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.
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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