Kevan Smith

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

1201-welington-castillo.jpg
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

kevan_smith.jpg
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.”

'Improved' Juan Minaya adds split-fingered fastball to repertoire

minaya.jpg
USA TODAY

'Improved' Juan Minaya adds split-fingered fastball to repertoire

The White Sox wanted Juan Minaya to add another pitch when he casually mentioned a few weeks back he throws a split-fingered fastball.

The hope is to another pitch could help the rookie reliever improve against left-handed hitters. Minaya -- who has converted seven of eight saves with 49 strikeouts and a 4.75 ERA in 41 2/3 innings -- threw a split-finger fastball when he pitched in the Houston Astros farm system. But Minaya said the Astros thought he threw it too hard and discouraged its use. The White Sox are more than happy to have Minaya be able to attack another quadrant.

“The (changeup/split-fingered fastball) has been a nice addition,” pitching coach Don Cooper said. “We’re also trying to get him better and more consistent with his breaking stuff.

“Minaya has probably been one of the most improved guys, from the moment we picked him up from Houston, getting his delivery better. He’s throwing more strikes than he ever has with all of his pitches and the delivery enables that.”

Minaya, 27, hasn’t been scored upon in his last five appearances, though Avisail Garcia bailed him out with an assist on a wild game-ending play on Friday night.

Part of that success has come from the addition of the split-fingered fastball, which Minaya has thrown 16 times this month. Before September, Minaya had thrown the pitch only 11 times at the big-league level.

[MORE: Where does Jose Abreu fit in long-term plans?]

Minaya already throws a four-seam fastball, curve and a slider. But the split gives him a secondary pitch for lefties, who have an .829 OPS against Minaya this season.

“You can see he has confidence in it because he’s shaking to it a lot, which I love,” said catcher Kevan Smith. “He needed to throw that off his fastball. He has more than above average breaking stuff, but he broke it out a few weeks ago and we were like, ‘You’ve been holding out on us all season with that.’ That’s just going to bring more value to him, make more effective. A little more confident and successful.”

With the team’s entire original bullpen cast either traded or injured, Minaya has temporarily been thrust into the closer’s role. The mild-mannered righty has handled the ninth as well as could be expected and has shown the White Sox he has the stuff to potentially help out in the bullpen moving forward. Minaya would like to improve his fastball command but is pleased with how he’s handled a tricky situation. He’s also glad to have the White Sox supporting him throwing the split-fingered fastball.

“The other day I was talking with Coop and he said you need to get another pitch for lefties,” Minaya said. “I said I can throw the split, but I throw it hard. He said OK and I started throwing.

“The ninth inning is a tough inning, but you have to go out and compete.”