Zack Collins wasn’t in the lineup for Tuesday night’s Crosstown game against the Cubs. He might not start Wednesday night, either.
So what’s he doing here? Well, he might end up doing a lot of things.
Collins, the White Sox top draft pick in 2016 and the No. 11 prospect in a loaded farm system, got the call to the majors Tuesday morning, another step forward in Rick Hahn’s rebuilding project. But unlike Eloy Jimenez, who was immediately installed as the everyday left fielder; unlike Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada, whose starting spots on the infield were assured the moment they came up; unlike Lucas Giolito and Michael Kopech, starting pitchers who slid right into the rotation, Collins comes with a mystery: Where is he going to play?
The White Sox have made a habit of saying that when they call up these highly touted prospects, they’re here to stay and they’re here to play. But with James McCann in the midst of an All-Star campaign, the regular catcher spot is kind of spoken for. That can have a positive effect, of course, with Collins not having to deal with the pressure of handling the bulk of a pitching staff, all while he’s still dogged by questions about his defense behind the plate. But it also creates a bit of a head-scratching scenario for the newest star of the rebuild to arrive in the bigs.
Speaking of Collins being here to stay, however, manager Rick Renteria wouldn't confirm that was the case when he spoke to the media Tuesday. Hahn has always said that the team's prospects are promoted based on the team deeming them ready, not because of a need at the major league level. But Renteria seemed to lean on Castillo's injury as the reason Collins got this opportunity. It doesn't mean those two things can't coincide, but it adds an interesting element to the whole promotion.
“I think that the opportunity arose, obviously, because of the Welington situation. Obviously, the intent is to ultimately get him here at some point. Right now, it happened to open up earlier, and we’ll see how it continues to play itself out. Hopefully he has a really good experience, and we’ll make some decisions as we continue to move forward.”
One thing that's certain is that Collins will be given the opportunity to swing the bat. After he put up a .250/.374/.482 slash line with nine homers, nine doubles, 39 RBIs and 36 walks in 50 games at Triple-A Charlotte, the White Sox are ready to see if Collins' offense is as major league ready as advertised.
Collins certainly seems to think so, showing off the kind of confidence that's become a trademark among the organization's stars of the future.
"I think I fit in the every day lineup, middle of the order," Collins said Tuesday. "Behind the plate, first base, DH, doesn’t really matter. I think I can help the team win, and obviously in the box is where I excel. So, we’ll see."
The defensive questions have forced Collins into other positions, as he mentioned. He spent 31 of his 50 games at Triple-A Charlotte this season at catcher but played first base and designated hitter there, too. That should provide Renteria with an opportunity to get Collins’ much-praised bat into the lineup more often. Indeed, Renteria was already turning to his second catcher — be it McCann or Welington Castillo, depending on who was behind the plate that day — as his DH more of late, opting for that bat, whichever it might be, instead of Yonder Alonso, who came into Tuesday’s game with a woeful .180/.280/.312 slash line.
And so it’s easy to see Collins moving into the same kind of role Castillo already had: catching on days when McCann isn’t and DH’ing on days when McCann is behind the plate. Though perhaps he can even be of more use in spelling Jose Abreu at first base, on occasion. Of course, that leaves little room for Alonso, whose bout of bad numbers has come at a poor time as he’s potentially fighting for playing time. Renteria has used Alonso in just five of his starting lineups this month.
Collins' development, like that of every young player on the major league roster and playing in the minor leagues, is ongoing. We'll get to see it in progress before our eyes. The offense should show up, and the White Sox are hoping the defensive issues don't. Collins is confident things have gone smoothly at Charlotte and is ready for his next challenge.
"I feel good," he said. "Everything is kind of falling into place. All the work I’ve put in through the last couple of years in the minor leagues. I feel good behind the plate, also. Everything is going smoothly.
"I feel like this year I made some big strides (defensively). Also, last year was the biggest one for me. Behind the plate, being with an older group at Triple-A was definitely helpful. There’s always room to improve. Now with McCann I can learn a lot from him."