Seby Zavala

White Sox Team of the Future: Catcher

White Sox Team of the Future: Catcher

What will the next championship-contending White Sox team look like?

That's what we're setting out to determine (or at least make a guess at) this month. Ten members of our White Sox content team here at NBC Sports Chicago put our heads together to try to project what each position on the diamond would look like in one, two, three years. Basically, we posed the question: What will the White Sox starting lineup be the next time they're capable of playing in the World Series?

That question can have a bunch of different answers, too. We didn't limit ourselves to players currently a part of the organization. Think the White Sox are gonna make a big free-agent addition? Vote for that player. Think the White Sox are gonna pull off a huge trade? Vote for that player. We wanted to see some creativity.

It might end up taking a creative choice to find the long-term catcher of the future on the South Side, but we think the most obvious choice is the most likely one, with Zack Collins as this team's backstop the next time it's in contention mode.

Collins has been facing questions about his defense behind the plate ever since the White Sox drafted him with a top-10 pick in 2016. And those questions make it difficult for lineup prognosticators like us. Perhaps catching at the major league level won't be a problem. Perhaps he ends up moving to first base or swinging the bat as a designated hitter. He's received votes at both of those spots during this process.

Projecting Collins to spend much of the 2019 season at Triple-A Charlotte seems like a safe bet, and another safe bet is that he'll be doing a lot of work on his defense to become as well rounded as possible by the time he finally gets the call to the bigs.

What is far less of a question is what he can do offensively, and having that kind of a bat at a position like catcher is a mighty appealing thought for the White Sox and their fans. Collins posted a tremendous.382 on-base percentage during with Double-A Birmingham during the 2018 season. He hit 15 home runs — and won the Home Run Derby at the Southern League All-Star Game, it should be noted — smacked 24 doubles and drove in 68 runs. But the 101 walks might be more exciting than any of those other numbers.

But, again, his long-term position at the major league level isn't a 100-percent certainty. The White Sox are confident Collins will provide them with the first-round catcher they thought he'd be when they drafted him and aren't talking any kind of position switch at the moment. But while splitting time with another catching prospect, Seby Zavala, for a good chunk of 2018 at Birmingham, Collins ended up playing just 74 of his 122 games at catcher, the rest at DH.

Time will tell with Collins, and just like the White Sox gave ample time to Michael Kopech and Eloy Jimenez to master as many aspects of their game at the minor league level as they could, it wouldn't be a surprise to see a similar strategy with Collins.

Other vote-getters

Welington Castillo. An interesting choice, one of our voters apparently thinks the future is now — or that Castillo is going to put up big numbers in 2019 and convince the White Sox to pick up his option for the 2020 season. Yes, Castillo is only under team control for a little while longer, and though he's currently the White Sox No. 1 catcher, he's come nowhere close to living up to the expectations the team had for him when he signed last offseason. Last winter, Castillo was coming off a career year both offensively and defensively, but his numbers plummeted in 2018 and he finished with a .259/.304/.406 slash line. Chalk it up to whatever you'd like, but it's likely the 80-game suspension he served for a failed drug test had something to do with it, if only because those three missed months prevented him from getting into rhythm at the plate. What it definitely did was prevent him from doing what he was signed to do: help develop the White Sox young pitching staff. But after the trade that sent Omar Narvaez to the Seattle Mariners, Castillo is once more the no-doubt No. 1 catcher heading into this season, effectively getting a do-over to work with the pitchers and impress enough to warrant a third year on the South Side.

Seby Zavala. Zavala was briefly one of the White Sox breakout prospects in 2018. He started real hot, slashing .271/.358/.472 with 11 homers in 56 games at Double-A Birmingham. That earned him a promotion to Triple-A Charlotte, where the production was not nearly as prolific. He slashed .242/.266/.357 with two homers in 48 games there. So he'll likely spend much of the 2019 season at Charlotte, with Collins in all likelihood joining him once again. Zavala might not be shooting to the top of the organization's prospect rankings anytime soon, but he did enough last season to make us wonder if the catching tandem of the future has been established with him and Collins. And, in the event the questions about Collins' defense persist and force him to another position, maybe Zavala hits well enough to be the catcher of the future, as one of our voters thinks.

Matt Wieters. The soon-to-be 33-year-old Wieters is currently a free agent, so perhaps this voter thinks the White Sox can get themselves a bargain as the offseason moves into spring training. Wieters is a four-time All Star, his most recent appearance coming in 2016. But there are several red flags that would accompany (or perhaps prevent) a Wieters signing. First, he played in only 76 games last season. Second, despite a .330 on-base percentage, his numbers in that limited time weren't great: a .238 batting average and a .374 slugging percentage with only eight homers. Veteran leadership and good on-base skills have been good qualities for the White Sox to add this winter. Perhaps this voter is seeing a resurgent 2019 for Wieters and a free-agent signing next offseason, when the current roster's two catchers might see their stays on the South Side come to an end.

Francisco Cervelli. Another outside addition, Cervelli is actually going to be 33 sooner than Wieters is. But Cervelli's production in recent seasons could make him a tad more desirable when he hits the free-agent market next offseason. This voter might be seeing other big free-agent additions on the horizon, in which case Cervelli would be a nice complementary piece for a team still looking for an everyday catcher. He slashed .259/.378/.431 with 12 homers as a Pittsburgh Pirate in 2018, and those on-base skills would be quite welcome on the South Side. This addition would mean Collins and Zavala wouldn't have blossomed into big league caliber starting catchers by next offseason, but it would be another veteran on a short-term deal, you'd figure, that could help develop young pitchers and give Collins and Zavala more time, if needed.

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Castillo and Collins and Grandal, oh my! Examining the White Sox catching situation in 2019 and beyond

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USA TODAY

Castillo and Collins and Grandal, oh my! Examining the White Sox catching situation in 2019 and beyond

LAS VEGAS — A few weeks back, it would've been rather unexpected that catcher would be such a hot topic of conversation surrounding the White Sox at the Winter Meetings.

But here we are.

The White Sox seemed to have a glut of catchers when the offseason started. Then Kevan Smith went to the Los Angeles Angels on a waiver claim and Omar Narvaez was dealt to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for new closer Alex Colome. Presto changeo, the White Sox have just one catcher with major league experience on their roster, Welington Castillo, who served an 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs during the 2018 season.

Zack Collins and Seby Zavala are among the organization's prized prospects, though general manager Rick Hahn insisted they're not ready for the big leagues quite yet, meaning the White Sox would likely add a backup to Castillo this winter.

But then a rumor about the White Sox "looking at" free-agent catcher Yasmani Grandal slipped out right before Hahn's daily media session Tuesday, and the short-term and long-term future behind home plate became the talking point on Day 2 in Vegas.

So what's the deal?

"For '19, obviously we've got Wely coming back, and he's certainly capable of being the 'everyday' catcher, whether in this day and age that means 100 games or 110 games or whatever, he's capable of doing that," Hahn said. "At the same time, let's see what else we potentially wind up bringing in. And that would certainly, if we find a way to make ourselves better and the new catcher takes up a little bit more of the playing time over the course of the season, that's fine. (Manager Rick Renteria)'s going to put the best guy out there in any given situation. The contracts aren't going to factor into that.

"Long term, we're still very optimistic on how Zack Collins and/or Seby Zavala will fit in for us. They're not ready yet, they're going to need some more time, and we want to make sure that, as with all the other of our prospects we feel good about, that they're not rushed. That would also indicate that we're going to add something from the outside."

In the immediate, the White Sox seem likely to add a backup to Castillo, and Hahn said as much Tuesday, that that's the most logical move on paper. But then came this Grandal rumor, and it started making a good deal of sense when you start thinking about the long term, which of course the rebuilding White Sox are constantly doing. Grandal, 30, is one of the game's better all-around catchers, the leader at the position in home runs last season and the No. 2 among qualifiers in Defensive Runs Saved. That would seem an attractive mix to any team.

For the White Sox, you'd think they might back off of a long-term add at the position with Collins and Zavala moving up through the minor leagues. Both are expected to play at Triple-A Charlotte in 2019. But the duo has its question marks. Collins shares the on-base knack that makes Grandal such a good offensive player and has some of the same pop, too. But his short pro career hasn't been without its questions about his defensive ability and whether he can stick at catcher. Meanwhile, Zavala might have made himself a household name among White Sox fans with his fast start to the 2018 season at Double-A Birmingham, but he cooled off significantly after a promotion to Charlotte, slashing just .243/.267/.359 in his 48 games there.

Hence Hahn's readily stated declaration that those guys need more developmental time. But could those questions make a long-term signing like Grandal even more sensible? Hahn did say that having young players who project to be part of the long-term plan won't stop the White Sox from taking advantage of an opportunity in free agency or a trade.

"It doesn't stop us," he said. "It's a factor, because we try to project out for the next several years what this team could look like when we're ready to contend. Even though we have a vision for this, we know areas of depth can quickly become areas of need because players get hurt or they don't develop the way we envision. And adding more quality players is never going to be a huge problem.

"If it turns out that via free agency or trade we add a nice, premium piece to an area of strength, then OK, in the coming years we're going to have some depth to deal from to address what other needs inevitably arise."

And so, like in seemingly everything they do, the White Sox have a few different avenues they can travel down, but one thing seems certain now: They will be adding a catcher this offseason. The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal added some more names to the list of possibilities Tuesday afternoon, seconding the White Sox interest in Grandal and adding Martin Maldonado, a defensive whiz who won a Gold Glove in 2017, and James McCann, a backup type who spent the last five seasons with the division-rival Detroit Tigers.

With Grandal's name now in the Twittersphere, the question of who the White Sox catcher will be not just in 2019 but in 2020 and beyond gets a lot more interesting.

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Why the White Sox traded a good hitting catcher for two years of a reliever

Why the White Sox traded a good hitting catcher for two years of a reliever

There weren’t too many detractors of Friday’s surprise trade that netted the White Sox reliever and most likely 2019 closer Alex Colome in exchange for Omar Narvaez.

That being said, there were a few Twitter-using White Sox fans sad to see the catcher go. Narvaez is just 26 (not to mention under team control for another four seasons), and with questions about the long-term future at that position, it’s understandable that losing a guy who led the team’s 2018 regulars in batting average and on-base percentage could sting.

But think back to a year ago what the two pieces of this trade were. Narvaez was the White Sox backup catcher after being acquired as a Rule 5 Draft pick in 2013. After the signing of Welington Castillo, who was at the time coming off a career year with the Baltimore Orioles, Narvaez was ticketed for the role of No. 2 catcher on a team that wasn’t expected to contend for a playoff spot. Colome was the major league saves leader, coming off a 47-save campaign for the Tampa Bay Rays. A year before that, he was an All Star and saved 37 games.

Talk about selling high.

“The opportunity to get a guy like Colome, with his track record and stuff/performance, was too good for us to pass up even at the cost of Omar,” general manager Rick Hahn said during Friday afternoon’s conference call.

A year can change a lot, but it didn’t change much in this case. Narvaez continued his quiet production, though with not much power. Colome continued being a dominant big league reliever, only seeing his save numbers plummet because he was dealt to the Seattle Mariners in May, a team that had Edwin Diaz, 2018’s major league saves leader, already installed at closer. Colome actually pitched better in 2018 than he did in 2017, his ERA improving from 3.24 to 3.04 and his K/9 shooting up from 7.8 to 9.5.

So Colome is a huge get for the South Side bullpen, a group that while young, interesting and focused on the future was previously made up of nothing but question marks. Ian Hamilton, Caleb Frare, Ryan Burr, Jose Ruiz. These guys could wind up the team’s relief corps of the future, but they have very little major league experience and will likely face to-be-expected growing pains throughout the 2019 season. Colome adds not only a terrific talent but some reliability, as well.

Colome is only under team control for another two seasons, perhaps not the long-term answer the White Sox could use as they build toward the future. But he’s just 27 years old and will provide them with a good if not great closer for 2019 and 2020, and perhaps an extension comes before the end of the current contract. Or they can turn him into long-term pieces at either of the next two trade deadlines, when contenders are always shopping for bullpen help. And if trades of recent vintage are any indication, they’re often willing to pay steep prices for it.

"Obviously (Colome) fits in well for the short term over the course of the next two seasons,” Hahn said. “How he'll fit in '21 and beyond, it's way premature to make that assessment. Obviously we can extend him at some point during his stay here or revisit it once he hits free agency. On relievers it's tough to project out on any of them, even the best, quite how they're going to perform three or four years out into the future. We're very optimistic about what he's going to bring the for at least next two seasons. If it makes sense at that point to extend him and have him continue to be part of this growing core into '21 and beyond, we'll certainly remain open minded to that."

Meanwhile, losing Narvaez can be seen as a bit of a bummer for the White Sox if only because offensive production is hard to come by at that position, as evidenced by the fact that even the biggest hopes for the White Sox future had their struggles there in the minor leagues in 2018. Zack Collins, the 2016 first-round pick who is most prevalent on those 2020 lineup projections, batted just .234 at Double-A Birmingham last season, though his on-base percentage was spectacular at .382. And Seby Zavala, who with no other moves this offseason would be the logical choice to backup Castillo in 2019, cooled off dramatically after his midseason promotion to Triple-A Charlotte, slashing just .243/.267/.359 with two homers in 48 games there.

But even with those numbers, the White Sox haven’t soured on their young catchers, and it’d be pretty darn likely that even following Narvaez’s 2018 season that Collins would be the pick as the team’s catcher when it shifts from rebuilding mode to contention mode. Even still, the White Sox could make an addition at catcher this offseason to backup Castillo, a surprising area of need after they let Kevan Smith go on waivers back in October because they had a seeming glut of big league catchers. From Hahn’s comments, the White Sox adding another else in a trade or free-agent signing sounds likely.

Point being, Narvaez might have played himself into the long-term plans, but the catcher of the future gig still seems Collins’ to lose, should his development continue as the team expects it to. So why not sell high on Narvaez and bring in a guy who could be the closer of the future -- or at the very least be sellable enough to bring in a something of the future?

"We looked at where our roster was going long term and the skill set we wanted out of that (catcher) position and we felt that long term that we were going to have better options,” Hahn said. “We didn't set out seeking to trade Omar Narvaez. We felt that in the end the value that Colome would bring to this roster going forward would be greater.”

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