chicago faithful for cementing a legacy, with the likes of Carlton Fisk and Ray Schalk, as one of the best backstops in franchise history.
Josh Phegley as of right now is a top ten prospect in the White Sox system. Although that isn’t saying much, it still means that he has a shot. With whispers of Hahn shopping Flowers around the league, specifically to the Mets, and the unlikelihood of AJ returning the Sox, Phegley has an outside shot to be the de facto winner of the starting catcher job. Now if you don’t know much about Phegley he has consistently possessed a .300 on-base percentage throughout his minor league career, he doesn’t strike out a lot, and he seems like a straight singles hitter by only having 20 doubles in 394 at-bats. This is not the best option as we have seen many a times a prospect fail because the Sox rushed him to the big leagues, examples being Danny Richar, Brian Anderson, and most recently Brent Morel.
Tyler Flowers has been the White Sox catcher of the future since we acquired him from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for Javier Vasquez and reliever Boone Logan. However, Flowers has been unimpressive in the limited action he saw this past season. He hit for a .213 average with a .296 on-base percentage, while hammering seven home runs and driving in 13 RBI’s. But we can’t judge him in the limited action he has seen. As a backup catcher, it’s easy to pull him when he is struggling and not let him work through his struggles, this year, if given the starting job we will hopefully see Tyler do well, but when he struggles, it will be key to see how he fights through it. Resiliency is key. I wish we had the money to re-sign AJ, but his time is over and it is time for Tyler Flowers to take the reins and become the starter he thinks he is. This is the most likely option for Hahn as it is relatively no risk (as in making a trade, or gambling on signing an aging veteran) and we have an idea of what kind of player we are getting when we insert him into the lineup.
Ultimately, I believe Hahn should go with the cheap in house option because it will not cost us any prospects, it will be cheaper than re-signing AJ or going out and signing a free agent, and it will give Phegley a chance to develop in case Flowers doesn’t pan out. Thus, I predict that Tyler Flowers will win the starting catcher’s job for the Palehose, and that AJ Pierzynski will most likely sign elsewhere, most likely Tampa Bay or Texas. Here’s to AJ Pierzynski for all of his time on the South Side, and here’s to hoping that he has further success in the rest of his playing career except, against the Sox of course.