Omar Narvaez

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

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USA TODAY

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

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USA TODAY

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.”

Cool as a cucumber, Reynaldo Lopez stayed calm to pick up his first White Sox win

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USA TODAY

Cool as a cucumber, Reynaldo Lopez stayed calm to pick up his first White Sox win

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kauffman Stadium crowd was fired up in the fifth inning Monday night, the enthusiasm of Royals fans growing with each hit.

The momentum built every time Kansas City scored as the Royals quickly closed the gap from five runs to two. But even as the chaos continued around him, White Sox rookie Reynaldo Lopez was the picture of calm on the mound.

Since he arrived in the big leagues last month, the White Sox have noticed their prized pitching prospect is unflappable when it comes to big moments. When everyone else’s pulse is increasing, Lopez is cool as a cucumber, trying to figure out how to escape the jam he’s in. The belief is that this poise displayed by Lopez — who earned his first White Sox victory with six-plus strong innings on Monday — will pay great dividends as he makes his way through the American League for the first time.

“He’s truly very focused on what his game plan is and how he’s going to attack hitters,” manager Rick Renteria said. “I think he does trust his stuff. I think he’s very self-critical, you can see it after a walk when he comes into the dugout. He’s upset with himself for not having executed certain things. But he keeps it under control understanding in his head what he’s going to do next time in that particular situation. The demeanor is very poised for a person of his age.”

While it doesn’t have the same rock concert-type atmosphere as Dodger Stadium, Kauffman is no joke when the crowd gets going. The White Sox have seen the park’s effect many times in recent years, notably in last season’s Memorial Day Weekend meltdown. One hit gets the boisterous crowd going, and before you know it an avalanche of noise is headed your way.

Lopez got his first taste in the fifth as his five-run lead nearly evaporated.

Brandon Moss blasted a solo homer to make it a 5-1 game. Kauffman then started to buzz when Alex Gordon singled with one out and the volume increased substantially when Whit Merrifield hit a run-scoring triple. Merrifield’s hit brought Don Cooper to the mound for a visit and yet even that didn’t stop the bleeding as Lorenzo Cain followed with a run-scoring single.

As much as the situation seemed to be getting out of hand, Lopez didn’t rattle. He instead made a quick adjustment and retired Melky Cabrera and Eric Hosmer to escape with the two-run lead.

“It gets pretty loud,” catcher Omar Narvaez said. “But he’s the same guy. The only thing I saw was he was leaving the arm behind, which left the ball up. But he made the adjustment to come back and get everybody else.

“He’s just been the same guy, trying to attack the zone and make them swing. That’s why he’s effective because first of all he throws strikes and second he makes everybody swing. That’s the most important for a pitcher.”

Lopez followed with a six-run White Sox rally in the sixth with another important aspect of pitching — a quick inning. The right-hander bounced back from a lengthy fifth with a seven-pitch sixth inning. The quick frame kept Lopez’s pitch count down enough where the White Sox brought him back for the seventh inning on a hitter-by-hitter basis. Lopez allowed a leadoff single in the seventh and was pulled immediately, but would have continued on had he recorded an out.

“I just tried harder to keep my focus, to not lose my focus on the game in (the fifth inning),” Lopez said through an interpreter. “And I was able to do that, and that’s why I was able to get out of that situation.”

Renteria thinks it’s partly because of who Lopez is and in part because of his previous major league experience. The way Lopez has operated so far has impressed the White Sox manager.

“I do think one of things he does have is a tremendous confidence about him,” Renteria said. “He’s not an arrogant person. He’s a person that keeps it within and knows how to go out there and kind of control his emotions a little bit. He’s very good at doing it right now.”