Backup Backstop Battle - five men enter, one man leaves

The starting catching job with the White Sox to open 2015 seems pretty well locked in with Tyler Flowers. But who backs him up? And do any of these players have enough to potentially supplant him as the year goes on?

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Unlike the field vying for starting at second base, the group going after the backup catcher’s role has a somewhat clear frontrunner: Geovany Soto. Comments from the team, Soto’s major league experience, defensive skills and even his comfort level with Jeff Samardzija all hint that it is his job to lose. But that’s not to say he’s guaranteed the job. His recent offensive output has been up and down, and in 2014 he played just 24 games (.250/.302/.363) amid a myriad of injuries (right knee, left foot, groin), but his overall record of major league success is the best of the crowd. Defensively, the 2008 NL Rookie of the Year is considered above average in the key aspects, and he’s thrown out 35% of attempted base-stealers in the past two seasons. If he’s healthy, the 32-year old offers a profile that makes him a strong backup, and he may even push Flowers for the starting job as the season progresses.

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After Soto it gets a lot more fuzzy, but it appears at this point that Rob Brantly may have the best shot if Soto struggles or gets hurt again. Working in his favor: he’s a lefty bat to foil against Flowers’ righty, the defensive skills are considered pretty strong, he’s still fairly young at 25 and not even arbitration eligible until 2017, and there’s still some room for development. On the flip side, he doesn’t have the power shown by some of his competitors, doesn’t draw a ton of walks and has much less MLB experience than a couple of his rivals. Positive early reports from a couple reporters at camp on Brantly seem to hint that he’s showing up well so far, but we’ll know a lot more when games begin.

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Right on Brantly’s heels is George Kottaras, signed in the offseason to a minor league deal much like Soto. Kottaras is a veteran of ten different MLB organizations and has 313 MLB games under his belt. This Canadian has shown some good pop from the left side, and he draws a lot of walks, giving him an OBP that has hovered around .350 the past few seasons. Defensively he’s not as strong as Soto or Brantly and he doesn’t hit for much average (career .215), so those factors will work against him. But there’s not much daylight between Kottaras and Brantly at this point.

Nieto FS

Then there’s the enigma – last year’s backup catcher, Adrian Nieto. Nieto was selected in the Rule V draft, taking him from High A ball straight to the majors. Not surprisingly, while he showed flashes of potential, he was a bit overmatched especially at the plate. And even though he gained the benefit of spending a full season around major leaguers, in some respects his development was actually slowed by the move. As such, despite spending the full year in the role last year, Nieto will almost assuredly head back to the minors to get full time play, likely in AA with the Barons.

Kevan Smith

The last catcher in big league camp is Kevan Smith, the only one without major league experience. While Smith has some significant potential much like Nieto, he’s never played above AA and it would take some injuries or unforeseen circumstances above him to have a real shot at an MLB job to open the season. Smith should open 2015 in AAA Charlotte after a strong showing in Birmingham last year.

If I had to put numbers to my impressions of the field, I’d say Soto has a 50% chance at the job, if including potential health issues in the equation (a healthy Soto is higher). Brantly comes in at 25%, Kottaras 20%, and Nieto and Smith at 5% combined. But I wouldn’t recommend going to Vegas on it.

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