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.”