White Sox

White Sox top pick Zack Collins enjoys down time after long first season

White Sox top pick Zack Collins enjoys down time after long first season

He’ll spend Thanksgiving week in Georgia with his family and soon, Zack Collins embarks on a cruise, the reward for an exhausting, informative baseball season that included an eye-opening trip to the Arizona Fall League.

Though he’d already endured much when the regular season ended Sept. 5, the White Sox believed their 2016 first-round pick would benefit from an additional month spent catching mostly bullpens for some of the top arms in the minors.

Not only could he hone his defensive and game-calling skills, the White Sox felt it would be of use for Collins, 21, to endure a full season. Playing in the AFL also afforded him the opportunity to see the difference in talent between college and the upper levels of pro baseball. And while playing in baseball’s premier minor league showcase gave Collins a sense just how good the competition is, the University of Miami product exited the experience believing he can handle the competition.

“The biggest difference is you get the Friday night (college) guy every day,” Collins said. “It’s not anything I haven’t seen before and I think I could definitely compete at this level and be one of the better guys at this level.

“No matter what day you play, you’re definitely going to see a top-of-the-line guy and especially the guys out of the bullpen throwing harder.

“I think if you can show you can compete in this league, you can definitely put together a good season in any league in pro baseball.”

Collins didn’t have very many chances to compete in the 2016 AFL. He stepped to the plate a total of 28 times in 10 games.

But that wasn’t the point of the trip to Arizona. Only four months removed from playing in the College World Series, the White Sox didn’t want Collins to have to face elite competition and worry about his batting average.

This was about gaining valuable experience by catching advanced pitchers and learning some of the nuances of his position from his peers.

The White Sox placed Collins on the Glendale Desert Dogs’ taxi squad, which only made him eligible to play in games twice a week. Even so, they worried how Collins would handle an extremely long campaign that began with an exhibition at Miami on Feb. 13.

He played for the Hurricanes until June 20 and five days later was introduced in Chicago after receiving a $3.38 million signing bonus. Several days after that, Collins was in Wichita, Kansas to accept the Johnny Bench Award, which is awarded annually to the top collegiate catcher.

Two days later, Collins started his professional career in Glendale, Ariz. He debuted in the Arizona Rookie League on July 6 and finished at Single-A Winston-Salem. After three weeks off (though he had to stay in playing shape), Collins returned to Arizona for the organization’s instructional camp and went directly to the AFL.

“We kind of debated whether to even bring him out here just because of the long year,” White Sox assistant general manager Buddy Bell said. “It wasn’t an easy decision.

“But because of what he’s gone through all year, we wanted him to view this as a learning experience and really understand the stuff that he’s going to catch is a lot better than what he’s used to.”

[SHOP: Gear up, White Sox fans!]

Though a little tired, Collins said he wouldn’t have wanted to end his first pro season any other way. Most of Collins’ time was spent in the bullpen beyond the right-field fence at Camelback Ranch catching pitchers from the White Sox, Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers.

“I’m kind of working on everything, taking every bullpen seriously and blocking every ball that’s in the dirt and working on my receiving,” Collins said. “I think I’ve gotten a lot better.”

Though they didn’t want him to worry about his hitting, the White Sox are impressed with Collins’ performance at the plate. Amateur scouting director Nick Hostetler said Collins didn’t show signs of fatigue at the plate as he continued to display the approach that several draft analysts suggested could make him the first position player from the 2016 draft to reach the majors. Collins hit .227/.393/.500 with two home runs, five RBIs and six walks to eight strikeouts in 28 plate appearances.

“I think all of us were a little nervous when they sent him to the Fall League, a little concerned from a mental and physical fatigue standpoint,” Collins said. “But I think now Zack understands more what it’s going to take to be, not only an everyday catcher in the big leagues, but an All-Star catcher in the big leagues.”

Though his bat isn’t far from big league ready, the White Sox don’t seem keen on rushing Collins to the majors. Perhaps another sign of an impending rebuild, GM Rick Hahn said at the GM meetings earlier this month that the White Sox want to give Collins more time to improve as a catcher. They think Collins has a chance to be an everyday catcher “with a premium bat,” Hahn said. Were his bat needed immediately, Hahn said the White Sox could convert Collins to a different position to expedite the process.

But it doesn’t sound as if that’s the plan.

“That’s not really in the long-term interest of the club,” Hahn said. “If we’re able to truly develop him as a frontline catcher with that kind of offensive capability, we’ll be in much better shape for the long term. So right now we’re going to develop the defense along with the offense.”

The plan likely would call for Collins to return to Winston-Salem, where he produced an .885 OPS in 36 games last season. If all goes well, Collins could be in line for a midseason promotion to Double-A Birmingham.

But before he turns the page to 2017 and begins his offseason training program, Collins plans to take a well-deserved rest.

“I’ve been everywhere,” Collins said. “It has definitely been a good experience for me and I’m learning a lot.

“I’m going on vacation for about a month. I’ll be relaxing.”

Winter Meetings wrap: Why the White Sox left San Diego without a top-of-the-market free agent

Winter Meetings wrap: Why the White Sox left San Diego without a top-of-the-market free agent

SAN DIEGO — “We belong at the table in these negotiations, we belong as part of negotiations for premium talent. And regardless what happens over the next several weeks with either of these two players, we plan to be at the table and continue to attempt to convert on these guys.”

That was Rick Hahn in January, talking about his front office’s pursuits of Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, the two biggest names on last winter’s free-agent market and two guys who landed $300 million contracts. Neither, obviously, is playing for the White Sox. But Hahn set forth expectations last winter that the White Sox were going to try to land that kind of top-of-the-market talent.

Fast forward to the current free-agent cycle, and the biggest names on the market have all signed. None of them signed with the White Sox. The Winter Meetings saw a tidal wave of spending, with Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon all coming off the board, all inking huge deals that figure to transform their new teams (or old team, in the case of Strasburg).

The White Sox, meanwhile, headed home with nothing more to show for their efforts than Nomar Mazara. No word came from any of the usual baseball news-breakers connecting the South Siders to Cole, Strasburg or Rendon.

Why not?

Hahn spent this week, and has spent his media availabilities this offseason and in the months prior, talking about fit. The White Sox are looking for players who fit their long-term plans. The 2020 season might be the year the long-awaited transition from rebuilding to contending comes. It might not be. So the White Sox are searching for players who align with a contention window far into the future.

And that’s an admirable goal. The White Sox should stick to those plans. They’ve suffered too much to make a handbrake turn to try to rush things, certainly at the expense of their bright future. That’s completely understandable.

But didn’t Cole, Strasburg and Rendon fit into that box? Aren’t they the type of premium talents Hahn has talked about wanting to add to a burgeoning young core? Wouldn’t the long-term deals they got insert them right into that contention window?

“Probably a guy the fans see out there and see fits with what we're doing and, ‘Hey, they should pursue him,’ maybe we did,” Hahn said Thursday. “Maybe we have extra information where it shows that would’ve been a fruitless pursuit in the end, just based on the player’s preference for where they want to be, league or locationally. Perhaps it’s something that we did get after and just weren’t able to convert on.

“We obviously operate best when there’s less noise around what we’re doing. Certainly we recently showed that on (Yasmani) Grandal. It would be temporarily nice or fulfilling for me to stand here and say like, ‘Yeah, we didn’t go after Player X because we knew for a fact this thing about why he wasn’t coming here,’ or, ‘We did go after Player X and we came up short.’ That might satisfy some sort of desire to show that we were active if people didn’t think we were.

“But I would hope after all this time that people understand our approach tends to err on the side of being aggressive. And if there’s a high-quality player that seems like a fit for us, we probably went down that path to some extent, and if it didn’t wind up converting, there’s usually a pretty good reason why.”

That quote hit the Twitterverse not long after it left Hahn’s mouth, and the reactions were, generally, less than favorable. Plenty saw it as an excuse. But while vague, there’s a lot of truth in those words.

The White Sox cannot control everything when it comes to free-agent pursuits. They can control how much money they offer, but as we saw with Zack Wheeler, that doesn’t always win the day. Wheeler spurned the White Sox richer offer to please his family and pitch for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Cole, meanwhile, was long expected to choose between a preference for the West Coast or his childhood fandom for the New York Yankees. It helped, of course, that the Yankees offered him a stupifying contract. Strasburg was long expected to return to the Washington Nationals, and that’s just what he did, with folks wondering if there was any consideration given to pitching somewhere else.

Those are mighty difficult things to overcome, and they could have made the White Sox — and plenty of other teams — jumping into the fray a potential non-starter.

“More often than not, early in the process, you hear why it’s a potential non-fit for either side,” Hahn said Monday, speaking in the wake of Wheeler’s decision. “Again, that doesn’t mean anything was mishandled or anything was wrong with this. In the end, when offers are on the table and it's decision time, guys can make that decision based upon any factor that they view as important. You’ve got to respect that. And they’ve earned that right.”

That’s not really supposed to make anyone feel any better. As Hahn often says, you either sign the guy or you don’t.

What’s probably got some fans stewing as much as the eventual free-agent destinations is the White Sox complete lack of attachment to Cole, Strasburg or Rendon in the typical stream of rumors that flows during baseball’s busiest week. As Hahn mentioned, all being quiet doesn’t mean the White Sox weren’t pursuing those players. But after years of discussing financial flexibility, the team seems to have the economic means to play in the deepest end of the free-agent pool, so it’s not unreasonable to expect to hear about it doing so.

"The money will be spent,” Hahn said in February, after Machado picked the San Diego Padres. “It might not be spent this offseason, but it will be spent at some point. This isn’t money sitting around waiting to just accumulate interest. It’s money trying to be deployed to put us in best position to win some championships.”

With that in mind, plenty assumed the White Sox would be able to afford even the gargantuan contracts that went to this winter’s three free-agent superstars. But simply having money to spend doesn’t mean they believed Cole was worth the $324 million he got from the Yankees. It doesn’t mean they believed Strasburg was worth the $245 million he got from the Nationals. It doesn’t mean they believed Rendon was worth the $245 million he got from the Los Angeles Angels.

That’s where that discussion of fit comes in again. It’s easy for us to see a player and believe him a fit for what the White Sox are building. But we’re not the ones defining the fit. The White Sox are. And while they might have pursued all three, might have wanted to pursue all three, might have been willing to back a truckload of money up to all three, it’s also possible that, for whatever reasons, they didn’t see them as the same kind of fit they see other players at different price points.

The lingering notion that the White Sox shy away from handing out long-term deals to pitchers is likely more of a general caution than the edict it’s often portrayed to be. It’s also not reserved to the White Sox.

“In general, the investment in a position player is less risky than an investment in a pitcher,” Hahn said. “Those things vary. We are talking just about generic players, you generally err on the side of a position player being less risky.”

“Is anybody worth $300 million?” USA Today’s Bob Nightengale said Tuesday on the White Sox Talk Podcast. “Say the White Sox signed Gerrit Cole, it doesn’t make them an automatic winner. He’s a good pitcher, but hey, good pitchers get hurt, too.”

OK, so what about Rendon? The White Sox were willing to offer a reported $250 million in guaranteed money to Machado last winter. Rendon got less than that to play for the Angels. Of course, Machado’s free agency came before Yoan Moncada blossomed into the team’s best all-around player at third base. Machado was 26 during his sweepstakes. Rendon is 29. These are not necessarily defenses, they are simply truths.

“As a general thought, when you are making a long-term commitment, doing that to a player who is in their mid 20s, in general, is a more appealing alternative then doing that with a player who is in his 30s at the start of the contract,” Hahn said. “Everyone is familiar with aging curves and risk and how that balances out as you get older. So yeah, the idea of devoting big money to someone who is younger versus older is certainly more appealing.”

And then there’s the clarifying Hahn did on those “money will be spent” comments from 10 months ago. Basically: That money doesn’t all have to be spent in one place to make the White Sox better.

“I think it would be awfully foolish to say we're going to go out and spend whatever the amount of the offer (to Machado) was immediately,” he said Wednesday. “The point of that comment was there's other ways for us to allocate this money, and it's going to be allocated toward player acquisitions.

“You could argue some of it went to Grandal, you could argue some of it went to the Eloy (Jimenez) extension or re-signing (Jose) Abreu or whatever we have coming down the pipe next.

“That offer was over an eight- to 10-year period, so to say it's all going out the door in Year 1 just because it's sitting there, maybe, but it's got to be for the right players.”

None of this will satisfy the critics. And that’s a product of the frustrating on-field success of the big league team during the rebuild and the expectations that came into this offseason. The White Sox pursued the talent at the top of the free-agent market last offseason, so they must be willing to do the same thing again this winter, right? They might have. But it didn’t work out, and now there are two offseasons where fans wanted Machado and Harper and Cole and Strasburg and Rendon and watched all those players go elsewhere.

It’s important to remember the White Sox did sign Grandal, that they do still have that young core that broke out in a big way in 2019. The future is still blindingly bright, and Hahn & Co. see that. It’s why they remain so committed to their long-term plans — because they could very well work.

Those plans might mean that the consolation prizes for teams that didn’t land one of the top three prizes on the free-agent market aren’t quite as appealing fits. It’s not as easy as just moving down to the next name on the list. The White Sox are being picky, and they can afford to be picky. Not adding a huge free agent — and, again, remember they did sign Grandal — doesn’t mean Moncada and Jimenez and Tim Anderson and Lucas Giolito are suddenly all bad. The future is snowballing for the White Sox, in a good way, and the melting process is nowhere near starting.

Yes, the South Siders left San Diego without Cole, Strasburg or Rendon. Perhaps it wasn’t for lack of trying. Perhaps they weren’t able to get past the bouncer, no matter how big the checkbook was. Perhaps they didn’t see these guys as good fits. Perhaps they saw these guys as expensive in a way that would jeopardize their carefully laid plans.

The biggest takeaway from this week: Those plans are the driving force for these White Sox. Do not, for any reason, expect them to deviate.

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White Sox Talk Podcast: Guest appearance Hall of Famer Ken "Hawk" Harrelson

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NBC Sports Chicago

White Sox Talk Podcast: Guest appearance Hall of Famer Ken "Hawk" Harrelson

Ford Frick winner and Hall of Famer Ken "Hawk" Harrelson joins Chuck Garfien on the podcast.

(3:15) - People that have congratulated Hawk on his induction, including some people you would never guess

(12:24) - Origin of some of your favorite "Hawk-isms"

(15:29) - Great story about the late great Harry Carey

(18:46) - His life growing up in Savannah, Georgia

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

 

White Sox Talk Podcast

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