Due to an odd confluence of circumstances, the catching situation for the Chicago White Sox Triple-A affiliate is one of the hottest topics of this years’ Spring Training. Since camp broke in February, most fans and observers assumed that the 26th spot on the newly expanded roster would come down to a battle between Yermin Mercedes and Zack Collins. To make the situation even murkier, FutureSox has learned that both Mercedes and Collins are expected to start the season in Charlotte. With three experienced prospects all having 40 man roster protection, it’s likely something changes soon.
The Charlotte Knights website currently lists 24-year-old Daniel Gonzalez as the only catcher on the roster. Since 2013, Gonzalez has steadily moved up the ladder from the DSL to the highest level of the minor leagues. Gonzalez appeared in only 18 games across three levels in 2019, posting underwhelming offensive numbers. Throughout seven minor league seasons, he has fewer than 1,000 plate appearances, making his ability to stick on the team questionable even without the expected assignment of both Mercedes and Collins to Triple-A.
Considered a DFA candidate by many this offseason, the 26-year-old out of San Diego State University looks like a lock for the roster. As a more advanced defensive player than his counterparts, Zavala likely will be kept as a hedge against a long-term injury to either Yasmani Grandal or James McCann. The latter is also a trade candidate. Zavala has struggled on offense the last few seasons, but has the power to deliver home runs in bunches. If he can duplicate his 2017 success, when he led all White Sox minor leaguers with 21 home runs, there’s a possibility he can recapture prospect status. However, with both Yermin Mercedes and Zack Collins in need of defensive reps, there may not be enough innings or at-bats to accommodate all three players again this season.
Collins finished 2019 in Chicago, giving him the inside track for the final roster spot. That ship has apparently sailed for now, and his future has become less clear. Grandal will rightfully see the majority of the plate appearances in Chicago, with McCann serving in a backup role. Except for a high strikeout rate, Collins numbers across every minor league level have been strong. His ISO has consistently been over .200, and his OBP often exceeded .400. These factors fueled a wRC+ of 140 last year in Charlotte, and 128 and 166 in two seasons at Birmingham.
The former 10th overall pick absolutely raked in Charlotte in 2019, making Chicago the most likely alternative. However, Collins struggled with the White Sox in 2019, striking out at a whopping 38% clip and posting an uncharacteristically low OBP of .307. His defensive abilities behind the dish have been questioned, giving ample ammunition to his critics looking to justify the decision to return the 25-year old to Triple-A. His promising spring is better than the alternative, but keeping him in Chicago could be tough to defend, regardless of whether he has anything left to prove in the minors.
An under-the-radar prospect for most of his career, Mercedes made himself highly visible with an extraordinary run in Charlotte on the field and an engaging personality off it. In 220 at-bats in Triple-A, he smashed 17 home runs with a massive ISO of .337 and an OBP of .386. I recently wrote that his power numbers are atypical of his minor league career. However, Mercedes has continued to hit well in Spring Training, including three (long) home runs. If he’s found the key to unlock his raw power, his minor league numbers are irrelevant. Mercedes defensive challenges have been on display in Arizona as well. Hitting from the right side also works against him in his quest for a roster spot on the big league team. Despite the news, it’s possible he still wins a job in Chicago this spring or shortly after that.
COMPLICATIONS AND POSSIBILITIES
Further complicating the scenario is the fact that all three players are in their mid-to-late twenties, giving them a short-shelf life for retaining prospect status. It’s unlikely the team will devote that much real estate on the 40-man roster to minor league backstops for long. None of them have a high value on the trade market, making them susceptible to release. On the other side, there are opportunities in Chicago. Edwin Encarnación’s recent history indicates he’ll only play in approximately 120-130 games. This is a factor that could open up designated hitter opportunities with the big league throughout the season.
McCann could be coveted in the trade market, but $5.4 million for a player with his track record could be considered ‘too step’ for many clubs. The veteran will likely be used in the role of a true backup in Chicago in 2019, and his potential removal could factor into these decisions greatly. The situation with the last spot on the roster also remains fluid. Leury Garcia, Danny Mendick, Adam Engel and McCann seem like roster locks at this stage. That leaves another spot on the newly created 26-man roster, and one of the aforementioned catchers could fit the bill. Regardless, the Triple-A catching situation is full of drama and lengthy home runs. It should be fun to monitor this spring.