White Sox

Zack Collins has work to do before the catcher of the future becomes the White Sox catcher of the present

Zack Collins has work to do before the catcher of the future becomes the White Sox catcher of the present

There's a popular question surrounding many of the White Sox highest-rated prospects: When will they get to the big leagues?

After Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease dominated the minor leagues last season, after Nick Madrigal struck out just five times in 43 games, that question isn't off base.

But there's another question that should apply to other prospects: How ready are they for the major leagues?

It's certainly a question that applies to Luis Robert, with only 50 minor league games under his belt and things he needs to work on popping up in every description of his five-tool talent. And it's a question that applies to Zack Collins, the 2016 first-rounder who figures to be on the doorstep of the majors this season.

Collins was recently reassigned to minor league camp out in Glendale, Arizona, an expected sign that he won't surprisingly end up on the Opening Day roster. He spent his entire 2018 campaign at Double-A Birmingham, doing some great things, like reaching base at a .382 clip. But while the White Sox still very much envision him as their catcher of the future, there are some obvious improvements he needs to make before he can become the catcher of the present.

From a roster standpoint, that title seems to be his for the taking come 2020, and with confirmation from farm director Chris Getz in January that Collins will be playing at Triple-A Charlotte this season, it's mighty possible, if not probable, that he'll make his big league debut this season. Once the contracts of current catching tandem Welington Castillo and James McCann run out, those jobs would figure to go to Collins and fellow Triple-A catcher Seby Zavala.

But Collins will have to earn it. Will he? Or will he end up playing a different position?

Again, the talent is undoubtedly there, the things that made him a top-10 pick three years ago. But the No. 1 question has been about his defense. Can he be good enough defensively to be a No. 1 catcher in the major leagues? Collins and the White Sox are cognizant of those questions and are focused on the improvement necessary to make them go away.

"I learned a lot last year calling games, handling a pitching staff," Collins said during the early weeks of spring training. "I think, defensively, I’ve gotten extremely better in the last half year. I’ve been working on my receiving a lot, trying to steal pitches, trying to make strikes stay strikes. Just keep grinding.

"I’ve gotten really good feedback from (John Orton), our catching coordinator, and obviously all the coaches, and pitchers, as well. They like the way I’m receiving now, and obviously they want as many strikes as they can get."

Surely Collins' position brings the hyper focus on his defensive abilities. But those aren't the only issues that he's bringing into the 2019 season. Though he turned in that excellent on-base percentage, thanks in no small part to his 101 walks, he also struck out 158 times in 122 games. He hit just .234 after a very slow start to the season, batting just .206 in April, though he had an even lower .181 batting average in August. He won the Home Run Derby at the Southern League All-Star Game, but he hit fewer home runs during the 2018 season than he did in 2017.

None of that is going to knock Collins off his track in the minor leagues, but they're question marks. He knows it.

"I know everybody wants to see the average higher," he said. "I’m going to keep the same eye. I want to swing a little bit more in hitter’s counts. Next year, just drive in runs, hit homers, do my thing, bring my average up."

"Everyone knows about the bat," general manager Rick Hahn said about Collins at SoxFest in January. "Everyone knows that has been sort of the carrying tool for him throughout, and he's wanted to prove to the world that the faith we all showed in him being able to be a premium catcher is warranted. Over the course of the last year, I think the defense has improved dramatically, especially in the second half of last season. ... From time to time, stuff is made over his offensive profile. The strikeouts, at times, seem to get out of hand. But when you know the power and the patience tools that he has from an offensive standpoint, the progress on the defensive side was the most important, and that's what he's shown here in the last several months."

And so you might not see Collins up early on in the 2019 season. He might benefit greatly from a full campaign at the Triple-A level. Same goes for Zavala, who struggled to replicate the numbers he posted at Birmingham after a midseason promotion to Charlotte, where he slashed .242/.266/.357 with a couple of homers in 48 games.

So when will Collins be up? It's hard to say. But practice, and progress, make perfect.

"I'm hard-pressed to tell you when he would be up," manager Rick Renteria said last month. "I will say simply that he is moving in the right direction.

"He was trying to enhance his receiving ability, enhance his ability to manage pitchers, getting to know them, the nuances of that position. He's a guy that's always hit, so you can see he was really working, focusing on one aspect of his game. I think the challenge he was wanting to improve upon, as we saw him as the season progressed, it ultimately did not affect him in the end. I think his mindset, his approach, gives him a chance of being able to settle in and adapt and adjust to that very demanding position."

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Add another item to White Sox rebuilding to-do list: Matching Jose Berrios and dethroning the Twins

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USA TODAY

Add another item to White Sox rebuilding to-do list: Matching Jose Berrios and dethroning the Twins

Before the White Sox can worry about dethroning the Minnesota Twins — who despite the mathematically relevant presence of the Cleveland Indians appear to be steaming toward an AL Central title — they’ll have to cross plenty of other items off their rebuilding to-do list.

Rick Hahn’s front office needs to go to work this offseason, adding starting pitching and a left-handed bat of some consequence. Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal need to be promoted to the major leagues. Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease need to go from learning-on-the-job rookies to the impact players their prospect rankings said they could be.

But if the White Sox roster, perhaps as soon as next season, blossoms into one capable of contending for a division title, there’s still the matter of besting the team currently at the hop of the heap.

The White Sox lost for the 12th time in 17 games against the division-rival Twins on Monday night, with a familiar face doing a familiar thing. Jose Berrios entered the night with a 2.40 career ERA against the White Sox, and that number got smaller with his 7.1 innings of two-run ball.

Things looked like they might have gone differently, with the White Sox scratching across a run in the first inning and James McCann hitting a home run to start the second. But that’s when Berrios reverted to All-Star form, and the White Sox offense did just about nothing the rest of the way. (It didn’t help, of course, that the White Sox made some shoddy plays in the field and ran into some outs on the bases, more things that need fixing on the way to contender status.)

Berrios, with his ERA down to 3.58 after Monday’s effort, is on pace to finish with a career best in that category. He hasn’t necessarily been the kind of pitcher that Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole have been this season for the Houston Astros, but he’s a bona fide ace of an October-bound staff. And it’s those types of big-time players the White Sox will have to match and beat if they want to climb to the top of the baseball mountain.

It doesn’t look impossible, considering the White Sox already have an All-Star pitcher and an ace of their staff in Lucas Giolito, who was scheduled to pitch Tuesday in the Land of 10,000 Lakes before he was shut down for the rest of the year with a mild lat strain.

But cast your mind back to the last time he threw at Target Field, when he showed how dominant he can be, even against an offense as potent as Minnesota’s. Giolito twirled a complete-game, three-hit, 12-strikeout shutout in that game and welcomed the Twins to the South Side with six innings of two-run ball in the following start.

As the Verlander-Cole Astros are showing, though, it takes more than one ace to make a run at a World Series. The Twins are going to try — and that’s no knock on their pitching staff, just pointing out that they win games and, eventually, a division title by out-slugging their opponents. White Sox fans know it well, having seen Nelson Cruz hit enough feet of home runs at Guaranteed Rate Field this season to get all the way back to Minneapolis.

And so while Giolito might be able to counter a pitcher like Berrios, the White Sox will need an offense that’s able to beat him and his homer-happy teammates. Reynaldo Lopez wasn’t awful Monday night, but five runs against him was plenty to get the Twins past the silenced White Sox.

That’s where Jimenez and Robert and Madrigal and McCann and Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson and Jose Abreu are supposed to come in. Only McCann could muster an RBI hit against Berrios on Monday. Jimenez added his 28th homer of the season off Twins closer Sergio Romo in the ninth inning.

That’s a group of hitters that, while very promising, is still developing. White Sox brass keeps telling us that as good as Moncada and Anderson have been during their breakout seasons, they will keep getting better. Jimenez is on his way to 30 homers as a rookie but has generally had an up-and-down season offensively. Robert and Madrigal have yet to taste the major leagues. There’s room for all of them to get better, to form the core of a lineup that could have even pitchers like Berrios sweating, that could go toe-to-toe with a powerful lineup like the Twins’.

But that all has to fall into place. Until it does, unseating the Twins will remain on the to-do list, behind a few more pressing matters. Until it does, Berrios will keep pitching lights out and the Twins will keep hitting balls out. Those are the kinds of things division champs do.

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Lucas Giolito's remarkable 2019 season over as MRI reveals mild lat strain

Lucas Giolito's remarkable 2019 season over as MRI reveals mild lat strain

The best story of the White Sox season is coming to an early end.

According to reporters covering the team in Minnesota, Lucas Giolito is done for the year after an MRI revealed a mild lat strain.

As those reporters noted, the injury normally wouldn't be considered your typical "season ender," say if it occurred in the middle of the summer, but with only a couple weeks remaining in the 2019 campaign, this is it for Giolito.

What a remarkable season it was for the young right-hander, who went from the pitcher with the worst statistics in baseball last season to an All-Star, the ace of the South Side starting staff and a guy who could receive Cy Young votes.

Giolito was scheduled to face off against the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday night. Instead, he'll finish the season with a 3.41 ERA, 228 strikeouts and two complete-game shutouts against the Twins and Houston Astros, two of the best teams in the American League. He finishes with the seventh-highest single-season strikeout total in team history and the newly earned club record for the most consecutive strikeouts after he fanned eight straight Kansas City Royals in his most recent start.

While the White Sox have made it known that they'll be shopping for starting pitching this winter, they will head into the offseason with one top-of-the-rotation starter already in the fold in Giolito. His transformation, along with those of Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson, provides a good chunk of the optimism that the 2020 campaign could be the one in which the White Sox make the transition from rebuilding to contending.

It's a bummer that White Sox fans will miss out on a couple more Giolito starts — especially against the Twins, who he shutout last time he faced them in Minnesota — but it's been a season worth celebrating for the 25-year-old and a season that should provide a ton of excitement for the future.

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