Recently Danny Miller pinch-hit for me in the Saturday Stew spot with a terrific column on the backup catcher battle between Zack Collins, Jonathan Lucroy, and Yermin Mercedes, and just a week later — the battle is all but over. It’s Zack Collins who has emerged victorious, and if it was a boxing match it would be a unanimous decision. Maybe even a knockout.
Yet, even so, I have this feeling that the club will still crown Jonathan Lucroy the winner and make him the primary backup to Yasmani Grandal to open the 2021 season. But if you ask Zack Collins about that, he’ll tell you that’s a mistake.
“One hundred percent,” Collins told Scott Merkin of MLB.com on Thursday morning. “I think if I’m not [the backup catcher], then it’s a mistake.”
Zack Collins has a .911 OPS through Sunday with a home run, a double, six walks and just three strikeouts through 15 Cactus League games. Collins feels like he deserves to be on the roster, what if he’s not?
“I’m not sure how I would handle it yet,” Collins said. “But I definitely won’t be happy, that’s for sure.”
Jonathan Lucroy has five hits in 11 games this spring including a double and five walks in 20 plate appearances. Not horrible, but still not better than Collins’ spring numbers. Heck, Lucroy’s numbers aren’t even better than Yermin Mercedes’ numbers. Mercedes has 11 hits in 14 games (three doubles) with eight RBI this spring to go along with six base runners caught stealing behind the dish.
Yermin Mercedes is still likely the odd-man out despite being the runner-up to Collins on paper this spring.
The White Sox gave Lucroy a minor league deal with an invitation to camp last month, and before that deal, it seemed like the backup catcher job was Collins’ to lose. Throughout camp, it seems like the White Sox see it differently, pairing Lucroy with young pitchers and giving him plenty of run behind the dish. Some of that can be attributed to Yasmani Grandal missing the first two weeks of Cactus League games with a bum knee, but the Sox obviously like Lucroy working with the young pitching staff.
But here’s the thing — Jonathan Lucroy just isn’t very good anymore. Spare me the typical feel-good “best shape in years,” story that follows at least one aging veteran around camp each and every March. Lucroy didn’t get a single at-bat in 2020, and in 2019 when he played 101 games with the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Angels, he could only muster up a .660 OPS.
At one point Lucroy was a premier catcher in this league both offensively and defensively, but those days are over. I’m glad that Lucroy took care of the herniated disk in his neck that claims held him back the past couple of seasons, but I’m not interested in the Jonathan Lucroy comeback experience taking place on the 2021 Chicago White Sox, a team looking to compete for a title.
Zack Collins was selected in the first round by the White Sox in 2016, which seems like forever ago. Heck, Collins pre-dates the entire rebuild that’s now seeing the fruits of its labor in the form of winning baseball on the Southside of Chicago. He’s mashed in the minors posting a 130, 128, and 140 wRC+ in his full-season stops in Advanced-A, Double-A, and Triple-A before being promoted to the major league club in 2019.
In 2019 he played just 27 games and saw only 102 plate appearances playing behind James McCann, who was supposed to be a veteran bridge that led to Collins being the everyday catcher. McCann decided to become an All-Star and soaked up most of the playing time while Collins struggled to the tune of a .656 OPS and a 38.2 percent strikeout rate while seeing sporadic playing time behind McCann.
After the White Sox gave Yasmani Grandal big bucks in November of 2019, Collins was relegated to a depth role in 2020 with the slightly expanded COVID-19 rosters and saw only 18 plate appearances.
With McCann in New York and Collins entering his fifth full season in the White Sox organization, the 26-year-old backstop should get a crack at a regular role with the team, if for no other reason than to audition for another team. At this point, what does Zack Collins’ future in Chicago look like?
He’s 26-years-old, he’s been in the organization for parts of six years now, and he has a combined 120 big league plate appearances. Yasmani Grandal is in Chicago through 2023, so there’s little to zero chance that Collins would have a starting role on this team until about 2024, and Collins understands that.
“Yasmani has signed a pretty big deal with us, so he’s definitely going to be the main guy,” Collins said. “But just me being there, learning from him and being able to get more experience up in the show, it’s definitely what I think is best for me.”
The truth here is, despite Collins’ respect for Grandal and the tutelage that he has and will provide Collins with, there’s not much of a future here for the former tenth overall selection out of Miami. I believe that Collins will be traded eventually to supplement the roster as they contend for a World Series Championship for the foreseeable future.
Regardless of what the future holds for Collins, he’s earned the backup job for 2021 with a very strong performance this spring, and the White Sox’s penance for preferring old, washed-up players shouldn’t get in the way of that. If the White Sox figure to be competitors in 2021, then why subject everyone to Jonathan Lucroy hitting .186 until he’s designated for assignment in mid-may, about six weeks too late?
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