The American League Central appears to have become more competitive this offseason, with the White Sox making many significant moves that should signal the opening of their window of contention after years of rebuilding.
That gives the division, realistically, three contenders: the White Sox, Indians and Twins, with the Royals and Tigers continuing to revamp their operations with an eye on jumping back into the fray in the next couple of seasons.
In our first “Around the Horn” installment of 2020, let’s examine how the AL Central teams stack up against one another at one of the most important positions on the field -- catcher. Several teams have improved in this area in different ways. The White Sox nabbed a bona fide All-Star, the Indians will lean on an emerging defensive whiz, the Royals “reacquired” a team icon, the Tigers pivoted to a proven veteran and the Twins will return a star player behind the dish.
So whose catching “won” the offseason? Drum roll, please …
It’s only fitting that one of the Majors' most improved teams this offseason is lauded for having the best catching tandem in the AL Central. The combination of Yasmani Grandal and James McCann gives the White Sox one of the best catching duos in the game. Grandal, who joined the team via a four-year, $73 million free-agent deal this offseason, can help Chicago in so many ways. He’s a power-packed switch-hitter with a career .348 on-base percentage and is one of the best pitch-framers. Grandal also has a clear plan and connection with the pitchers, something he started working on as soon as he joined the White Sox. McCann was an All-Star in 2019, although he struggled in the second half with a slash line of .226/.281/.413. Right-hander Lucas Giolito, a ’19 All-Star in his own right, raved about McCann’s game preparation and handling of the pitching staff.
The rest (listed alphabetically)
The Tribe’s catching crew may not top the charts offensively, but it’ll be hard to find a better defensive backstop than Roberto Pérez. In his first season as a starter, Pérez compiled a franchise-record .997 fielding percentage (three errors in 1,137 total chances) and was the only catcher in the Majors to catch over 100 games (118) without permitting a passed ball. His 29 Defensive Runs Saved outpaced all other AL catchers by at least 17 runs, which resulted in the then-30-year-old receiving his first Gold Glove Award. He’ll look to build on his career-high 24-homer season last year and improve his .239 batting average and .774 OPS in his second year as Cleveland’s everyday backstop. The Indians parted ways with backup catcher Kevin Plawecki, replacing him with Sandy León from the Red Sox.
Kansas City will welcome the return of six-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove Award winner Salvador Perez back into the fold. Perez is coming off Tommy John surgery last March, and he is expected to be full-go by Opening Day, though he may DH and play first base a bit more early on to take it easy on his throwing elbow. The Royals view Perez’s return as the equivalent of a major free-agent signing. The backup battle will be between Cam Gallagher and Meibrys Viloria. Gallagher, 27, is serviceable, regarded as a better defender than an offensive threat (.238, three homers in 2019). Viloria, 22, has the higher upside.
Detroit paid the price last season for non-tendering James McCann, which included the admittedly rushed midseason promotion of prospect Jake Rogers. So it signed Austin Romine last month with hopes the former Yankees backup will rise to his first opportunity as a No. 1 catcher. Romine performed well in stretches filling in for an injured Gary Sánchez, and his work with the Yankees’ pitching staff gives the Tigers the belief that he can provide leadership there. Understudy Grayson Greiner is just 27 with 88 career Major League games, but his work last September gave the Tigers encouragement that he can perform well in a part-time role. Rogers remains the strong-armed, slick-fielding catcher of the future, but his .125 batting average and nine passed balls in just 34 games last year were a sign he’s not ready yet. The acquisition of Eric Haase from the Indians gives the Tigers more depth, in advance of Spring Training auditions beginning in a little over a month.
Mitch Garver had a breakout 2019 by leading the Majors with 30 of his 31 homers as a catcher, while also posting the highest slugging percentage (.630) for any backstop in club history. Garver -- who led all backstops with a .995 OPS (min. 300 plate appearances), more than 100 points higher than second place -- will certainly be the starter and will receive the most prominent reps in ’20. And the club added depth at the position by signing left-handed-hitting Alex Avila to help ease Garver’s burden while also creating a platoon possibility.