"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.