These are rare times in the White Sox minor league system. Even with the promotions of Yoan Moncada, Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito, they still have a top 3 farm system in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline. They’re loaded with outfielders, flush with starting pitching and have enough intriguing prospects outside of the top 20 (Thyago Vieira, Justin Yurchak, Joel Booker, Lincoln Henzman to name a few) that should give White Sox fans hope that better days are ahead.
But what makes the current state of the White Sox farm system so unique is that they have two promising catchers in Zack Collins and Seby Zavala, who might turn out to be bona fide major leaguer backstops in the future.
When was the last time this happened? Two highly touted White Sox catchers in the minors? I honestly can’t recall. I’ll ask our resident White Sox history expert Chris Kamka and get back to you at the end of the story.
In the meantime, let’s talk about these two talented catchers who are actually sharing the position on the same team at Double-A Birmingham.
Collins, who was the White Sox first round pick in 2016, got off to a slow start at the plate this year, hitting below .100 as recent as a week ago. Panic started setting in with White Sox fans. Collins is supposed to be the White Sox best catcher since A.J. Pierzynski! Was he turning into another catcher-gone-bust?
Take a breath. It turns out he was making some adjustments at the plate. Everything is fine now. Collins batted .438 last week with a homer, 6 RBIs, 6 walks, he even stole a base and was named the Southern League Player of the Week.
“He’s at a new level,” White Sox director of player development Chris Getz, who spent time watching Collins and the Barons last week, told me. “I think he was focusing on certain things. Whenever you’re focusing on anything internally you have a tough time just competing in the box. What we were really seeing is a guy who was having difficulty with the outer half. He had plate coverage issues. Now what he’s been able to accomplish in the last week, he’s closed that hole. Now he’s the Zack Collins that we know. He now has freedom in his swing. He has electric hands in the box. He can drive a ball out of the ballpark in all directions. We’re just on the right track. To be honest, with those early season struggles, in the end it’s going to be a positive for him because it’s helped him get to where he is now.”
As for Zavala, a 12th round pick out of San Diego State in 2015, he was one of the big surprises last season, leading all White Sox minor leaguers with 21 home runs between Class-A Kannapolis and Winston-Salem. He hasn’t missed a beat so far this year with the promotion to Birmingham, slashing .315/.411/.616 in April and was named White Sox Minor League co-Player of the Month along with Winston-Salem outfielder Luis Basabe.
"He’s got a very simple swing from a mechanical standpoint,” Getz said. “He’s got a solid approach. He’s got very consistent thinking patterns. He’s got a good temperament about him. So all those ingredients make for a pretty good player in the box. He’s a strong kid, uses his legs and can also drive the ball in different directions. He’s a threat when he steps in the box. He can hit the ball out of the ballpark. He stays on the ball well, so it’s been a positive start for Seby."
On the surface it might seem counterproductive to have both Collins and Zavala sharing catching duties on the same team. Getz dug into this scenerio while mapping out each minor league roster before the season began, and concluded that they were best suited dividing the playing time in Double-A. When one player is catching, the other is the designated hitter.
“I looked back historically at the top catchers in the game and how many games at an average they caught in the minor leagues. We’re not going to be missing a beat with these guys,” Getz said about Collins and Zavala sharing time. “I’ve looked at this going into the season as a long-term positive having these guys together because I think they complement each other so well. They’re both going to be major league players. But they’re very different with the skills that they have. I think it’s a great opportunity for them to learn from each other. That was the No. 1 priority here: getting them the playing time has not been challenging. We’re obviously catching these guys and using the DH.”
Each of them catch three to four times a week. If the White Sox feel like one of them needs more time behind the plate a certain week, or a certain month, those numbers might change. Both are feeling the boost of a certain outfielder who is now healthy and is cranking baseballs all over the place. Eloy Jimenez is batting third in the Barons lineup, sandwiched between Collins and Zavala in the lineup each night.
Could this be a preview of a 2020 White Sox lineup? Or could one of these catchers be trade bait if both are ready for the majors at the same time? Welington Castillo is signed through next season with an $8 million team option for 2020.
“To be able to graduate these guys at some point to Chicago, and be able to play out their careers here, I think from a player development standpoint that’s certainly a goal of ours,” Getz said.
Now back to my earlier question: How rare is it for the White Sox to have two promising catchers in their minor league system at the same time?
Chris Kamka says you have to go back to the 1950s, when catchers John Romano and Earl Battey were in the minors. The White Sox traded both away because they decided to stay with an aging, but still effective, Sherm Lollar. Romano and Battey went on to become All-Stars elsewhere: Romano with the Indians before coming back to the White Sox in 1965, and Battey a five-time All-Star with the Senators and Twins. He also won 3 Gold Gloves. Ouch.
Kamka adds that the next best catching tandem from the White Sox minor league system would be Ron Karkovice and Joel Skinner in the 1980s. Neither of them made an All-Star team or won a Gold Glove.The hope is that Collins and/or Zavala will have better major league careers than both of them. Sorry Ron. Sorry Joel.
Every franchise has its strengths and weaknesses. Drafting and developing catchers has been an issue for the White Sox for years. However, it’s clearly something they are trying to fix. Collins and Zavala might be the turning point that represents the changing times on the South Side.
“I can’t really speak to the past here. We’re just looking at what’s in front of us with the talent that we have,” Getz said. “I think it is unique for any organization to have two guys like this and they’re in similar points of their development careers. I think there’s a lot to be excited about with having these guys and fairly close. It is a unique situation and we’re grateful to have these guys developing at the pace that they are.”