Catching complacency, or digging a deeper hole behind the plate

Left alone for too long, a lack of catching talent can be devastating to any team's chances.

Glendale, Arizona -- In a night game against the Dodgers this spring at Camelback Ranch, the White Sox scored five runs on nine hits. Overall, the offense looked markedly better in this game against Clayton Kershaw than they did at most points last season, however, the catching tandem of Tyler Flowers and Josh Phegley never hit the ball out of the infield. This was nothing new, and it gets to the heart of not just the White Sox' offseason, but that of every team regardless of whether they are a contender or not: How much hemorrhaging and mediocrity can a roster endure at a position before they have to find a better solution, even if it's not the ideal?

When last season ended, it was evident that the Sox' biggest weakness was catcher, a position at which they hit a collective .196/.238/.325, the worst aggregate backstop production in the league. General Manager Rick Hahn ranked fixing the position as a high priority. They took an unsuccessful run at Brian McCann, and though they were rumored to have interest in several catchers that were being shopped this offseason, they ultimately decided they would rather have another season with their known quantities than make an imperfect move. To date, their only addition to the catching core is Rule 5 draft-pick Adrian Nieto, a 24-year-old switch hitter with career minor league averages of .254/.346/.385 they picked up from the Washington Nationals.

A few days later, in an afternoon matchup against the Angels that took place in the immediate aftermath of Phegley (whose 2013 8.2 strikeout-walk ratio was borderline historic and sufficient to undermine all thoughts of his being a successful regular) having been sent to minor league camp, Flowers sat for Hector Gimenez, the 31-year-old, light-hitting journeyman who was the reserve for part of last season. As Howie Kendrick reached and lit out for second base, Gimenez pulled back and fired a hard, yet errant, throw that sailed over the head of Marcus Semien, off of the glove of a reaching Leury Garcia, and rolled along the outfield grass until Adam Eaton scooped it up; Raul Ibanez, who was on third base, scored easily. There is no joy in Mudville, no balm in Gilead, no catching on the South Side.

As it stands, the Sox will enter the season with a starter who seems better equipped to be a backup (Flowers), their top prospect -- if you can even call him that -- at the position in the minors (Phegley), and a decision whether their backup will be a catcher who has a career OPS+ of 64 (Gimenez), or a Rule 5 draft pick with zero major-league experience who they have to keep on the 25-man roster or risk losing (Nieto). There simply isn't any cause for optimism here; barring an unexpected Joe Hardy-style eruption of talent, the Sox are in for another season of light hitting, passed balls, and free passes to second base.

20130617_kdl_ac6_199Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports

You might be tempted to ask, "Why the hell does it even matter?" and since the Sox lost 99 games last season and may be well on their way to last place in the AL Central again, you'd be at least partially right. Nonetheless, fixing a broken baseball team isn't necessarily about acquiring the biggest free agents or even trading for top-of-the-league talent--with a roster like the Sox, even Miguel Cabrera alone couldn't fix the offense by himself. More often, particularly for a team that boasts weaknesses in dozens of ways, the biggest changes are made of small ones.

The White Sox did address some problems, but as far as talent that will be on their Opening Day roster, they've added two outfielders (Avisail Garcia at the trade deadline and Adam Eaton this offseason), and a first baseman (Jose Abreu) all of whom are decidedly better than their predecessors were last season. The Sox should get some credit for upgrades they made, particularly since they have a tilt towards long-term impact, but what could have been simpler than taking the largest ill, their problem behind the plate, and trying to fix it, too? Set aside the desire for a perfect solution or the fact that the team might not compete next season, because this is the closest thing to a no-brainer in baseball: If even the imperfect solution can get you closer to more wins, shouldn't it be, at least in theory, a move worth considering? We're not even talking about the sort of moves that require giving up top talent, spending a lot of money, or even committing for multiple seasons. The point is, if you got no production from a position -- and that's what the Sox got last year at catcher, Flowers and Phegley combining for -1.2 wins above replacement -- getting something over that is an improvement, no matter how meager.

Back at Camelback Ranch, Gimenez' bad day continued. The Angels learned quickly that the combination of right-handed pitcher Erik Johnson, who wasn't making an effort to hold anyone on base, and Gimenez, a catcher with only a partially loaded cannon, made for the perfect chance to stretch their legs on the basepaths. All told, Gimenez allowed four stolen bases, and though he did manage to catch Brennan Boesch when he tried to help himself to third, it was incredibly close and the replay looked as though Davidson was late on the tag.

20140317_jla_su8_084There were less painful options available this winter. Photo credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Conversely, the Marlins -- the Marlins! -- confronted a similar situation and made the opposite choice the White Sox did. Prior to last season, the Marlins traded catcher John Buck to the Blue Jays as part of the fabled swap that sent all of the teams' talent not named Giancarlo Stanton or Hanley Ramirez to Canada. The plan was to use Rob Brantly, a catcher they acquired as part of the Anibal Sanchez deal who had a strong finish in 2012 and a hot enough early spring last year that manager Mike Redmond spoke openly of making him the cleanup hitter, as the starter with Miguel Olivo as his occasional platoon partner. This decision was perhaps dumber than the blockbuster trade itself, as Brantly hit just .229/.316/.313 and zero home runs until he was bailed out by Jeff Mathis, who took over as the starter in May after missing part of the season due to a broken collarbone.

The Marlins' catchers hit a combined .194/.249/.280 with just nine home runs, and were deservedly the worst in the majors last season. While it might have been easiest to give Brantly the benefit of the doubt and give him one more shot this year, just as they have done with Adeiny Hechavarria at shortstop despite the fact that he was one of the worst players in all of baseball last year, the Marlins decided one season of incompetence behind the plate was enough to endure. They signed the second-best free agent available at the position, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, to a three-year, $21 million deal in December. There are reasons to hate the deal: Salty's best offensive seasons have been aided by both Fenway Park and high batting average on balls in play, he has a career 23-percent caught-stealing percentage, and he can't hit lefties, but he's likely to be considerably more valuable than the combined -2.4 WAR of last year's Marlins' catchers, so while it's not perfect, it's something.

The Marlins have a long way to go, obviously. So too do the White Sox, but the larger question has been left unanswered: where do we set the bar for merest competence in team-building? No one is asking anyone to do what Alex Anthopoulos did with the Blue Jays and turn over an entire team in the course of a single offseason (and we've seen how well that works anyway), but it's more a question of, to invoke a cliche, not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. The problem with baseball is that even your known quantities --your players that should be worth two or three wins a season-- can suddenly be worth nothing due to injury or dumb luck. The disappointment of that is difficult enough to deal with, but it's exacerbated when any wiggle room in the form of upside has already been forfeited by willingly entering a season with sub-replacement level players on the roster; why would a team choose to consciously shoot itself in the foot before the race even begins?

The simplest answer may be that you're convinced that something better will come along. But it doesn't, not always, and then you're left holding onto the hope that the ones you've decided to keep have a little more talent left. Complacency is an overused term, but not doing the most obvious thing at the first opportunity of doing it would seem to be the picture-perfect example.

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