LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – If nothing else, switch-hitting minor leaguer Adrian Nieto will add to the competition at catcher during spring training. The White Sox selected Nieto from the Washington Nationals with the third pick in the Rule 5 Draft on Thursday while still looking to improve a position that was weak on the offensive side last season.
“It doesn’t mean by any means we are done in terms of our search for potential upgrades,’’ general manager Rick Hahn said. “This is another avenue to try to bring in some talent.’’
Switch-hitting catcher Jose Lobaton of the Tampa Bay Rays is believed to be on Hahn’s radar. The Rays have three catchers and Lobaton, who probably doesn’t throw as well as Nieto, appears to be expendable.
“There’s always the sense this time of year that you are one phone call away from closing something off,’’ Hahn said Thursday morning, not closing the door on more potential deals to follow his acquisition of center fielder Adam Eaton (in a three-team trade for Hector Santiago) and free agent right-hander Felipe Paulino this week. “But until you agree to terms and all the contingencies are met, you never know. I’m not counting on anything in the coming days but we did have some real good dialogue and made some progress on a couple of different fronts. We’ll see if any of them bear fruit.’’
In 110 games for high Class A Potomac, Nieto, 24, hit .285 with 29 doubles, 11 home runs and 53 RBI and a .373 on-base percentage that ranked fifth in the Carolina League in 2013. He made 86 starts at catcher and threw out 33.3 percent of attempted basestealers.
“The kid Nieto is a switch-hitter, solid defensive skills, plus arm, good receiving skills, nice compact stroke and some pop and good plate discipline,’’ Hahn said. “Any time you take a guy in Rule 5, you are rushing his development a little bit so it’s a longer shot of it working out but this kid made some real nice strides in 2013 in terms of development. We figure bring him in and give him the shot and have some competition.’’
The Sox gave Tyler Flowers the starting job during spring training, but he lost it at mid-season to minor leaguer Josh Phegley after hitting .195. Flowers was signed to a $950,000 contract, but it’s not out of the question that he gets dealt before camp, especially if another catcher is added to the mix.
Hahn left Florida with some sense of satisfaction while knowing more work lies ahead. The Sox lost 99 games in 2013.
“Yeah, we feel good about it,’’ he said of the three and a half day stay at the meetings. “Obviously, this week we announced the addition of Felipe Paulino and acquired Adam Eaton and now added Nieto in the Rule 5. We added some depth and some competition and got a guy who is very high on our target list. We definitely feel good about this week. It’s important for us to go out next week and have another good week. And another good one after that. We feel good about where we are but a lot of work ahead.’’
As a Rule 5 pick, the Sox must keep Nieto through the 2014 season or return him to the Nationals. With the move, the Sox 40-man roster is at 39, which leaves room for right-hander Ronald Belisario, who agreed to terms last week.