Omar Narvaez

As Cactus League play begins, how many spots are actually up for grabs on the White Sox roster?


As Cactus League play begins, how many spots are actually up for grabs on the White Sox roster?

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Some teams have it easy, with their 25-man rosters seemingly locked into place before spring training games even start.

The White Sox actually have a lot more locked-down spots than you might think for a rebuilding team, but this spring remains pretty important for a few guys.

The starting rotation figures to be set, with James Shields, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Miguel Gonzalez and Carson Fulmer the starting five. Carlos Rodon, of course, owns one of those spots once he returns from injury. But the date of that return remains a mystery.

From this observer’s viewpoint, eight of the everyday nine position players seem to be figured out, too: Welington Castillo behind the plate, Jose Abreu at first base, Yoan Moncada at second base, Tim Anderson at shortstop, Yolmer Sanchez at third base, Nicky Delmonico in left field, Avisail Garcia in right field and Matt Davidson as the designated hitter. More on the omission of a starting center fielder in a bit.

Omar Narvaez would be a logical pick to back up Castillo at catcher, and Tyler Saladino is really the lone reserve infielder with big league experience, not to mention he’s a versatile player that can play anywhere on the infield.

Leury Garcia also figures to be a lock for this 25-man roster. But will he be the everyday center fielder, as he was for a spell last season? He played 51 games in center in 2017 but battled injuries throughout the year. I think Leury Garcia will end up the starting center fielder when the season begins because of his bat. His .270/.316/.423 slash line isn’t going to make anyone do cartwheels, but it’s better than the offensive struggles of Adam Engel, who started 91 games in center in 2017 and slashed .166/.235/.282. Engel would still be a solid inclusion on the bench because of his superb defense, but to create that big a hole in the everyday lineup is tough.

How could that position-player group change? Keep your eyes in center field, where there are a couple other guys who could force their way into a roster spot this spring: Charlie Tilson and Ryan Cordell. Tilson has had a tremendous amount of trouble staying on the field since coming over to the White Sox in a 2016 deadline deal, but that hasn’t dampened the White Sox hopes for him. And Cordell got name-dropped by general manager Rick Hahn during SoxFest, when the GM said he’s received multiple calls about Cordell since acquiring him last summer. Cordell put up good numbers at the Triple-A level prior to a significant injury last year.

But the main battles figure to be in the bullpen. At times this winter, as the White Sox kept adding players to that relief corps mix, that the whole thing seemed wide open. But when you think about it, maybe there are only one or two open spots.

You’d have to think these guys are pretty safe bets to make the team: Juan Minaya, Gregory Infante, Nate Jones, Joakim Soria and Luis Avilan. Though Hector Santiago was just recently acquired on a minor league deal, he’s really the only long man of the group, and he could sub in if there’s an injury to a starting pitcher. That leaves two spots between the group of Aaron Bummer, Danny Farquhar, Jace Fry, Jose Ruiz and Thyago Vieira — not to mention guys signed to minor league deals like Xavier Cedeno, Jeanmar Gomez and Bruce Rondon.

Bummer had a 4.50 ERA in 30 big league games last year. Farquhar had a 4.40 ERA in 15 games. Vieira has gotten attention as a flame-thrower, but he’s got just one big league game under his belt, something that might or might not matter to the rebuilding White Sox. Guys like Gomez, who has 40 career saves including 37 just two years ago, and Rondon, who had multiple shots at the Detroit Tigers’ closing job in the past, could vault themselves into the mix as potential midseason trade candidates.

Then there's the question of which of those guys will be Rick Renteria's closer. Minaya had closing duties after most of the bullpen was traded away last summer. He picked up nine saves and posted a 4.11 ERA in his final 17 appearances of the campaign. Look to Soria, though, a veteran with plenty of closing experience from his days with the Kansas City Royals. If he's given the opportunity to close and succeeds, he could fetch an intriguing return package in a potential deadline deal.

But now it's game time in Arizona.

“The fun part of playing the game of baseball is playing the game of baseball," Renteria said earlier this week. "We prepare. I think they all enjoy what they’re doing in terms of their preparation. They take it seriously, they focus. But ultimately like everything that we do in life, I guess it’s a test. And the games are a test for us on a daily basis. And how we are able to evaluate them and take advantage of the opportunities that we have to see them in a real game situation is certainly helpful for us.”

For present and future, White Sox catching situation gets revamped with Welington Castillo


For present and future, White Sox catching situation gets revamped with Welington Castillo

"Wel," this changes things.

In their state of rebuild, the White Sox weren’t expected to make many — if any — big free-agent splashes this offseason. In fact, much of the focus early in this roster-reshaping phase of the baseball calendar has been on what the White Sox might lose off their big league roster, with trade rumors swirling around the likes of Jose Abreu and Avisail Garcia. And of course those moves could still be made.

But Rick Hahn went out and showed he’s ready to use current big leaguers to rebuild his team, too, signing free-agent catcher Welington Castillo to a two-year deal that also has a club option for the 2020 season.

It’s hard to call the addition of Castillo anything but a good one for the White Sox, who add a guy who at age 30 was one of the American League’s best catchers last season. He had a career year offensively, slashing .282/.323/.490 with 20 homers and 53 RBIs in 96 games. Among catchers with at least 300 at-bats, he ranked third in the AL in OPS, behind just Gary Sanchez and Mike Zunino. His 20 home runs were twice as many as White Sox catchers hit last season.

Defensively, Castillo led baseball by throwing out 44.4 percent of attempt base-stealers, a noteworthy number for a guy who was believed to be better at the plate than he was behind it.

It gives the White Sox a bona fide starting catcher, too, a veteran presence that boosts a unit that a year ago was made up of Omar Narvaez and Kevan Smith. Those two actually combined for a fine offensive season, but there’s little doubt that Castillo will be an improvement.

While Castillo’s defense hasn’t always been considered his strongest suit, having a veteran behind the plate is a positive for the team’s young — and getting younger — starting staff. Key rebuild pieces Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez are already a part of the big league rotation, and guys like Michael Kopech, Alec Hansen and Dane Dunning might not be far behind. Hahn has attempted to outfit his club with veteran catchers the past few seasons, only to see Geovany Soto and Alex Avila sidelined with injuries.

But the biggest surprise of the deal remains that Hahn added a veteran free agent — and not an insignificant one — to his roster for the next two to three seasons, a timeframe during which there was expected to be at least a season where the White Sox would not be competing for championships.

It could signal a couple different things. First, perhaps all the success of the team’s highly rated prospects has accelerated the rebuild. Yoan Moncada, Giolito and Lopez all hit the big league roster last season while Kopech and Eloy Jimenez were doing huge things in the minor leagues. Maybe Hahn looks at this and sees his team’s contention window opening a little earlier than initially anticipated, and maybe adding someone like Castillo — and anyone else who might join the team this offseason or during next winter’s free-agent bonanza — gets the White Sox closer to contention. Catcher has been a position of need for a long time now, and locking Castillo into that spot not just during the next one or two rebuilding years but a potential third year after that could finally stabilize that spot on the field and do it when the White Sox need someone there who can produce.

Second, what does this mean for Zack Collins? The first-round pick in last year’s draft has been assumed to be the team’s catcher of the future, and there were positive reports this year about his improving defense to go along with his continued offensive production. Collins, though, played just 12 games above the Class-A level this season, meaning he still requires some time to develop in the minor leagues. Adding Castillo keeps the door open for Collins to arrive when he’s ready, with a Castillo in his mid 30s sliding into a backup role, or it lessens the pressure on Collins needing to show up and be a major league starter from Day 1, allowing Castillo to remain the team’s everyday backstop potentially through the 2020 season.

It’s a bit of a surprise move by Hahn, who has shown he’s not shy about playing the long game. But there are plenty of ways in which Castillo fits into that long game, too, making this move all the more interesting.

Why Rick Renteria would be OK with bringing back current, young White Sox catchers


Why Rick Renteria would be OK with bringing back current, young White Sox catchers

CLEVELAND -- His young catchers have made enough gains this season with game calling that Rick Renteria isn’t sure if he’d want to add a veteran backstop for 2018.

The White Sox intended for veteran Geovany Soto to be their primary catcher this season with Omar Narvaez serving as his backup. Consecutive elbow injuries for Soto wiped those plans out early in the season and forced the White Sox to employ Narvaez and rookie Kevan Smith, who collectively had almost no big-league experience. But after nearly a full season of learning the league, Renteria said he’s on board if the White Sox decide to bring back Smith and Narvaez again in 2018.

“I would not be uncomfortable taking these same two guys again in the coming year and allow them to continue to grow with those guys that we have because they’ve actually gained some ground in understand what they’re doing,” Renteria said. “Might as well not waste this thing that we’ve been able to gain because of what’s occurred over this season.”

Narvaez entered the season with 34 career games played, including 30 starts. Smith had six games behind the plate with three starts. The loss of Soto to elbow surgery in May put the White Sox in a difficult spot.

“It’s very tough because we play 162 games and these guys have to learn,” bullpen catcher Mark Salas said. “Granted, we play them three in a row, maybe four, and you try to learn the guys. But it’s easier with the Central guys because we play them so much. But Anaheim, we haven’t played them in three months and it’s a process going over them again and getting the feel, seeing what they’ve got and go with that.”

The process has many facets for the young catchers to decipher.

Smith and Narvaez must be totally familiar with their own pitchers and their strengths and weaknesses. Then comes preparation for each opposing hitter and knowing their strengths and weaknesses. The catchers, pitching coach Don Cooper and the pitchers then overlay the two sides to provide a rough game plan. But even then, other factors must be considered, including how that day’s pitcher is throwing.

Smith mentioned that one advantage of game-calling in the majors versus the minors is the consistency of the lineup.

“When you start seeing these teams over and over it’s not like the minor leagues where it might be a new team the next time you face them just because of callups or guys getting sent down,” Smith said. “You can kind of start predetermining a game plan with the guys you’re going to catch against that series and kind of seeing how those guys strengths match up against (hitters) weaknesses. It just puts your mind at ease a little bit and lets you go out and play and kind of slows the game down for you.”

A season’s worth of learning has considerably helped both Narvaez and Smith. Soto has aided the process when he could, specifically being available on the bench at the majority of the team’s home games for counsel. James Shields and Mike Pelfrey have also offered the input only a veteran pitcher can supply.

Salas is hopeful that next season Cooper would feel comfortable enough to allow either catcher to lead a pregame meeting as the White Sox discuss their strategy. Given how Renteria feels, it wouldn’t be a surprise.

“What these two have done over the last three-and-a-half, four months is actually on-the-job training,” Renteria said. “The biggest thing is how they’re going to be able to take a young staff in certain situations and get better and understand how to make adjustments.

“That’s been a huge gain for us.”