White Sox showing faith in Flowers, Phegley
General manager Hahn wants young catchers to play, show improvement
CHICAGO -- There were audible groans, visible looks of displeasure and angry commentary intermittently coming from fans filling up SoxFest over the past two days at the Palmer House Hilton.
That reaction had nothing to do with another weekend of frigid temperatures and snow in Chicago. Well, at least not in this instance.
Disappointment directed in the form of questions for general manager Rick Hahn and manager Robin Ventura frequently dealt with two players: Tyler Flowers and Josh Phegley, better known as the White Sox catching tandem entering the 2014 campaign. Rule 5 Draft selection Adrian Nieto stands in that backstop mix, but he's a relative unknown commodity.
White Sox fans remain incredulous that Hahn didn't do enough to upgrade a weak 2013 area. The team ranked last in OPS among AL catchers (.564), last in runs scored (47) and third from the bottom in combined average (.196).
Yet, amidst all this consternation and hand-wringing, the catching position might represent Hahn's expertly approached reshaping plan better than any other spot on the field or on the roster. There were catchers Hahn could have added to the mix, catchers with better 2013 numbers than Flowers and Phegley and owners of solid career numbers, who would have allowed him to sit on the dais at a pair of SoxFest Town Hall Meetings and tell the fans, "I've heard your complaints. We made a change."
Those players weren't long-term fits or difference makers in Hahn's mind. Brian McCann, the one catcher who filled that bill by Hahn's explanation without Hahn ever mentioning his name, signed with the Yankees for five years, $85 million during this offseason.
To Hahn's credit, he didn't waiver from the master formula after McCann went off the board.
"All right, so you move on," Hahn told MLB.com concerning the catching situation. "You then make a decision of do you want to bring in somebody because it's different even though it's a band aid.
"It's a short-term answer, a two-year answer, someone who is a little bit older and you know what you are going to get out of him, and if you get it, it's going to be a slight improvement over what we got from our guys last year. Or do you give guys a chance to have more than 250 at-bats."
Let's try 256 at-bats for Flowers in '13 while working through a shoulder injury and 204 at-bats for Phegley representing the first 204 at-bats of his Major League career. Flowers told MLB.com this past week that he's at 90 percent and will be ready to go for Spring Training following Sept. 5 right shoulder surgery.
Phegley, who attended SoxFest, had a chance to reflect during the offseason on his three-month debut that featured three homers and eight RBIs over his first five games. He came to the conclusion that the mental struggle often was greater than the physical struggle, and he worked best without the hindrance of over-thinking or overanalyzing.
"The organization starts making changes for next year and you've got to start thinking about changes for next year so I think it kind of made me really focus on, 'I want to be a part of this and contribute' and what I need to work on," Phegley said of his offseason thought process. "It was good.
"I'm just kind of trusting myself going into the season. I know that I can be a big league player and help this team win a championship."
Flowers started on Opening Day, '13, launched a game-winning solo homer off of James Shields and caught a 1-0 shutout that included Chris Sale's 7 2/3 innings of seven-hit baseball. Unless Flowers followed up that heroic effort with the same sort of dramatics three or four times per week, the deck was stacked against him to be accepted by a fan base continuing to carry a strong devotion to A.J. Pierzynski.
If there was any doubt to the ongoing Pierzynski connection, the terse SoxFest questions as to why he wasn't brought back reinforced that point. Hahn respectfully praised what Pierzynski accomplished in Chicago, as he should, but again pointed to an attempt at growing this youthful core together as a reason for the move to Flowers and Phegley and their ensuing second chance.
Second chances are great, if you make the most of them. But Flowers, 28 and Phegley, 25, and even Nieto, 24, as the newcomer who has never played above the Carolina League, won't be given season-long carte blanche to make a difference.
"Again they know what's on their plate now," Hahn said. "They know the clock is ticking. In a lot of organizations, they might not have got another opportunity. So we are going to have to see some improvement there and if we don't, we will revisit external options."
Reasonable expectations for true White Sox catching success begins with handling a solid pitching staff, an area where Flowers has received numerous plaudits. Phegley believes the catching tandem can excel well beyond this important ground level.
Skeptical White Sox fans still need to be convinced.
"Just being with Flo [Flowers] last year, you know I've seen him in Spring Training, he can do it. I know I can do it," Phegley said. "The fans are going to realize that after this season.
"I mean the White Sox have shown their faith in Flowers in signing him back and having me back in camp. I think we have the pieces to do it and I know we were both frustrated with last year and we're going to try to put together a good season."