Who needs Welington Castillo, anyway?
The White Sox were left with a void when their veteran catcher was suspended for a positive test for a performance-enhancing drug but are are getting strong play behind the plate from Kevan Smith and Omar Narvaez.
“It’s been really good,’’ general manager Rick Hahn said of the catcher’s spot.
Castillo’s 80-game suspension provided one of the low points of a season that has had few high points. Yet the Sox have generated a .737 OPS from their catchers, which ranks behind only the Yankees and the Rays among American League teams. They were eighth last season, when their catchers were Narvaez, Smith and Geovany Soto, and 12th in 2016, with Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila as the primary catchers.
Castillo was signed to a two-year, $15 million contract with a third-year option as a probable upgrade. He had started 30 of 46 games before he was suspended, and Narvaez was hitting .180 with no homers and only one RBI when he played.
Smith was on the Triple-A disabled list when Castillo was suspended, leaving journeyman Alfredo Gonzalez to team with Narvaez for a week, but Hahn says Smith provided a jolt when he arrived on June 5.
“Smitty came up and embraced the opportunity,’’ Hahn said. “He’s been swinging the bat well and working very well with the pitchers. For Narvy, he saw Smitty getting an opportunity, perhaps a little bit more of an opportunity than Omar was getting, and he stepped up his game as well. It’s been a bit of a bright side of a lousy situation when we lost Wely. The two of them have made the most of it, and I like seeing them battle it out for playing time.”
Smith, a former University of Pittsburgh quarterback, is hitting .321 in 78 at-bats. But Narvaez’s emergence has been a bigger development as he’s hitting .354 with two homers and 13 RBIs in 82 at-bats.
Both pride themselves on helping the pitchers they catch, as Narvaez did for Carlos Rodon in his brilliant start against the Cardinals on Wednesday. He had singles that contributed to two of the three rallies in the 4-0 victory, but all reporters wanted to talk about was Rodon’s effectiveness.
“That’s all right with me,’’ said Narvaez, a 26-year-old the Sox selected in the minor-league portion of the Rule 5 draft in 2013. “I’d rather talk about Carlos than myself.’’
Castillo is eligible to rejoin the White Sox on Aug. 23 after a 15-game rehabilitation assignment in the minor leagues. The Sox could look to trade him, but a deal may have to wait until the offseason, as players receiving PED suspensions are not eligible for the postseason.
Narvaez and Smith are playing so well that Castillo could be the odd catcher out.
“We’ll figure that one out,’’ Hahn said. “We’ve had a lot of surprises over the first three months, and I’m not going to project out what our roster looks like in a month. We’ll see. They both have proven themselves to belong at the big-league level, and we’ll adjust ourselves accordingly.”
Extra innings: Bo Jackson, Jack McDowell and Hall of Famers Tim Raines and Frank Thomas are among a large group of players and coaches from the 1993 AL West champion White Sox scheduled to attend Saturday’s reunion. … Hahn said he is excited that right-hander Dylan Cease and center fielder Luis Alexander Basabe will participate in Sunday’s Futures Game at Nationals Park. They were seen as secondary pieces in the Jose Quintana and Chris Sale trades, respectively, but were critical to those trades, he said. “It’s nice to see guys who might not be at the top of mind for people when they think of our system being recognized in that way,’’ Hahn said. … Matt Davidson has hit seven home runs in seven games against the Royals this season, including three on opening day. He’s batting .462 against the Royals and .192 against everyone else.
Phil Rogers is a freelance reporter for the Chicago Tribune.