GLENDALE, Ariz. — The White Sox haven’t broken in two new catchers in 11 years, back when A.J. Pierzynski and Chris Widger were brought in before the 2005 season. Since then, either Pierzynski or Tyler Flowers has been the team’s regular starting catcher, providing uncommon consistency for the team’s pitching staff.
The White Sox jettisoned Flowers and signed veterans Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila in the offseason, but pitchers said the adjustment to both has been quick and smooth.
“It’s been great,” left-hander John Danks said. “Two veteran guys who’ve had a lot of success in the big leagues and have seen me a lot, so it’s an easy transition for me personally. Love having them back there."
Left-hander Jose Quintana echoed Danks' sentiment — even though Navarro is a die-hard fan of Barcelona, the El Clasico rival of Quintana's beloved Real Madrid.
“I feel really good with them,” Quintana said. “They have a lot of experience in the big leagues. I think they can help this team. I feel really good with them.”
Between them, Avila and Navarro have caught 11,827 2/3 innings over a combined 19 seasons in the majors. Both rate as good defensive catchers, though Statcorner.com had both as below-average pitch framers in 2015.
There was a certain comfort level many pitchers on this staff had with Flowers that was disrupted by his departure. Flowers, who ironically enough is slated share time with Pierzynski again with the Atlanta Braves, was widely praised for his ability to handle the pitching staff — especially Chris Sale, who heaped praise on Flowers during his streak of eight consecutive games with 10 or more strikeouts last year.
But whatever disruption that existed apparently was been short-lived.
Avila said he and pitching coach Don Cooper had periodic conversations throughout the offseason to familiarize the ex-Detroit Tigers catcher with the repertoires and tendencies of his new teammates. And Navarro said he quickly learned about White Sox pitchers after arriving in Arizona last month — on Friday, he had left-hander Carlos Rodon drop his trusty slider and throw nothing but fastballs and sliders, something the 2014 first-round pick said was “awesome.”
“I’ve been around so many teams for so many years,” Navarro, who’s on his seventh club, said. “One of the things I try to focus on in spring training is to get to know my guys, talking, sharing information with whoever. I just want to see what they’ve got. We don’t go into a game plan. We just want to see what they’ve got and see what happens. Right now is the time to find out what we’re made of and work on the things we need to work on.”
Whether Avila and Navarro represent a marked upgrade over Flowers and last year’s backup, Geovany Soto, remains to be seen. Avila and Navarro combined for 0.8 WAR on the Tigers and Toronto Blue Jays last year; Flowers and Soto were at 1.5 WAR (though it’s worth noting an 0.7 difference isn’t incredibly significant).
Both Avila and Navarro have better on-base skills than Flowers, who has a career .289 on-base percentage. Navarro’s success against left-handers (career .775 OPS) and Avila’s against right-handers (career .781 OPS) could form a solid offensive platoon behind the plate, though.
If the White Sox do see an offensive improvement from their catchers, the expectation about a month through spring training is that it won’t come at the expense of deftly handling the pitching staff.
“Each team has their philosophies and way they like to do things,” Avila said. “At the end of the day, too, it’s just baseball. It’s the same everywhere. I’m not going to say it hasn’t been challenging. There’s a lot of new experiences, new faces, obviously new things to learn. But at the same time it’s gone very smooth.”