Friday, April 3, 2015

Future is now for White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers

It seems pretty odd that one of the more controversial players for White Sox fans is catcher Tyler Flowers. Yes, he was once a good prospect acquired in trade for a pretty good pitcher. No, he has never lived up to his prospect hype or the expectations his minor league resume stirred (.275/.391/.484 on the farm vs. .218/.287/.396 with the Sox).

The pent-up frustration was shuffled to the back burner this offseason with the 29-year-old receiver coming off an up-and-down, but overall solid season (.241/.297/.396). The Sox maybe inadvertently created a smoke screen when they made big improvements to other parts of the roster. A look at some of the free agent options might have convinced fans there wasn't a catcher upgrade available that didn't cost an arm and a leg. And maybe there also was the realization that Flowers isn't really holding the Sox back.

So Flowers enters this year as the unquestioned starter with the fragile Geovany Soto as his backup. But Flowers' advancing age and increasingly large salaries mean the position will almost certainly be re-examined soon.

Should Flowers bomb, he'll be non-tendered the way Gordon Beckham was once the paychecks he was set to earn through arbitration exceed his usefulness to a team, only receiving an invitation to return after agreeing to diminished pay and playing time.

If Flowers is fine again, I imagine the Sox will keep bringing him back through arbitration. They can do that potentially through the 2017 season, after which he'll be 32-years-old. When considering monetary commitments against performance, this might be the optimal situation for the Sox, even if Flowers is just "good enough."

Is Flowers the kind of catcher who will age well into his 30s?

I think the better question is are there any catchers you'd want to rely on as a starter once he reaches 30. Recent history makes that proposition seem pretty bleak.

Here are all the catchers the last decade who have started at least 90 games in their 30s by year, indicating they were at least the dominant half of a platoon. Catchers who didn't start at least 110 games have an asterisk. (That's a little arbitrary, but for perspective, the fewest games that A.J. Pierzynski started at catcher during his time with the Sox was 112 games in 2011).:

Jason Kendall (31)
Mike Matheny (34)
Jason Varitek (33)
Ivan Rodriguez (33)
Gregg Zaun (34)
Jorge Posada (33)
Paul Lo Duca (33)
Mike Lieberthal (33)
Jason LaRue (31)*
Bengie Molina (30)*
Mike Piazza (36)*
Damian Miller (35)*

Jason Kendall (32)
Kenji Johjima (30)
Ramon Hernandez (30)
Brad Ausmus (37)
Jorge Posada (34)
Ivan Rodriguez (34)
Paul Lo Duca (34)
Johnny Estrada (30)*
Mike Piazza (37)*
Damian Miller (36)*

Jason Kendall (33)
Kenji Johjima (31)
Bengie Molina (32)
Jorge Posada (35)
Jason Varitek (35)
Brian Schneider (30)
Ivan Rodriguez (35)
A.J. Pierzynski (30)
Paul Lo Duca (35)
Johnny Estrada (31)
Brad Ausmus (38)*
David Ross (30)*
Ramon Hernandez (31)*
Gregg Zaun (36)*

Jason Kendall (34)
Bengie Molina (33)
A.J. Pierzynski (31)
Jason Varitek (36)
Ramon Hernandez (32)
Ivan Rodriguez (36)*
Brian Schneider (31)*
Kenji Johjima (32)*
Rod Barajas (32)*

Jason Kendall (35)
A.J. Pierzynski (32)
Bengie Molina (34)
Rod Barajas (33)
Ivan Rodriguez (37)*
Jason Varitek (37)*
Carlos Ruiz (30)*
Miguel Olivo (30)*

A.J. Pierzynski (33)
Jason Kendall (36)
Carlos Ruiz (31)*
Miguel Olivo (31)*
Victor Martinez (31)*
Bengie Molina (35)*
Ivan Rodriguez (38)*

John Buck (30)
Miguel Olivo (32)
A.J. Pierzynski (34)
Yorvit Torrealba (32)*

A.J. Ellis (31)
A.J. Pierzynski (35)
John Buck (31)*
Ryan Hanigan (31)*
Rod Barajas (36)*
Carlos Ruiz (33)*

Yadier Molina (30)
Russell Martin (30)
A.J. Pierzynski (36)
A.J. Ellis (32)*
Chris Iannetta (30)*
John Buck (32)*
Chris Stewart (31)*

Miguel Montero (30)
Kurt Suzuki (30)
Carlos Ruiz (35)*
Russell Martin (31)*
Yadier Molina (31)*
Dioner Navarro (30)*
Brian McCann (31)*
Chris Iannetta (31)*

Probably nobody needed to see this list to realize catching is a younger player's position. The sampling of players is too small to make any sweeping generalizations, but it looks like the bumper crop of older catchers in the early 2000s was bolstered by a few aging Hall-of-Fame candidates (Piazza, Posada, Rodriguez), guys with occasionally big bats (Lieberthal, Lo Duca), guys who played forever because of good defensive reputations (Miller, Ausmus, Molina), and some guys who played forever I guess because they could (Kendall, Zaun). Pierzynski and Varitek are anomalies here in that they played a lot, and played well.

Even with things in baseball being cyclical, I suspect three things will keep this list from expanding again: 1) The increased emphasis on defense and pitch framing will keep guys with big bats like Piazza and Posada from catching a huge number of games if their gloves don't age as well; 2) Teams that have invested in big hitting catchers will try to keep the bat from aging by shuffling those guys to other positions, like the Twins have done with Joe Mauer, the Indians, Red Sox and Tigers did with Victor Martinez and the Yankees are likely to do with Brian McCann; and 3) Stricter testing for performance enhancing drugs will likely keep some guys from staying as healthy as they once did, a situation only unique to catching in the sense that no other position faces as much wear and tear.

So assuming Father Time remains unbeaten, the Sox will be happy to make do with Flowers, which is really what most teams do at the catcher position, anyway. Hopefully while avoiding a huge commitment to an aging receiver while they wait for a better, younger catcher to be had.

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