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

Vinnie Duber
NBC Sports Chicago

Zack Collins has work to do before the catcher of the future becomes the White Sox catcher of the present originally appeared on nbcsportschicago.com

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

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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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