Until an official announcement is made, the most experienced catcher in the White Sox organization is still Omar Narvaez. The 24-year-old needed a freak stretching injury to Kevan Smith to leapfrog up the depth chart to get any major league time at all in 2016, and only exceeded his rookie limits by way of service time, not by the number of plate appearances he actually made.
With this gaping maw for major league experience at the catcher position, pretty much any veteran would be a necessary addition for the Sox, and Geovany Soto, returning to the club on a minor league according to Bruce Levine and Dan Hayes, fits the bill well enough that penciling him into the Opening Day roster barely feels like a stretch. After all, he pulled off the same ascent from non-roster Spring invite to the big club just two years ago.
Not much has changed with Soto in that time. The ball still jumps off his bat (.196 ISO the last two seasons) when he actually makes contact (28.4 strikeout rate), he still has throwing arm good enough to stave off total chaos on the basepaths (his injury remains the secret turning point of the 2014 AL Wild Card Game), and he’s coming off another season where he barely played, specifically due to a tear in the meniscus of his right knee, again. He also is a below-average rated framer who could potentially be a challenging match with some of the lively, erratic arms the Sox figure to be matriculating through their system.
Entering a rebuilding season, with quality free agent catchers in typically short supply, it’s no surprise the Sox are rolling the dice with their internal options and making a meager investment in Soto. Long-term solutions are what they are searching for these days, and a commitment to Matt Wieters, or even a pursuit of Jason Castro, would likely have meant signing up for the descent from usefulness, with their best work coming now, when the roster is being stripped down.
But with the budget already slashed, there’s a case to be made that an investment in a sound backstop could have cascading benefits, especially with the degree to which the Sox future is tied up in pitching development. Carlos Rodon, who might soon be the staff ace by default, struggled to progress and utilize his changeup as a rookie until Tyler Flowers became his permanent partner in 2015, and last year did not earn the Sox a lot of benefit of the doubt that they are placing enough emphasis on this facet of the catching duties.
Not that Soto is suddenly responsible for the entire pitching staff; he hasn’t so much as played more than 81 games since 2012. If anything, a part-timer like Soto being the veteran stability signing only further cements 2017 as a trial opportunity for Narvaez, who emerged from near-total anonymity to flash a surprising mastery of the strike zone (.350 OBP and as many walks as strikeouts in 117 plate appearances) at the end of 2016. The bat control helped offset some of the power limitations that could be expected from someone snatched away from the Rays in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft three years ago. Narvaez also earned some encouraging plaudits from Rodon for his amiable work behind the plate, but that too is counterbalanced by poor–albeit early–framing numbers and pretty much no success at throwing out basestealers.
With a great career opportunity lying in front of him, Narvaez could show that he has the skills to be a major leaguer for years to come, if not necessarily a long-term starter. Or he could flop and give way to a cycle of internal options with even lesser qualifications. Even a generous projection of a Narvaez-Soto platoon figures to merely adequate, and the downside could earn comparisons to last year’s group.
Such comparisons could only go so far, because the 2017 Sox will not be operating on the stakes of trying to prop up a playoff contender, they simply need to give their opportunities to someone worthwhile. Narvaez won’t earn much preseason buzz, but he’s already earned his shot, and with Soto aboard, at least he won’t be struck on an island.
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