Deep Dive: Charlotte and Birmingham catchers

Zack attack: After a solid September in a White Sox uniform and a terrific year in Charlotte, Zack Collins is hoping to be a fixture in the White Sox lineup for 2019. (Tom Borowski/South Side Hit Pen)

“Deep Dive” focuses on the depth of each position in the Chicago White Sox organization. Each position is broken into a five-part series:

  1. Depth in the rookie levels (Dominican through Great Falls)
  2. Depth in A-ball (Kannapolis and Winston-Salem)
  3. Depth in the higher levels (Birmingham and Charlotte)
  4. Under the Radar-type detail on one of the White Sox players at that position
  5. Free agent options at that position

The three best catching prospects in the entire White Sox system finished the year in Charlotte, Yes, they’re mostly offensive players who happen to play catcher; however, Zack Collins and Seby Zavala received their first taste of the majors last year. Meanwhile, Yermín Mercedes looks to be a future offensive force as well, but it’s unclear if his future production will be in a White Sox uniform. The rest of the players on this list essentially serve as organizational depth at best.

Ages below are as of April 1, 2020

Charlotte Knights

Zack Collins
220 pounds
Age: 25
Bats/Throws: L/R
Other positions played: First Base

Collins had a terrific three years with the University of Miami, but his junior season was absolutely terrific. In 62 games for the Hurricanes spanning 190 at-bats, he slashed .363/.544/.668 by hitting 10 doubles, 16 homers and 59 RBIs while walking 78 times as opposed to 53 strikeouts. Despite concerns about his defense, it wasn’t surprising to see the White Sox select Collins with the 10th overall pick in the 2016 draft. For Winston-Salem that year, Collins slashed .258/.418/.467 in 36 games with seven doubles, six homers, 18 RBIs, 33 walks and 39 strikeouts.

By contrast, 2017 was a bit of a disappointment for Collins, as his slash line dropped to a combined .224/.370/.445 for Winston-Salem and Birmingham with 20 doubles, three triples, 19 homers, 53 RBIs, 87 walks (23.2%) and 129 strikeouts (34.4%). The next year with Birmingham was even more disappointing, however, as his stats had fallen significantly; in 2018, he slashed .234/.382/.404 in 418 at-bats with 24 doubles, one triple, 15 homers, 68 RBIs, 101 walks (19.0%) and 158 strikeouts (29.8%). On the positive side, Collins’ high walk total kept his OBP relatively high.

The 2019 season saw Collins’ numbers significantly improve in hitting-friendly Charlotte, leading to his best numbers as a professional. In 294 at-bats for the Knights, Collins slashed .282/.403/.548 with 19 doubles, one triple, 19 homers, 74 RBIs, 62 walks (21.1%) and 96 strikeouts (32.7%). The numbers were good enough for him to earn his first shot at the majors, but when he struggled in part due to lack of consistent playing time, he returned to Charlotte and worked on his swing with future White Sox hitting coach Frank Menechino. In the final month of the season, Collins produced a respectable .233/.333/.417 slash line back on the South Side. Overall for the White Sox in 27 games totaling 86 at-bats, Collins slashed .187/.306/.349 with three doubles, one triple, three homers, 12 RBIs, 14 walks (13.7%) and 39 strikeouts (38.2%).

Collins still has rookie eligibility for the 2020 season, and is currently ranked 10th by MLB Pipeline of all White Sox prospects. MLB Pipeline has noted that his game-calling has improved significantly, but he lacks soft hands and is a shaky receiver. Though Collins has good arm strength, it plays down due to his slow release — although he did throw out would-be basestealers at a fairly respectable 30% rate. This year for Charlotte, Collins only hit lefties at a .224/.327/.447 clip as opposed to righties at .306/.433/.589. Collins has played some first base with Charlotte and Chicago, which he may do more frequently in future years.

It looks like Collins’ future may be as someone who could play first base/catcher/DH due to defensive limitations, but his bat (provided he cuts down on strikeouts) may well be worth it. With his struggles against lefties, a platoon role may eventually be in store for him as well.

Seby Zavala
215 pounds
Age: 26
Bats/Throws: R/R
Other positions played: First Base

Zavala was part of the final recruiting class of MLB Hall-of-Famer and San Diego State coach Tony Gwynn. After hitting a combined four homers in his first two years with the Aztecs while spending significant time in the outfield, Zavala became a full-time catcher during his junior season which, along with a boost in power, significantly improved his draft position. In that 2015 season, Zavala hit .290/.399/.537 in 231 at-bats with 13 doubles, one triple, 14 homers, 67 RBIs, 30 walks (10.6%) and 52 strikeouts (18.3%). After the White Sox selected him in the 12th round, Zavala did damage to the AZL by slashing .326/.401/.628 in 129 at-bats by hitting 17 doubles, five triples, four homers, 35 RBIs, 15 walks (10.2%) and 27 strikeouts (18.4%)

Zavala spent the entire 2016 season with Kannapolis, where his numbers unsurprisingly dipped against the stronger competition, as he slashed .253/.330/.381 with seven homers in 93 games. The next year, 2017, saw Zavala really begin his ascent up the prospect rankings. With Kannapolis and Winston-Salem that year, Zavala combined to slash a more robust .282/.353/.499 in 107 games as he produced 21 doubles, 21 homers, 72 RBIs, 37 walks (8.5%) and 104 strikeouts (24.0%). Zavala struggled through injuries that sapped his overall production during the 2018 season with Birmingham and Charlotte, but he still managed to slash .258/.317/.418 in 104 games while producing 22 doubles, 13 homers, 51 RBIs, 33 walks (7.8%) and 109 strikeouts (25.7%).

This year, more than any year in his career, Zavala had difficulty putting his bat on the ball. In 82 games with Charlotte, he slashed just .222/.296/.471 with 14 doubles, 20 homers, 45 RBIs, 26 walks (7.9%) and 116 strikeouts (35.0%). Zavala did see action in five games for the White Sox, but had just one single in his 12 at-bats with no walks and a whopping nine strikeouts. He ranks as the second-highest White Sox catching prospect (behind Collins) and the 25th-best organizational prospect per MLB Pipeline. His arm was graded 50 by MLB, largely due to his quick release. His leadership and game-calling skills seem to stand out, while his power is graded at 50. Unless the White Sox plan on carrying three catchers on next year’s (expanded) 26-man rosters, it’s likely Zavala will return to Charlotte to begin the 2020 season. He is more advanced than Collins and Mercedes defensively, but Zavala’s strikeouts (which is a huge contributor to his declining average) is particularly worrisome.

Yermin Mercedes
225 pounds
Age 27
Bats/Throws: R/R
Other positions played: First Base, Third Base

In late August we ran: this Under the Radar piece on Mercedes. Unless he’s added to the 40-man roster, Mercedes will be eligible for the upcoming Rule 5 draft. If he remains in the White Sox organization, he could be a dark-horse pick to graduate to the majors and be at least a platoon DH against lefties, if not more.

Daniel Gonzalez
190 pounds
Age: 24
Bats/Throws: R/R

Just a couple months after signing as a free agent from the Dominican Republic, Daniel Gonzalez started his professional career with the DSL White Sox. After spending the first two seasons there, he moved Stateside and split time with the AZL White Sox and Kannapolis during the 2015 season, combining for a .263/.321/.323 slash line in 32 games with three doubles, one homer, 20 RBIs, eight walks (7.3%) and 15 strikeouts (13.8%). The 2016 season, split between Kannapolis and Winston-Salem, actually saw him produce his best career slash line, of .315/.351/.371 in 30 games, with five doubles, 11 RBIs, four walks (4.3%) and 21 strikeouts. (22.3%)

Daniel Gonzalez saw his most playing time in 2017 as he returned to Kannapolis and Winston-Salem, as he slashed .242/.266/.302 in 51 games with eight doubles, one homer, 15 RBIs, five walks (2.7%) and 31 strikeouts (16.5%). Due to injuries in 2018, he only played in 24 games for the Dash while slashing .241/.328/.296. In 2019, despite playing for three teams (Winston-Salem, Birmingham and Charlotte), he entered only 18 games due to injuries and produced an unsightly slash line of .149/.212/.170. He did an excellent job stifling would-be base stealers, cutting them down 9-of-20 times (45%). He is a good defender, but isn’t seen as more than organizational depth at this point due to his relatively weak bat and inability to stay healthy.

Birmingham Barons

Alfredo Gonzalez
220 pounds
Age: 27
Bats/Throws: R/R

Alfredo Gonzalez signed with the DSL Astros out of Venezuela all the way back in May 2009. It took several years for him to move up the system, as he didn’t even begin full season ball until 2015. That year, he not only played for A-level Quad Cities but also for A+ Lancaster and Double-A Corpus Christi. With those three teams, he combined to slash .321/.409/.378 in 72 games with six doubles, two homers, 35 RBIs, 37 walks (12.6%) and 51 strikeouts (17.3%). However, after struggling for Corpus Christi in 2016, the Astros designated him for assignment on June 25; the White Sox picked him up a week later. For the Barons in 39 games, he hit a respectable .296/.358/.341 but with little power to speak of (six doubles).

Alfredo Gonzalez struggled offensively for Birmingham in 2017 in 71 games, as he slashed just .208/.306/.301 with six doubles, four homers (a career high), 24 RBIs, 29 walks (13.4%) and 41 strikeouts (19.0%). 2018 saw him begin the season with the Charlotte Knights, but after struggling to begin the season, was demoted to Birmingham where he posted solid numbers. Combined with both teams, he slashed .244/314/.310 with six doubles, two homers, 17 RBIs, 19 walks (8.0%) and 63 strikeouts (26.5%). However, his highlight came on May 24 when he was an emergency call-up and he attained his first major league hit.

This year, Alfredo Gonzalez split time again with Birmingham and Charlotte and slashed just .238/.339/.317 in 67 games with a combined 11 doubles, two homers, 31 walks (14.9%) and 52 strikeouts (25.0%). He had a rare off-year behind the plate, as he threw out just 26% of would-be basestealers (over his long career, he’s been successful 38% of the time). He has the profile of a career minor-leaguer who can walk a bit, not embarrass himself offensively, produce little to no power, but fields his position well. There’s not much catching depth in the system beyond Triple-A, so it’s possible he could return to the White Sox organization in the same role for 2020.

Nate Nolan
210 pounds
Age: 25
Bats/Throws: R/R

Nolan flashed enough power, and enough arm strength at the catcher position, during his junior season with St. Mary’s to garner interest from various scouts, despite his propensity to strike out. In 58 games for the Gaels that season, he slashed .261/.360/.468 with 17 doubles, nine homers, 36 RBIs, 29 walks (11.2%) and 86 strikeouts (33.1%). Hoping to correct those strikeout issues, the White Sox selected him in the eighth round of the 2016 draft. That year with Great Falls and Kannapolis, Nolan slashed just .138/.241/.203 in 36 games with a combined two doubles, two homers, 11 RBIs, 14 walks (9.9%) and 62 strikeouts (43.7%).

Thanks in part to solid production with Great Falls, Nolan enjoyed his best season to date in 2017 with Kannapolis and Great Falls, where he combined to slash .215/.293/.395 with seven homers over 56 games. The 2018 season saw him spend the entire campaign with Winston-Salem, where he hit well below the Mendoza Line at .173. In 51 games spent last year among three teams (Winston-Salem, Birmingham and Charlotte), Nolan slashed just .183/.249/.314 with four homers, 17 RBIs, 12 walks (6.5%) and 71 strikeouts (38.4%).

During Nolan’s entire four years in the minors, his career slash line is just .182/.262/.310, with a whopping 40.9% strikeout rate that has sapped most of his offensive potential. He threw out just 13 of 71 would-be basestealers (18.3%) this year, dropping his career average to 24.6%. At this point, Nolan appears to be simply organizational depth at best and will be eligible for the upcoming Rule 5 draft in December.

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