Gustavo Molina, Donny Lucy, and Jamie Burke. Say those three names to any Chicago White Sox fan and a majority of them will have no idea who they are. Can one blame them? All three players were backup catchers for the team at one point in time during their non-eventful careers and never made a memorable impression on the White Sox faithful.
The backup catcher position does not bring much fame and fortune. With the exception of current starting backstop Tyler Flowers, the White Sox have not serviced any backup catcher they believed had much of a future with the organization. Usually the aging veteran or short term stop gap player would spell the man in front of him on the depth chart for thirty or so games a year. Besides these occasional starts and late inning appearances, not much was expected of these guys. That is not the case for 2014 number two catcher, Adrian Nieto.
Entering 2014, Flowers was a question mark behind the plate. Coming off of a season that saw him hit .195 and have his starting job taken away midseason, fans were losing patience with Flowers.
The main piece acquired in the Javier Vazquez deal in the winter of 2008, Flowers was suppose to blossom into a mainstay behind the dish. After another disappointing campaign, the Sox began to seek a multitude of options that could take over for Flowers in the role of catcher of the future. Acquiring Nieto in the Rule 5 draft from the Washington Nationals, the Sox signaled that they were starting to consider abandoning the Tyler Flowers experiment forever.
At the end of Spring Training, manager Robin Ventura named Flowers, who was signed to a one year extension in the winter, as the starting catcher. After displaying a unique ability to get on base as a switch-hitting backstop and a knack for handling the pitching staff, Nieto beat out Josh Phegley and Hector Gimenez for the backup job.
As Flowers is off to the best start of his career (.293 average and .354 OBP in 47 games) Nieto will remain as the number two man on the depth chart. Handling normal backup catcher duties like playing every fourth or fifth day, Nieto has shown that he provides more to the team than some forgettable backstop.
In 41 plate appearances in his rookie season, Nieto is hitting an impressive .308 with an OBP of .325. He has displayed an ability to drive the ball to all fields and after initial struggles at the plate has appeared more comfortable. Clearly there is not a drop off in offensive producton when Nieto is penciled into the lineup. Ventura is feeling increasingly comfortable having Nieto in the order which is shown by the rise in the number of starts he has seen other than the occasional get-away day or when Flowers needs a day off.
Along with his ability to handle his own in the batter’s box, the inexperienced catcher is holding his own calling a game as well. Not having any experience above Class A, Nieto has dispelled the idea that young catchers struggle with handling a pitching staff. Nieto has caught for a variety of the Sox’ starters and has shown a knack for adjusting to the opponent’s lineup and their success against a given starter early on in the game. When Flowers was ejected his past week for arguing ball and strikes, Nieto was throw into the fire and held his own en route to a White Sox victory.
The praise for the early success from the Sox’ backstops cannot stop with Flowers. Nieto has showcased his ability to contribute with the big league club. As long as he does not struggle mightily, Nieto will remain in his current role—he has to stay on the White Sox major league roster all season or he will be sent back to the Nationals. If he can continue with his early success, Nieto will be a name White Sox fans remember for a very long time.