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.”
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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.”