The Yasmani Grandal signing seems like a home run for the White Sox.
The four-year deal with the free-agent catcher is the richest in team history, and though it didn’t address one of the specific, positional needs Rick Hahn laid out at the start of the offseason, Grandal is a no-doubt upgrade at the catcher position and allows the White Sox to ink in his name behind the plate for much of the next half decade.
Hahn said during a Thursday conference call that he could spend 20 or 30 minutes talking about everything Grandal brings to the White Sox. Let’s start making a list.
A long-term answer at catcher
Yes, the White Sox already had an All-Star catcher in James McCann. Yes, they have a first-round pick right behind McCann on the depth chart in Zack Collins. But while both hold promise, neither provides the long-term stability that Grandal does.
McCann had an All-Star first half in 2019, powered by a .316/.371/.502 slash line, but his numbers dipped significantly after the All-Star break: a .226/.281/.413 line in his final 55 games. Which sort of McCann will the White Sox get in 2020? It’s impossible to say at the moment. Similarly, how Collins will fare at the major league level remains an unknown.
Grandal is decidedly not an unknown, with a track record of production the White Sox can count on not just in 2020 but for the next four seasons. His deal lines up perfectly with the White Sox long-term plans for a lengthy contention window, giving them an answer at catcher similar to the in-house answers they’ve developed with Eloy Jimenez, Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson and hopefully Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal.
Hahn touted Grandal as an incredibly hard-worker, echoing many of the traits players ascribed to McCann in 2019. The White Sox often talk about the off-the-field impact any of their additions can have, and Grandal is no exception.
Hahn was quick to talk about how “all in” Grandal was from the jump.
“The best example I can give of that is we met with him in Phoenix last Tuesday afternoon during the GM meetings. I think it was by Thursday, he had reached back out and requested video of each of our starters and wanted to spend some time getting to know each of them,” Hahn said. “He had some familiarity from afar but wanted to spend some up close time learning their strengths and weaknesses and how to get them better.
“He and I, since things became official late last night, we’ve been texting back and forth about various guys both on our roster and available throughout the league.
“He really has a deep, deep knowledge of how to maximize a pitcher’s ability. He’s tireless worker. Knock on wood, he’s been extremely durable and someone you can rely upon to not necessarily maybe not helping you offensively on a given night to have an impact on the game plan and the execution of that plan on a nightly basis.”
A Cuban native, Grandal might be the latest addition to the White Sox growing Cuban contingent that includes Jose Abreu, Moncada and soon, Robert.
Power (and some left-handed power at that)
Grandal isn’t a 40-homer thumper, but he swings one of the most powerful bats you’ll find among big league catchers. In fact, he leads the position with 117 home runs since 2015 and ranks third among major league backstops with 322 RBIs during the same span. He reached new career highs with 28 home runs and 77 RBIs in 2019.
Grandal’s 28 homers in 2019 were surpassed by just two White Sox hitters: Abreu hit 33 of them to lead the team, and Jimenez had 31 in his rookie season. Moncada was the next closest with 25 dingers. So Grandal provides not only a power boost at catcher — McCann hit 10 fewer homers in 2019 — but to the lineup as a whole.
Grandal is also a switch-hitter, meaning he’ll provide some left-handed pop when the White Sox face a right-handed pitcher. Seventeen of his 28 homers last year came as a left-handed batter.
Even more useful to the White Sox lineup than 28 additional home runs are the on-base skills he brings. Grandal reached base at a .380 clip in 2019 and has a .348 on-base percentage in his career. His 2019 on-base percentage would have led the White Sox, who ranked 23rd out of 30 major league teams with a .314 team on-base percentage.
Grandal walked 109 times in 2019, the fourth highest total in the game. Two of the only three players to walk more times were Mike Trout and Alex Bregman. It’s an understatement to say that those 109 walks would have led the White Sox, who had the fewest walks in baseball, with 378. Not only was Grandal’s walk total nearly a third of the White Sox team total, he walked more than twice as many times as the White Sox team leader in 2019, Yolmer Sanchez, who walked 44 times.
“Altering the offensive profile and improving our ability to get on base, and thereby score runs, is a priority for us,” Hahn said. “This helps that a lot. Obviously, he was second in the National League last year in walks. A .380 OBP would look very nice in our lineup, and that profile is a big positive when it comes to scoring runs and hopefully something that, as a veteran player, he is able to help model and reinforce the message from our coaches in terms of the importance of that.”
Grandal has a reputation as a very good pitch-framer behind home plate, a valuable skill as long as human beings are still calling balls and strikes. Like all defensive metrics, it’s not as easily understood as batting average and home runs, but the Statcast metric Runs from Extra Strikes evaluated Grandal as one of the best in the game, saying he saved 13 runs for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2019 with his framing alone.
“We've always viewed it as important,” Hahn said of pitch-framing. “Obviously, Yasmani is very strong in the framing area, and that’s a huge positive for our pitchers and it's a good portion of the benefit that he brings.
“We knew we ranked last year both externally and internally in terms of our framing metrics. And it was an area where we could get better.”
Grandal is chiefly the White Sox new No. 1 catcher, but could he also be part of the solution at designated hitter? That’s one of the White Sox stated offseason goals, to find a new DH, but perhaps Grandal’s presence now creates a viable in-house solution as part of a rotation including Abreu, Collins and McCann.
Grandal will catch most days, but on days when he needs a break from squatting and wearing the gear, the White Sox will still want his bat in the lineup. What better way to do that than to utilize him at DH, or perhaps also at first base. Hahn said last week that Abreu will continue to DH some, in addition to his primary duties at first. Grandal could play first base on days when Abreu rests up as a designated hitter.
That versatility gives the White Sox options. Perhaps they still desire to add a DH from outside the organization this winter. Perhaps they use a rotation to give an opportunity for Collins to keep swinging his potentially dangerous bat at the big league level.
"It gives us options there," Hahn said. "But it's Nov. 21. We've got a lot of offseason left. So let's see what else comes together over the coming months, and if in fact it winds up where Zack or a combination of Yasmani and James in the DH spot is the best option, then we'll see how that works out.
"It's a little too early to say that's exactly how it'll line up come late March."
A sign of things to come?
Grandal’s addition is a huge one, but it’s perhaps just the first of many. Obviously the White Sox still need to find a right fielder and a couple arms for their starting rotation. They might still be on the prowl for a DH.
So there could be more days like this coming. As for whether Grandal’s presence could help the White Sox lure other free agent, particularly pitchers, remains to be seen. But the White Sox have at least started this important offseason with an important showing of willingness to pay big for impact talent.
“I'm going to let the action speak for itself,” Hahn said. “I'm not going to prognosticate how this plays or how people should interpret it or what this means in terms of what we're going to do next.
“The impact this has on future deals, we'll talk about after there's future deals. And we'll let those players — if in fact it played a role in their decision-making process — we'll let them speak to it. But from our perspective, this is an elite add at a premium position today. That's a real good thing. And now it's on to the next one.”
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