White Sox

State of the White Sox: Catcher

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USA TODAY

State of the White Sox: Catcher

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The 2019 season is over, and the White Sox — who have been focusing on the future for quite some time now — are faced with an important offseason, one that could set up a 2020 campaign with hopes of playoff contention.

With the postseason in swing and a little bit still before the hot stove starts cooking, let’s take a position-by-position look at where the White Sox stand, what they’re looking to accomplish this winter and what we expect to see in 2020 and beyond.

We’re moving on to catcher.

What happened in 2019

James McCann came out of nowhere.

Well, not exactly nowhere, as he was a division rival for the five seasons he spent with the Detroit Tigers. But the White Sox couldn’t have been expecting anything close to the breakout season McCann had this year after he slashed just .240/.288/.366 in his half decade in Michigan.

In 2019, he completely transformed — a running theme with this season’s White Sox team — into an All Star. He went from Welington Castillo’s backup, a veteran bridge of sorts to highly ranked catching prospect Zack Collins, to the everyday guy behind the plate. His tireless efforts working with the White Sox young pitchers earned rave reviews all season, and he was given tons of credit by Lucas Giolito for assisting in the pitcher’s own transformation into an All Star.

“He makes my job really easy,” Giolito said of McCann at the All-Star Game. “My job’s not easy, being a starting pitcher is not easy, being a pro athlete’s not easy. But it is a lot easier when I have a guy back there that’s done — I’ve never seen guys do their homework like he does.

“Every single flight, he’s got his iPad, computer open. He’s looking at numbers that I still don’t understand yet, putting together scouting reports for each hitter we’re going to face. We go over it together. And then when we go out there, we both have the gameplan so set in our minds that it just makes it easier for me to go out there and perform, be loose, relaxed and just have fun with it.

“He’s doing all the thinking, he’s doing all the hard work. And I’m just out there throwing the ball.”

On top of that, McCann put up All-Star numbers in the first half, and despite a much less productive second half, he finished the year with a .273/.328/.460 line to go along with 18 homers and 60 RBIs, smashing his previous career bests in every category.

Then there’s Collins, who got his first taste of the major leagues in 2019. His season was a mixed bag, his initial month-long stint going poorly from a results standpoint but allowing the White Sox to provide him with the instruction he needed to make adjustments at the plate and return to Triple-A, where he mashed between his big league stays. After getting sent back down, Collins slashed .323/.441/.631 with 10 homers and 35 RBIs in 38 games. The adjustments worked.

Collins returned to the South Side as a September call-up and fared much better than he did in the first go-round, batting .233/.343/.417 in 18 games. But plenty of questions remain, particularly defensively, where Collins has long been questioned for his ability behind the plate. He wants to remain a catcher, and the White Sox hope he can continue to develop and be the catcher of the future they imagined when they spent a top-10 pick on him in the 2016 draft.

But Collins has been talked about as a potential designated hitter or first baseman so he can continue to get in the lineup, even if any defensive shortcomings would prevent him from being behind the plate on a daily basis.

None of those questions were answered in 2019 and will linger into 2020. The good news, though, is that McCann’s emergence has created a bit of a safety net, allowing Collins to keep working and developing with the catcher position covered.

And finally there’s Castillo, who after serving a lengthy suspension in 2018 again disappointed in 2019, this time from a results standpoint. He finished the season barely ahead of the Mendoza Line, hitting .209 with a .267 on-base percentage and a .417 slugging percentage.

What will happen this offseason

McCann is all but locked in as the White Sox No. 1 catcher next season, with the team still having a year of control before he hits free agency after the 2020 season.

“There’s no doubt that having a veteran catcher, a stabilizing force behind the plate, someone who works well with the pitchers, much less produces offensively from that position, plays an important role on a championship-caliber club,” general manager Rick Hahn said in July. “Having someone fill that role going forward has got a great deal of appeal to us.”

That role is unlikely to be filled by a returning Castillo, with the White Sox expected to decline the option for a third season after two disappointing ones. McCann, after his All-Star campaign, is a near lock to fill it. Collins figures to start the season as the backup, too.

Of course, there are some elements that could throw a wrench into what seem like relatively easy projections. Big league rosters will expand to 26 players starting next season, and you wonder how many teams might dedicate that spot to carrying a third catcher. That could make for a potential outside addition — or the inclusion of a big-hitting prospect like Yermin Mercedes.

“It's possible,” Hahn said at the end of the season, asked about the possibility of carrying three catchers on next year’s roster. “The 26th man is going to give all of us a lot of opportunities to sort of augment and try to be a little creative and give the coaching staff the most options on a given day.

“Obviously, Zack's bat is of great intrigue and the fact you can plug it in at three different spots, DH, first and catcher, is very intriguing. Let's see how the offseason goes and how the pieces all come together. But certainly, it's possible to be one of the clubs that will carry three catchers next year, but again, let's wait to see where you go this offseason.”

Even if the White Sox aren’t one of those teams, would an upgrade at the catcher position be within the realm of possibility? Certainly the White Sox are happy with McCann and still have high hopes for Collins — not to mention other items on the offseason to-do list like right field, DH and the starting rotation — but McCann’s first- and second-half splits do give pause.

In the first half, which earned McCann the All-Star nod, he slashed .316/.371/.502. After the break, he slashed .226/.281/.413. For what it’s worth, his power numbers were identical: nine homers and 30 RBIs both before and after the All-Star break.

That’s obviously not enough to knock McCann off the 2020 roster. But might it be enough for the White Sox to consider a more proven upgrade? Yasmani Grandal was excellent for the Milwaukee Brewers this season after catching for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2018 World Series. Yan Gomes is in the playoffs right now catching for the Washington Nationals. Martin Maldonado is doing the same thing for the Houston Astros. All three could wind up on this winter’s free-agent market.

With other needs to address, it might not be the most likely thing in the world. But with McCann’s offense dipping dramatically after he returned from the All-Star Game, outstanding questions about Collins and a new spot on the major league roster, it’s something to keep an eye on.

What to expect for 2020 and beyond

The most likely scenario is that the White Sox leave spring training with McCann and Collins as the two catchers on the roster. But if they are able to come out the other end of a 40-man roster crunch and the Rule 5 draft with Mercedes still in the fold, perhaps he hits enough in spring to earn a spot. That still leaves defensive questions wafting through the air, but the name of the game is scoring runs.

That’s what the White Sox hope McCann and Collins can help them do. McCann is coming off a solid enough offensive season to make that seem plenty possible, and even a dip in his numbers would be palatable if he’s hitting at the bottom of a 2020 lineup that also includes Luis Robert, Nick Madrigal and potentially big offseason additions — rather than hitting cleanup in a lineup that ranks as among the lowest-scoring in baseball, as he often did in 2019.

The pressure will continue to be on Collins, especially if the White Sox head into 2020 with legitimate expectations of making the playoffs. The long leashes made possible by the state of the rebuild in recent seasons might not exist next year, and Collins will have to produce to stick around. But the good news is the White Sox seem hell-bent on keeping his bat in the lineup even if he doesn’t prove to be a strong backstop.

Collins, for what it’s worth, is still focused on being a catcher before anything else.

“I’m going to do whatever I can to get in the lineup,” he said early in September, “but I want to make sure that I stay primarily as a catcher. That’s definitely what I want to do in the future.”

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Magic, buzz and something crazy: It's time for the White Sox to win

Magic, buzz and something crazy: It's time for the White Sox to win

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The White Sox are rebuilt.

No, the rebuild isn’t officially over. You’ll have to wait for after the parade for that. And it’s true that there are plenty of question marks on this roster.

But for the first time in a long time, the White Sox are preparing for a season with expectations. Big ones. The manager set them early, saying he’d be disappointed if his squad didn’t reach the postseason. There hasn’t been October baseball on the South Side in more than a decade. But that’s not stopping anyone in silver and black from realizing that things are different now.

“It’s definitely a little different,” shortstop Tim Anderson said. “It’s more relaxed and we know what we want. We know what we want this spring training versus last spring training. We kind of knew what we wanted, but now we know what we want and we see it. We just have to put the work in and go get it.

“I get a winning vibe, all positive and winning vibes. Everybody knows what we are here to do. We are here to win a championship, and we are here to take it all.”

Everyone at Camelback Ranch is talking about expectations. And whether they’ve voiced their intent to just play better baseball, make the playoffs or win the World Series, there’s one common conclusion: It’s time to win.

The losing has not been fun during the last three rebuilding seasons. The White Sox lost a combined 284 games in 2017, 2018 and 2019, with contending often taking a backseat to development.

But a host of breakout campaigns from young, core players in 2019 laid the groundwork for Rick Hahn’s front office to make a slew of veteran additions this winter, inlcuding All-Stars like Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnacion and Gio Gonzalez.

It all adds up to realistic postseason expectations on the South Side and a feeling that those losing days are firmly in the rearview mirror.

“I think it's just about time for us to start winning,” first baseman Jose Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “It's just that time for us to start winning games and start to be relevant.

“The team that the front office put together, we're going to be able to do it. We have to be united. We need to be strong in good times and bad times if we want to be successful this season. With the guys that we have right now, that's something that's doable. That's our goal.

“I think expectations are high because we all know that this is the time for us to win.”

Abreu would certainly love to experience that. He hasn’t been part of a winning team in his major league career and has spent six sub-.500 seasons on the South Side. But his love for the organization kept him in a White Sox uniform as he briefly hit free agency this winter. He’ll be wearing those colors for at least another three years thanks to a new deal. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if he never wears another.

But you don’t have to have sweltered through the dog days to express your excitement for 2020. Something had to lure all those free agents this winter. Grandal, Keuchel, Encarnacion and Gonzalez all liked what they saw. Now they’re a big part of why there is such electricity running through White Sox camp.

“It seems like they want to do magic this year and for years to come now,” he said. “I look at it now as, let's keep competing as much as we can and see it from there. The buzz is in the locker room. We are excited. We do want to play, and I think this is the year we're going to push for it.

“They went out and got some guys that wanted to make something happen this year, and I think we have the team to do it. If you’re someone in Chicago watching the White Sox, this is a team to watch, and we’re excited to see that we can put it together.”

It truly seems like Hahn’s front office went out and got everything that was missing from this roster, which featured as impressive a collection of young talent as you’ll find but lacked experience; especially winning experience. Even 33-year-old team leader Abreu has never played in the postseason.

Enter the newcomers. Grandal and Encarnacion have appeared in each of the last five postseasons. Keuchel’s been to the playoffs in four of the last five years. Gonzalez played in three of the last four postseasons. New reliever Steve Cishek went to the National League Wild Card game with the Cubs in 2018.

They have no plans of stopping those postseason streaks.

“Once you get a little taste of the playoffs, that's why you play, is to get that feeling,” Keuchel said. “As much as you want to replicate it in the regular season, for guys who have no playoff experience, I think the regular season is that feeling. But there's another feeling to it that pushes you and wants you to be a better player.

“I told Rick Hahn this, I said four out of the last five years I've made the playoffs, and I don't expect any of these three years (during his contract with the White Sox) to be any different.”

A lot of things will have to go right for the White Sox to make a rapid ascent to the top of the baseball mountain. And there are question marks. What will the team get from Dylan Cease and Reynaldo Lopez a year after some ugly results? Will Michael Kopech be the pitcher who was promised prior to his Tommy John surgery? What will Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal do in their first tastes of the major leagues? Will Anderson and Yoan Moncada stay productive if their good luck diminishes? Will Nomar Mazara unlock the potential the White Sox see in their new right fielder?

It all has to work out for the White Sox to compete for the division title and a World Series championship. But isn’t that the case with every team?

This is the time of year when hope springs eternal. Viewing the upcoming season through rose-colored glasses is a February tradition on par with Presidents Day mattress sales.

But the White Sox have good reason to be excited and good reason to be talking playoffs. The light at the end of the tunnel that Hahn has been talking about for so long isn’t just visible; it’s bathing these young White Sox.

Of course, they have to prove they can do it. But all this talk? Don’t roll your eyes. It’s not at all crazy.

The White Sox are saving the crazy for the field.

“We have a chance to do something crazy,” Anderson said. “That’s what everybody is talking about, right? So why not own up to it and set the bar high, go to the playoffs and win the championship. That’s the goal, right?

“We didn’t come here to work for nothing. We come here to win championships and make it to the playoffs. That’s no secret. Everybody knows we are here to win championships.”

It’s time to get nuts.

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Zack Collins won't be surprised if he starts the season in Triple-A

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USA TODAY

Zack Collins won't be surprised if he starts the season in Triple-A

GLENDALE, Ariz. — After getting a taste of the majors last season, Zack Collins is here in spring training wondering when he’ll make it back.

Looking at the two All-Star catchers next to him in the clubhouse in Yasmani Grandal and James McCann, Collins says he won’t be surprised if he’s the odd man out when the White Sox break camp at the end of March.

"To have my first full season in the major leagues as a once-a-week player, pinch hitter is probably not the best thing for me," Collins said, "and it’s also tough to go back down to Triple-A, obviously, and to bring to reality that maybe that’s the best thing for me. At the same time, things happen, trades happen, injuries happen. I don’t wish anything on anybody. You just got to keep working hard and prove that I should be in the big leagues and continue to go."

With teams able to carry an additional player starting this season, some clubs will use the 26th spot for a third catcher, which on the surface could benefit someone like Collins. But he doesn’t see it that way.

"A lot of people think the 26th man is going to help me out. I’m not really sure about that, because you have a first baseman (Jose Abreu) who signed an extension, a new DH who came in, a veteran guy (Edwin Encarnacion), and then two veteran catchers," Collins said. "I don’t know if I’m going to go up to the big leagues to play once a week or something like that. Obviously, that’s a big question right now. It’s going to be pretty interesting to see. I guess we’ll have to wait and see."

Right after the White Sox signed Grandal, you might have assumed that the 2016 first-round pick, pegged as the White Sox catcher of the future, would have been upset about the team locking up the veteran catcher with a four-year deal.

Quite the opposite.

"The first thing I did was text (Grandal) and congratulate him," Collins said about his fellow University of Miami alum. "Seeing a guy coming from Cuba, moving here, going to the same college as me and the success that he‘s had is always great. Nothing but the best for him. I’m learning a ton from him. It’s only going to be good for me."

Collins has also developed a connection with McCann, who despite losing his No. 1 job to Grandal, is helping the younger Collins grow into his role as a major league catcher.

"A huge thing for me is relationships with pitchers. Being a younger guy, having a veteran staff is kind of tough and telling guys what to do. One piece of advice that McCann gave me was that when I’m behind the plate, I’m a leader no matter how old I am. That’s what I need to learn for myself and continue to grow,” Collins explained.

What will that growth look like for Collins in 2020 — and where will that be? Time will tell.

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