White Sox

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.

Michael Kopech's arrival shows White Sox and a rebuild-loving fan base what progress looks like

Michael Kopech's arrival shows White Sox and a rebuild-loving fan base what progress looks like

Tangible, visible, hit-you-over-the-head obvious signs of progress have at times seemed hard to come by for the rebuild-loving legions watching the White Sox on a nightly basis during this developmental 2018 campaign.

That’s not to say there haven’t been tons of positives throughout the organization. Those who sprung for the MiLB.TV package have been able to see every Eloy Jimenez home run, and people around the baseball world found out just how fantastic Dylan Cease has been when he represented the organization at the Futures Game.

But the inconsistencies of Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, the strikeout-heavy first full major league season from Yoan Moncada and the early season demotion of Carson Fulmer have left those watching the big league team praying for some sign that things are improving.

Enter Michael Kopech.

The news that the team’s top-ranked pitching prospect, one of the top 15 prospects in baseball, will make his major league debut Tuesday night at Guaranteed Rate Field must have seemed like an oasis in a 31-games-below-.500 desert when it was announced Sunday afternoon.

It’s sure to make for an even more hyped atmosphere than the one that greeted Yoan Moncada last July, when the No. 1 prospect in the game made his debut in a White Sox uniform. And while the architects of this rebuilding effort know the inner workings of the organization like no outsider ever could, they’re going to be part of that atmosphere Tuesday, too, part of a celebration of progress coming to the South Side.

“As focused as we have been, the front office and even White Sox fans, on the future and progress we feel we’re making, we’ve also been tested,” general manager Rick Hahn said on a conference call Monday morning. “We’ve talked about, going back to last offseason, this would very likely be the most difficult year of the rebuild and the patience this year would require would be a challenge for all of us. So I do think it’s important to try and enjoy these moments along the way where you do see that progress.

“We can talk all we want about how we’re only in Year 2 and that it is going to take time and there is a bright future ahead of us, but we’re all human, we’re all sports fans, we all want to see progress along the way. That has nothing to do with the timing of making a move like this, but when a move like this does occur and when the developmental reasons line up accordingly, we all should take a moment to enjoy the progress and excitement that comes.”

Those paying close enough attention knew what Hahn cautioned prior to the beginning of the season, that this was going to be the hardest part of the rebuild. Tom Petty said it first, to be fair, that the waiting is the hardest part, and that’s what 2018 was always going to be for the White Sox, a waiting game. The incredible amount of talent Hahn brought into the system needed time to develop, and in many cases it still does.

And so during that waiting came what fans and observers have seen on a nightly basis at the major league level. For the young players who are still slated to be key pieces of the team’s long-term plans, we’ve seen growing pains and the continued development that comes in the bigs. In certain cases, we’ve seen players who are fighting to make themselves a part of the long-term plans and players who simply won’t end up being a part of those long-term plans.

But few players are expected to have as a big a starring role as Kopech, hence the excitement surrounding his promotion. He’s tantalized with his last seven starts at Triple-A Charlotte, posting a 1.84 ERA with a ridiculous strikeout-to-walk ratio — 59 punch outs and only four free passes — over his last 44 innings.

While fans have been clamoring for promotions — be it of Kopech or top-ranked prospect Eloy Jimenez — for months, it’s taken this long into the season for a big one to come to the major league team. That, too, has all been part of the plan. Hahn mentioned multiple times throughout the year that how the team handled Giolito and Lopez a season ago could be a kind of template for how they handled Kopech this season. And while all three are different pitchers dealing with their own developments, Kopech will make his debut one day away from the one-year anniversary of Giolito’s White Sox debut.

In the end, though, Kopech’s promotion is the manifestation of the patience Hahn said everyone involved with this organization — him and his own front office included — had to practice this season. The White Sox waited until they knew Kopech was absolutely ready. They didn’t make a promotion to better a team that wasn’t contending for a playoff spot or to please an antsy fan base hungry to see progress happen as soon as possible. Baseball players constantly say that it’s all about execution. Well, Hahn and the White Sox executed their plan exactly how they wanted.

“Outside noise or emotion or even passion or excitement for seeing the rebuild progress has nothing to do with our decisions in terms of the timing of promotions,” Hahn said. “Each of these decisions are motivated by what’s best in terms of putting both the organization and the individual player in the best long-term position to reach their potential.

“We knew the 2018 season would be a challenging one and one in which we were going to have to not fall prey to outside influences or the influence of outside factors beyond what’s best for the organization and what’s best for our players’ long-term development. It’s going to require patience. I think you’ve seen that we’ve exhibited that this season, and we’re going to have to continue to do that throughout the coming weeks and months.

“The short-term gratification that would come from eliminating white noise or promoting a high-profile player just isn’t worth it when you consider the long-term benefits that come from us just showing the requisite patience that is required to put these guys in the best long-term position to succeed.”

Now it’s time for Kopech to execute his own plan and meet the huge expectations he has for himself and that Chicago has for him.

But for those watching the big league team, this is the hit-you-over-the-head sign of progress you’ve been waiting for, a tangible sign that the rebuild is moving forward.

White Sox Talk Podcast: White Sox call up Michael Kopech

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USA TODAY

White Sox Talk Podcast: White Sox call up Michael Kopech

With the big news that Michael Kopech is coming to the majors, Chuck Garfien and Vinnie Duber talk about the decision by the Sox to bring up their top pitching prospect and the excitement that Kopech will bring to the team and the 2018 season.

Kevan Smith discusses what kind of stuff Kopech has and what it was like catching him in the minor leagues. Plus, they talk about Paul Konerko’s unforgettable day in the booth with Hawk Harrelson.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: