Saturday Stew: Who will be the White Sox backup catcher?

Yasmani Grandal has been one of the game’s best catchers since he’s made his way up to the show, and is currently in his second season of a four-year, $73 million contract for the Sox. With the departure of James McCann this offseason, there has been a huge question mark as to who will be the guy behind Yas on the depth chart.

Since the start of the Sox rebuild in 2016, fans have been hearing about and watching and waiting for one of a few prospects in the farm system to make a considerable leap onto the active roster. Guys like Seby Zavala, Yermin Mercedes, and, of course, Zack Collins. But in a somewhat surprising move, White Sox General Manager Rick Hahn sought the possibility of another option by signing 35-year-old Jonathan Lucroy to a minor league deal in early February. Many folks expected a catcher to be signed, but Lucroy was not what most had in mind.

Lucroy spent the early part of his career playing in Milwaukee. During his six plus seasons with the Brewers, he was primarily the starting catcher and had an All-Star campaign in 2014, as well as finishing fourth in National League MVP voting that same year. After being traded to the Rangers in the second half of 2016, which was also an All-Star season for Lucroy, he spent the next four years bouncing around between the Rockies, Athletics, Angels, Cubs, and Red Sox. It was during those years that a considerable drop off in skills and production occurred.

Some may point to a serious injury in July of 2019 while playing for the Angels as a reason for his most recent struggles. Hitting. Fielding. Defense and framing. All have seen a decline.

In the eighth inning of a game against the Astros, Jake Marisnick barreled into Lucroy while trying to score on what would have been a George Springer sacrifice fly. The collision was the thing of nightmares. After hitting the Angels catcher with amazing force, Marisnick touched home plate and immediately turned back to check on Lucroy, knowing instantly something wasn’t right. Lucroy struggled to sit up, and blood poured from his nose. There was a collective concern held by all that witnessed the hit.

Lucroy was carted off the field and transported to the hospital to undergo a CT scan to be evaluated for a concussion and possible nose fracture. It was determined that he did indeed suffer a concussion and broken nose. He missed three weeks before being designated for assignment just two days after his return to the team. But the story doesn’t end there. Turns out that he had also been playing with a herniated disc in his neck for two years before that fateful evening in Houston.

Photo: USA TODAY Sports

Over the winter after the 2019 season, Lucroy had surgery to remove the herniated disc from his neck before trying to rejuvenate his career, now with the Boston Red Sox. Two weeks before the start of the 2020 season, he had this to say about his surgery:

“I’d like to sit here and say that’s the reason why I haven’t played good but I’m not going to. It did affect me. But I got it taken care of. And I feel a lot better than I have in a long time. I’ll just put it like that”

He played one game with Boston last year before being designated for assignment yet again. From 2010-2017 he slashed .281/.343/.433/.776 in 975 games. Not counting that one game in Boston, he slashed a paltry .237/.297/.338/.635 in 227 games the previous two seasons. And as far as the defensive prowess he was once known for, he has posted -40 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) in 323 games as a catcher since the start of the 2017 season. Less than inspiring, and hardly seems like a viable replacement for fan-favorite James McCann, but current chatter around camp would lead you to believe he is in the lead for the job.

So, what about the group of catching prospects we’ve all been patiently waiting for to make a splash for the Pale Hose? Ya know, the guys I mentioned earlier. Zavala, Mercedes, and Collins.

Seby Zavala was once a guy that a lot of folks had high hopes for within the club, and White Sox fandom alike, but after some setbacks and lack of production at a preferred level, he’s most likely nothing more than minor league depth at this point in his career. For that reason, we’re not going to spend any more time talking about him. Sorry Seby, just stating the facts here buddy.

That brings us to Yermin Mercedes. The 28-year-old “Yerminator” has always been known for being a guy that can absolutely mash at the dish. In 10 pro seasons across the minor and international leagues, Mercedes carries an OPS of .856 and 105 home runs in 810 games. Unfortunately for Yermin, his defensive metrics leave him looking more like a DH option than he does as a catcher.

Sure, he could probably make a spot start behind the plate every now and again if needed, but probably not the guy to backup Grandal on a regular basis. Mercedes has one major league at-bat, in 2020, where he drew a six pitch walk, so there’s that.

So that leaves us with Zack Collins. As I mentioned earlier, the talk around Camelback Ranch suggests that Jonathan Lucroy is the leading man in the backup catcher battle, but this writer believes that may just be smoke and mirrors. Before the handful of fans that are thinking Lucroy is still the same guy he was five years ago start slinging obscenities in my direction, let me tell you why it is I think Collins will be the guy.

Collins, a 26-year-old Pembroke Pines, FL native was chosen by the White Sox in the first round of the 2016 MLB draft, 10th overall, after absolutely raking during his time at Miami. His accolades there were plentiful. As a freshman in 2014, Collins slashed .298/.427/.556 with 11 home runs and 54 RBI in 61 games. That performance earned him the ACC Freshman of the Year honors, as well as being named Baseball America’s Freshman of the Year. In 66 games as a sophomore, he mashed to the tune of .302/.445/.587 with 15 dingers and 70 RBI. His Junior season was one of beauty where he hit .363, 16 bombs, and 59 RBI, all while walking 78 times! The Johnny Bench Award would be his that year.

Photo: NBC Sports Chicago

Across the Sox minor league system, Collins hasn’t had the best batting average, but as times have been changing, most of us are learning that batting average isn’t the best indicator of a hitters prowess anymore. This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.

In 2016, Collins combined hitting .244, but hit six home runs and 18 RBI between the AZL White Sox and the Winston-Salem Dash and was named a Carolina League All-Star.

2017 saw Zack split time between the Dash and the Sox Double-A affiliate, the Birmingham Barons. Although there was a slight dip in his average at .224, he hit 19 long balls and had 53 RBI in 113 games.

In 2018 Collins spent the year back in Birmingham hitting .234 with 15 homers and 68 RBI across 122 games and also earned a nod to the Southern League All-Star game, where he won the Home Run Derby.

In 2019, after spending the early part of the season with the Triple-A Charlotte Knights, he was called up to the MLB club on June 18. Just three days later he would get his first major league hit, a three-run bomb against the Texas Rangers. Unfortunately for Collins, that McCann character we mentioned earlier was having himself a season, and the opportunities for Collins were sparse. He only appeared in nine games and hit .063, leaving many fans feeling unsatisfied.

2020 was more of the same. He spent the whole of the shortened season as the third catcher on the active roster. With the addition of Yasmani Grandal, and James McCann still on the team, the opportunities would again be thin. But with the production from the DH slot lacking for the Sox, many fans were left scratching their heads as to why Collins didn’t see more at-bats. Insert profanity-laden comments for Ricky Renteria here.

The point here to remember is that Collins has never really been given a proper chance to get comfortable at the big league level. The kid has hit at every level throughout his playing days. Defensively he has progressed from a below-average catcher to one that is more than serviceable. Don’t let the way he has been misused over the last few seasons sour you on him. Once the promising sweetheart in the eyes of so many fans, those same fans have expressed doubt across social media everywhere. Shame on you for giving up on him if you are one of those people (yes, I just resorted to fan-shaming. Sorry, not sorry). The White Sox haven’t given up on him yet. Neither should you.

Aside from the recent production, or lack thereof, from Lucroy, these are the reasons I believe Collins will be the guy spelling Grandal for most of the season. Even if it isn’t the case at the start of the year, only time will tell how Manager Tony La Russa plans to construct his team. He recently made it sound like the Sox will only be carrying two catchers at the start of the season, and maybe it will be Lucroy who gets the nod early on, but my money is on Collins for the bulk of the year.

Stay tuned.

Featured Photo: Norm Hall/Getty Images

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