With the rebuilding White Sox, a good deal more attention has been placed on the prospects on their way to the South Side than many of the players who are already there. 2019 should be no different, with Eloy Jimenez (the top-ranked prospect in the organization) and Dylan Cease (who MLB Pipeline named its minor league pitcher of the year in 2018) on the verge of reaching the majors and ready to bring with them tangible examples of rebuilding progress.
But Jimenez and Cease — like Michael Kopech last season — can’t swing things from rebuilding mode to contention mode all by themselves. That transition can’t happen until a whole host of long-term pieces arrive. And so the arrival of someone like Zack Collins carries plenty of importance, as well.
Unlike the other two, Collins’ ascension to the big leagues in 2019 isn’t exactly assured. It would make sense to see him, along with fellow catching prospect Seby Zavala, sometime after rosters expand in September. He spent the entire 2018 season at Double-A Birmingham and figures to spend close to the entire 2019 season at Triple-A Charlotte.
Part of Collins’ importance stems from his status as the team’s first-round pick in 2016. White Sox first-round picks haven’t had a ton of success since Carlos Rodon in 2014. Carson Fulmer had a disastrous 2018 campaign three years after he was taken in the first round. Zack Burdi, Collins’ fellow 2016 first-rounder, is still on the mend from Tommy John surgery. Jake Burger, the 2017 first-round selection, suffered a pair of Achilles tears last season. Collins is hardly the organization’s only hope in that department, with last summer’s choice, Nick Madrigal, already ranked as the team’s No. 5 prospect. And Burdi and Burger can still develop into successful players, despite their bad injury luck. But as patience gets stretched thinner and thinner as the rebuilding process marches on, hitting on a recent first-rounder would be a very good thing for the White Sox.
And Collins showed some good signs last year. He reached base at a terrific .382 clip, walking 101 times. A slight slide in his home-run total (from 19 in 2017 to 15 in 2018) was at least aesthetically mitigated by his victory in the Home Run Derby at the Southern League All-Star Game.
But there are perhaps more questions than answers about how he’ll fare at the major league level at this point. Collins said during the early weeks of spring training that he felt good about how his defense has progressed, and he got good reviews in that department from elsewhere in the organization. But those questions won’t go away until he’s the everyday backstop in the big leagues. If and when that happens, then the questions about his defensive abilities that have hounded him since he was drafted can go away. Collins also hit just .234 last season, struck out 158 times and finished with a .786 OPS, the lowest of his minor league career to this point.
None of that is to suggest that Collins can’t still blossom into the White Sox catcher of the future. He’s the leading candidate to fill that role right now, and the team has plenty of faith that he will live up to his first-round status.
But 2019 is an important year for him. After Jimenez and Cease, he'll likely be the biggest-name prospect to reach the majors this season. Given developmental delays caused by injuries elsewhere in the organization, it'll be good for the White Sox if Collins can show some more progress in the rebuilding process simply by making it to the big leagues.