MLB: Chicago White Sox at Cleveland Indians

Betting on the quiet competence of Omar Narvaez

One of the most puzzling decisions the White Sox made going into the 2016 season, a season fully meant to be one resulting in at least a Wild Card chase, was replacing Tyler Flowers and Geovany Soto’s perfectly serviceable seasons at catcher with a platoon of Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila. The company line about the move was that the team was looking to inject some much needed offense at a position that had been fairly punchless since A.J. Pierzynski’s bizarre 2012 revival. The defensive drop off between the batteries was anticipated as a necessary trade off to help goose the team’s ability to score runs.

The only problem was betting on Navarro and Avila. Navarro turned 32 in September and for his career only had one season of above average offense and two directly at league average. He could still throw runners out, but that was the extent of his defensive abilities. And while Avila is a fine enough backup, expecting a catcher with at least three admitted concussions since 2013 to be able to handle half of a platoon was hardly realistic. The Sox went from buying the eight on the craps table to betting a hard eight: the payoff is theoretically better, but you’re sinking your odds of walking away with a favorable outcome.

Which is exactly what happened. Navarro was shipped back to Toronto in August for a 25-year-0ld Double-A reliever. Avila had one of the stranger batting lines after the trade, managing only seven hits in 46 at bats but with four of those hits beings home runs, and drawing 14 walks as well. You don’t often see a .763 OPS paired with a .152 batting average. And while the return on the Navarro trade will likely never result in major league anything for the White Sox, it did free up playing time for someone who might. Omar Narvaez used his 34 games to show off his silent skill set: an impressive knowledge of the strike zone as a hitter and defense that, while not officially good, at least won’t make you want to break your remote while watching.

The White Sox grabbed Narvaez from the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2013 Rule V draft and stashed him away in the minors. He didn’t show up on any prospect lists because, well, he just kind of existed. Seven home runs in 1,543 minor league at-bats isn’t much of anything to write home about, and neither is a .277 average, so it’s completely understandable that no one knew who he was going into last year. He struggled tremendously in Birmingham in 2016, putting up a .208 TAv in 13 games. His 41 game stint in Charlotte didn’t go much better (.210 TAv). But then Kevan Smith got hurt and Navarro got traded and circumstances more or less forced the Sox into playing Narvaez in the majors. And he managed to hold his own.

There’s nothing inherently sexy about a .267/.350/.337 slash line or a .261 TAv. But from a 24-year-old catcher who before that season had never played above High-A? That’s pretty impressive. Of course, there are caveats. We’re looking at a 34 game sample size, most of which came at the end of the year when pitching staffs are cooked, manned with September call ups, or both. But after watching a full season of Navarro and Avila, it was a refreshing glass of lukewarm pond water after drinking sand.

I don’t expect Narvaez to be anything amazing, but he doesn’t have to be. He’s not going to suddenly develop power. His defense might improve from acceptable to decent. It’s not likely, but it happened with Flowers so I’m not willing to write it off completely. PECOTA is not optimistic at all about his upcoming season (-1.6 WARP, .233 TAv). But again, I’m not expecting Buster Posey. All I’m hoping for from Narvaez is what he’s shown his whole career: an eye that allows him to draw an equal amount of walks to strikeouts and a bat with enough hits in it to make him a 1-2 WARP player. The current rebuild is predicated upon stocking the minors with players with the chance of becoming All-Stars or more. If everything breaks right, Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada are the stars capable of carrying the offense. But those teams still need quietly useful guys filling in some of the other gaps. This year will go a long way in showing if Narvaez can turn into that type of player for Chicago.

Lead Photo Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

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