While most of the White Sox lineup is set, the battle for the backup catcher role continues to wage on in Spring Training. While some of the other storylines revolve around definite major league-caliber players, ignoring service time (a la Andrew Vaughn), there aren’t a lot of jobs to be won outside of backup catcher.
And while the backup catcher is not likely to log a ton of innings behind the plate in 2021, it is a crucial job for this White Sox team. For one, if something were to happen to the 73 million dollar man, Yasmani Grandal, whoever gets this job would be expected to at least replace some of the production of the second best catcher in baseball. Of course, a team doesn’t expect a backup catcher to replace a 5+ win a year catcher’s production, but you need someone who can actually play.
While the knee issue that has kept Grandal out of Spring play so far seems minor, it’s at least something to keep in mind throughout the backup catcher fight.
La Russa on Grandal: He twisted his knee running in drills and is being held out. Has inflammation there. He won't play in the first two games.
— Scott Merkin (@scottmerkin) February 27, 2021
Catcher Yasmani Grandal (knee) swung it with one of the Sox hitting groups today "and had another good session," La Russa said. "Slow play as they say. But he’s doing more and more . That’s a good sign."
— Daryl Van Schouwen (@CST_soxvan) March 7, 2021
On a similar note, another potential wrinkle of the backup catcher job description will be how well they can fill in at DH, especially if Andrew Vaughn spends the start of the year at AAA/the Alternate Site. How the White Sox handle that promotion will likely influence who gets the job here, so it’s worth it to keep an eye on.
Without further ado, here’s a look at the three main competitors (sorry, Seby) and what they’ve all done (or not done) so far to earn the backup catcher role for the White Sox.
The Backup Catcher Field
As everyone reading this likely knows, the three main combatants for the backup catcher job are White Sox prospects Zack Collins and Yermin Mercedes, and newcomer/minor league contract holder Jonathan Lucroy. While Spring Training numbers are next to worthless, they have all been hitting relatively well so far.
Sure, small sample size galore, but it’s at least encouraging to see that no one is seemingly making it easy. Without further ado, here’s a quick look at the field:
Collins, the 10th overall pick of the 2016 MLB Draft, easily has the highest organizational investment of anyone vying for the backup catcher role. And, for that reason, he’ll be given ample opportunity to win the job. So far in Spring, at least at the plate, Collins has made the most of that opportunity.
Put it on the board! pic.twitter.com/N5JVOodiRr
— Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) March 3, 2021
Of course, if there’s one thing Collins has shown the ability to do, it’s hit the ball. While he’s struggled so far in his small sample size in the majors, he’s shown the ability to mash at every minor league level.
Even with the big league struggles, Collins does show a unique level of patience (read: taking walks) at the plate, something this White Sox team doesn’t have a lot of. Yes, if the strikeouts remain astronomical that will compromise some production, but it’s a tradeoff you can afford to make with a high OBP, solid power, and decent average.
Plus, if he can figure things out at the major league level, having a backup catcher that can be a plus bat from the left side of the plate would be huge in a lineup full of lefty-murdering righties. If that scenario comes to pass, then Collins’ catching ability won’t be as big of a factor, at least while he’s a backup catcher.
Overall, the biggest shame with Collins is that the White Sox still don’t know what they have out of a former top pick. Yes, he’s had opportunities in 2019 and 2020, but here it would be nice to know more definitively.
While Mercedes may not have the organizational pedigree Zack Collins does, he more than makes up for that in fan love. While a relative unknown for most of his career, he originally stepped onto the scene in Spring Training 2020, winning hearts and minds across Chicagoland with his ridiculously forceful hacks that resulted in moonshots into the Camelback Ranch sky.
"I'll be back."- Yermin Mercedes to home plate immediately before this pitch. #Yerminated. pic.twitter.com/u10xYazT8s
— Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) March 9, 2020
So far in Spring Training 2021 as he yet again competes for the backup catcher job, Mercedes has continued to sting the ball, his calling card.
If anyone accuses me of not providing Yermín Mercedes content, I now have grounds for a libel suit pic.twitter.com/Ky9M4u1In7
— James Fegan (@JRFegan) March 3, 2021
At the same time, everything said about Collins can be said about Mercedes, and then some. Offense is there, defense not so much, not withstanding the couple of runners he’s gunned down at second this Spring.
While he can certainly hit the ball hard, it makes you wonder where he stands in the eyes of the organization if he’s only been given one major league plate appearance in his career thus far. Yes, he’s a fun story, but if he was more than that he likely would’ve been given more shots before the Sox were a bona fide World Series contender.
If the Sox want someone with power from the right side to come off the bench or occasionally DH, Mercedes may just win the backup catcher job. Unfortunately for Mercedes, the Sox have plenty of right handed mashers with Major League experience on the roster already.
It’s hard to see a scenario where he would be one of two catchers on the roster.
Lucroy is perhaps the most interesting of the three here. A two time All Star who was once considered one of the top catchers in baseball, Lucroy has fallen off (mainly injury related) from the days of his early career success.
Though he’s hit well this Spring, it’s hard to envision a scenario where he approaches production similar to when he was a 7+ win catcher back in Milwaukee. Luckily for both involved parties, as a backup catcher Lucroy wouldn’t be expected to be anything close to that.
If there’s one thing he has that the other two don’t it’s experience. Even if he’s not who he was, that matters over the course of 162 games. Especially when the starting catcher is arguably the best pitch-framer in baseball. Dropping off from that to someone who can’t adequately catch at the big league level would be disastrous in the case of injury.
My Prediction for the Backup Catcher
The first thing I’ll say here is that I don’t foresee a scenario where Mercedes breaks camp in the majors, barring one doomsday scenario: Grandal being hurt and Vaughn starting in the minors. Then there’s a chance, since you’d need two non-Grandal catchers on the roster. That’s incredibly scary, so I’d rather not consider it.
What it comes down to is that Mercedes lacks the organizational pedigree of Collins, and the experience of Lucroy. Plus, his skillset of mashing lefties is something the Sox already excel at.
That leaves us with Lucroy and Collins. In one scenario, the Sox carry three catchers, especially if Vaughn isn’t up to start. In that case, I guess both Lucroy and Collins win the backup catcher job. Everything indicates that to be an unlikely outcome, though.
La Russa says Sox are deep in catching and carrying three catchers was talked about because Grandal will dh at times, 'but ideally it would not be the way to go.'
— Daryl Van Schouwen (@CST_soxvan) March 3, 2021
If I had to stake a claim here, I’d put my money on Lucroy opening the season as the backup catcher. If Vaughn is up to start the year, I’d bet the mortgage on it. In that case, the backup catcher won’t have many opportunities to play even as a DH, so it makes sense to go with the more experienced catcher.
If Vaughn isn’t up, I’d still lean towards Lucroy, but that would leave an interesting opportunity for Collins to DH. New manager Tony La Russa seems to prefer veteran type players, which gives Lucroy the edge if he has final say. If Lucroy continues to hit well this Spring, the job is likely as good as his.
In either scenario, there are two main takeaways I have on the backup catcher battle:
- Man, it sucks to not have Grandal and James McCann anymore.
- Thank God the White Sox are in a stage where one of the biggest Spring Training battles is who is going to be the *backup* catcher. Life is good on the South Side in 2021.