Three catchers unlikely for Sox, highlighting backup battle originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
As Tony La Russa and White Sox pitchers keep raving about the job every catcher in camp is doing, the idea of carrying three backstops isn't a crazy one.
But it doesn't sound like that will be happening.
"There is a lot of catching talent in this camp," La Russa said before Wednesday's spring game, a 6-5 loss to the Kansas City Royals. "Because of the quality of that talent, we thought about it. And also because (Yasmani Grandal) can be a DH, at times. But what's working against that is that X's a position player that may be more important. We may lose an infielder, combination infielder/outfielder.
"So ideally, it would not be the way that we would go. We'd do it if we had to, but it wouldn't hurt us as far as the catching because this is a very deep catching situation, one of the deepest I've seen."
For Zack Collins, Yermín Mercedes and Jonathan Lucroy — and even Seby Zavala, who got a shoutout from La Russa on Wednesday — that means hunker down, because the position battle to back up Grandal on the White Sox catching depth chart is on and only one guy will win it.
Grandal has been sidelined for several days now, yet to play in any Cactus League games as he works his way back from a twisted knee sustained during a running drill last week. In his absence, the guys competing for the backup job have taken advantage of expanded opportunity: Collins is 2-for-4 with a couple of walks, homering in Wednesday's game as the DH; Mercedes is 3-for-5, with a pair of RBI singles Wednesday; and Lucroy is 2-for-2, doubling Tuesday while catching staff ace Lucas Giolito.
In other words, these guys aren't making it easy on the decision-makers.
Coming into camp, Collins and Mercedes were viewed, perhaps, as the leading candidates, considering the impressions they've made swinging the bats in the minor leagues. The All-Star catching tandem of Grandal and James McCann meant neither got much opportunity in 2020. Defensive questions have followed them throughout their pro careers.
That pointed to Lucroy as a potential dark horse. It's been years since he was producing at the level that sent him to a pair of All-Star Games with the Milwaukee Brewers. But he has experience catching big league pitchers and the sort of veteran knowhow the White Sox prioritized importing this winter ahead of a season with World Series expectations.
These guys have made the competition fun in the first few gamedays, one-upping each other, no one falling behind in the race for that job. While the expected-to-be-soon Grandal return might limit at-bats here and there, La Russa mentioned the point in the Cactus League schedule when games expand from the shortened six or seven innings to the full nine, opening up back halves of games to get another catcher in.
The three catchers played in a combined 11 games in 2020: Collins leading the pack by a mile with nine and Mercedes and Lucroy getting into just one apiece. But all three have reason to believe that a big 2021 is in store.
Collins said Wednesday he used the lack of action to spend time getting in shape and getting as strong as possible. He's also made some defensive changes he says have been well received.
"I’ve got great feedback," he said. "I’ve kind of switched my stance, catching on a knee almost all the time. That is different and new for me, and it felt good. Had a couple good blocks, throwing feels great, getting nothing but positive feedback, it’s been good so far."
Mercedes, who played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, talked about his own defensive improvements working with new White Sox catching instructor Jerry Narron.
"We’re working a lot, blocking, receiving, mentality," he said. "That’s the goal, the mentality with the pitchers, the sequence, be ready for everything. The most we can do is be focused in the game, see what’s going on, like, 'Oh, that play, we can make it.' Blocking, receiving the ball. We do the best we can do in the practice. We feel great with that."
And Lucroy is excited to show what he can do offensively after getting a nagging injury addressed following the 2019 season.
"At the end of 2016, I herniated a disc in my neck. If you look at my numbers that year, I hit pretty well, and it became a steady decline from there. I'm 100 percent of the belief that was the main issue that caused all that," Lucroy said last month. "I had it corrected. ... Suffice to say, it's been pretty amazing the recovery that I've had."
It might seem like a little too much attention to pay to a battle for a spot that will get a start once every five days. Grandal is the top dog, remember, touted left and right as one of the best catchers in baseball.
But there aren't many jobs to be won on a roster built for championship contention. Plus, the level of this competition has been high to this point, allowing for some daily drama to see what will happen next.
"We've got a serious competition for the catching spot on this ballclub," La Russa said Sunday. "That'll be one of the fun things to watch."