While the state of the 2020 MLB season is still in serious doubt, it’s fair to still think about the potential effects of this season. No, I’m not going into existential questions about the sport here, there’s a time and place for that. Instead, I’m going to look at a question I’ve had about a player in the White Sox organization for some time now. The question was there back in Spring Training, and it certainly isn’t going away now. Drumroll…
Where do the White Sox go with Zack Collins?
Collins, the 10th overall pick of the 2016 MLB Draft, obviously still has something there. While he didn’t hit great in his (brief) MLB debut in 2019, hitting has followed him everywhere he’s gone since arriving in the minors. With the optimism of the 2020 MLB Draft in full bloom now for the White Sox, looking back on previous draft shortcomings may not be the desired place to go, but it’s certainly impossible to ignore.
MLB teams that receive the most (and least) production from their draft picks (last 10 seasons):
Most WAR – Cardinals (147.7)
Fewest WAR – White Sox (18.7)
Most WAR – Dodgers (84.6)
Fewest WAR – Cubs (9.8)
— Paul Hembekides (@PaulHembo) June 10, 2020
While Collins had some struggles in 2019, he made adjustments at the AAA level and still was able to show some display of power in the majors, to go along with an always good eye at the plate.
June 21, 2019: Welcome to the show! Zack Collins becomes the fourth White Sox in franchise history to hit a home run in his first at-bat. pic.twitter.com/6ouaYTPEKZ
— Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) April 17, 2020
With Collins, the biggest question has been, and seemingly always will be, where he fits on defense. In 2019, while he was still being given some opportunity as a catcher (outside of whatever the hell plan it was to use Wellington Castillo frequently in September), it was clear the team was looking for other possible options.
In terms of catching, 2020 is a lost cause, the existence of a season regardless. With Yasmani Grandal on board as the highest paid free agent in franchise history and James McCann coming off an All Star season in 2019, there simply is neither space nor logical reason to deploy Collins behind the plate in 2020. It seemed unlikely to happen in 162 games, let alone in as little as 48 games.
Earlier this spring when looking at the race for the 26th man, I expressed my thought that I’d rather see Collins in AAA, getting regular at bats, over rotting away on the bench with plate appearances possibly once a week. Zack Collins also seemed resigned to that fact, saying via James Fegan in The Athletic:
“Let’s be honest: we have four veterans at first base, DH and two catchers, and I don’t really have a good spot to get in there every day,” Collins said. “I almost think it’s better for my career to develop in Triple A and get at-bats and continue to grow there rather than being the 26th man and playing once a week.”
Unfortunately for that plan, the 2020 Minor League Baseball season appears to be in even more jeopardy than the MLB one, with teams laying off minor leaguers left and right. Even in the event of any form on MiLB being played in 2020, it looks to be more of an expanded Arizona Fall League, where teams have prospects play in a developmental league. This would seem to be something geared more towards younger guys and recent draft picks/signees attempting to further their development, rather than a guy looking for at-bats while he’s frozen out of the MLB lineup.
Which leaves Zack Collins in an even more precarious spot heading into 2020. The catching rotation is certainly full with Grandal and McCann, and first base/DH is pretty well stocked with Jose Abreu and Edwin Encarnacion. In a 48ish game season that was already supposed to be the first competitive year for the Sox after a three year rebuild, each game bears even more importance, and development goes from being the goal to being a nice bonus when it can happen within the plan.
For 2020, it seems being an emergency third catcher and a left handed PH to relieve the likes of McCann (on Grandal’s off days) or another light-hitting righty is the only option left. The Taxi Squad may be where Collins’ fate lies in 2020.
Beyond 2020, things become slightly more promising, although there is one clear roadblock. After the 2020 season, McCann is in all certainty headed to find a potential starting job in free agency. While Grandal is still around for three more years to take the starting catching job, McCann leaving leaves a clear void in the catching ranks for the Sox.
Edwin Encarnacion, who holds a club option for $12MM in 2021, could end up being a casualty of a few factors after 2020: age (2021 will be his age 39 season) and aging-related loss of production, and a salary crunch after a season with potentially devastating economic losses, if you ask the owners. Not having a buyout in his contract also doesn’t help his case, so if the White Sox are looking to save a quick buck in 2021 Encarnacion will likely be one of the first to go.
It’s not all rainbows and unicorns though – remember the roadblock I mentioned? That is, obviously, Andrew Vaughn coming up (likely) in 2021 to begin the process of replacing Jose Abreu at first, while Abreu shifts to DH as he gets older.
With this in mind, the path forward seems (somewhat clear) for Collins, although difficult. Stay ready in 2020, hope you can stick as a backup catcher/1B/left handed pinch hitter from 2021 onwards, and make an impact that gives you a place with Andrew Vaughn on the come-up. Easy enough, right?
Unless the team wants to try something a little wacky, like putting him in right field or something. Hell, if Rick Ankiel could come back and have some good years as an outfielder, anything is possible. I suppose if the team isn’t able to unlock Nomar Mazara and strikes out in free agency next winter on the strong outfielder class, there may be some space if the glut of AA outfielders doesn’t progress.
I’m not saying this is an avenue the team would explore, but if they’re trying to be creative, it could be something to at least trial. Start in Spring Training and work from there. Or, why not use the potential 2020 MiLB developmental league season to test this out, if he’s not on the major league roster.
We were willing to give AJ Reed MLB at bats, after all. Not an ideal situation, obviously, but while I’m throwing darts in the dark might as well chuck up this one.
Outside of that, the only really remaining option is a trade. While Collins is a former top 100 prospect, you have to imagine his value is at an all time low. Is trading a player that still has the hit tool potential that Collins does for some middle of the bullpen guy a worthwhile endeavor? If that is the potential difference between a playoff spot or not, maybe.
In my opinion, this doesn’t make sense right now – maybe in a year once he has some time to prove himself in MLB, but for now the potential you’d be giving up doesn’t match the (likely) return. While he wasn’t great in 2020, there still looks to be enough hitting potential there to justify not dumping off someone you invested a first round pick in.
Even if he doesn’t live up to the billing of a former top 10 pick, a left handed power bat that can catch in a pinch, is a valuable skill set if he can make any more progress. Not only that, but his plate approach, particularly in drawing walks, is something that this team of free-swingers is desperate for.