For a franchise that gets to claim one of the best hitting catchers of all time as a team legend, the White Sox have spent more than their fair share of seasons wandering the desert in search of production at the backstop. For every stretch featuring a Ray Schalk, Sherm Lollar, Carlton Fisk, or A.J. Pierzynski it seems like there are three or four passages saddled with names like Ben Davis, Jorge Fabregas, and end-stage Sandy Alomar. It’s not entirely fair to suggest this problem is unique to the White Sox. Catcher is arguably the most physically demanding position and most teams struggle to find true All-Star level talent to play it. It just feels like more of an issue for the Sox for two reasons: the eight years of being able to quietly plug Pierzynski into the lineup without thought and the fallow period immediately following his departure that was exacerbated by the unnecessary cutting of Tyler Flowers.
During his tenure on the South Side, Flowers was far from a world beater. The former bat first/maybe catch 3 days a week prospect seemed to suddenly forget how to hit. But he quietly started becoming one of the better pitch framers in all of baseball just before it became the new big thing to pay attention to and try to quantify. And then for reasons I still do not understand to this day, the Sox non-tendered him. This alone was not a backbreaking mistake. But replacing him with the strange platoon of a 32-year-old Dioner Navarro and the balsa wood-boned Alex Avila effectively turned one position from a quiet strength to that of a glaring weakness. After failing to come even close to making the playoffs yet again, the Sox would ultimately decide on their current path and blew up the roster, kicking off the rebuild we endure to this day.
There was one potential bright spot at catcher in 2016 though. Unheralded former minor league Rule 5 draft pick Omar Narvaez came up towards the end of the season and managed to hit .267/.350/.337 over 34 games. Nothing amazing, but not far below league average for a player who was more or less an afterthought. 2017 showed that cup of coffee to have not been a fluke, as his odd skill set of no power but great plate discipline improved his line to .277/.373/.340 with 38 BB to only 45 K over 90 games. While the lack of power in a season where almost everyone seemed capable of hitting at least 10 home runs was less than ideal, it’s hard to be too upset about such a robust on-base percentage. It looked like maybe Chicago had stumbled into a pretty useful backup catcher at the worst, or maybe a decent platoon candidate if all things shook out right.
Welington Castillo was brought in from Baltimore to carry the lion’s share of the load for 2018 and was doing a decent job until catching an 80 game suspension in late May due to testing positive for EPO. Not the best way to start a two year deal, but it’s not like the team was actively trying to compete this season anyway. Besides, this just gave the Narv Dog more time to shine and he did not let his adoring internet public down. Through 92 games so far, Omar has been almost the same player he’d shown himself to be over the previous two years: batting average of .273, OBP at .362. But one thing changed that may have shifted the platoon dynamic for next season: Omar learned how to hit for power. After only hitting three home runs in his previous 364 major league plate appearances, Narvaez managed to quadruple his career totals, hitting nine home runs through play Tuesday. His slugging percentage at the time of typing this article is .434, almost .100 points higher than last season. His OPS+ is 121 which is a team high for anyone who has played in more than 50 games.
That being said, there are definitely reasons for concern. While his bat has blossomed into a very useful one, his defense continues to lag behind. Narvaez has allowed 12 passed balls and 44 wild pitches (third most passed balls in baseball). 65 base runners have successfully stolen a base against Omar, second most in the league and only four behind Jonathan Lucroy (who has played in 30 more games). These are legitimate concerns about if the White Sox can afford to play Narvaez more and trying to find the sweet spot between getting his bat in the lineup more without giving too much back defensively. But with his main competition being an aging Castillo coming off a lengthy suspension, the older-than-you-think Kevan Smith, Zack Collins and his even greater defensive struggles, and Seby Zavala whose bat may never translate past Triple-A and it looks like Omar might just be the man for the job for the foreseeable future.
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