Winter can be tricky. I very much prefer the warmth. For whatever reason, I chose to stick around the Midwest; specifically, about 20 minutes from Guaranteed Rate Field.
Maybe that’s the reason I’m still here.
The feeling of dread starts to sink in around early October. Knowing cold and darkness is on the horizon for roughly five months sends shivers down my spine. I’d describe the period leading to a new baseball season as walking to school uphill both ways in a harrowing blizzard, only to find out class was canceled. It doesn’t help that the White Sox haven’t played a meaningful game in the fall in over a decade, making the winters seem that much longer.
Sure, I’m dramatic, but to combat the challenges a Major League offseason brings, I set dates on the calendar that keep me motivated to strap on my snow boots. First comes the Winter Solstice, which signifies the shortest day of the year. The warmth may still be a way away, but at least the light returns each day thereafter!
Then, there’s SoxFest at the end of January. It’s a taste of Summer, but only just that. ‘Thunderstruck’ is played at least once, and Jason Benetti, Hawk Harrelson, Gene Honda, and even Ozzie Guillen gave us the flavor of White Sox baseball with their energy. But reality quickly hits once I walk outside and see snowbanks and freezing rain.
Our reward for braving the depths of “Hot Stove” season is a taste of the sunshine. The sounds of barrel meeting ball and ball clapping leather. It’s the final date to check off on my sanity calendar prior to opening day.
Pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training.
It’s like a mini-holiday for baseball fans. Just typing the phrase gives me a reason to celebrate the fact that Florida and Arizona will soon be sharing the warm, inviting sunshine with the rest of the country. For now, though, we must admire from afar, while organizations prepare to solidify their 40-man rosters and plan for the 162-game grind.
For the White Sox this spring, there are a few positional battles to keep an eye on, along with some back-end bullpen competition. Other than minor storylines, this spring will be about furthering development and evaluating those who can compete at the Big League level in 2019 and beyond.
Among the names, particularly, is a catcher in the White Sox system who has flown under-the-radar.
Seby Zavala is ready to make his Major League debut, and he will almost certainly do so this season. The 25-year-old was ready to be promoted last year if he didn’t suffer an injury at the most inopportune time.
Zavala, who was drafted in the 12th round of the 2015 draft and is a homegrown Sox prospect, has steadily worked his way to the highest level of the system after a breakout season in 2018. His 11 home runs, 51 RBI and .271/.358/.472 slash line through 56 Double-A games earned him a promotion to Charlotte.
The offensive production slowed during Zavala’s first taste of Triple-A, as the backstop slashed .242/.266/.357 in 48 games. Some of the struggle could be attributed to a lingering wrist issue that Seby battled late in the season with the Knights. Glaring areas of concern between Birmingham and Charlotte in 2018 are related to his 25.9 percent strikeout rate (110 K’s in 424 PA’s) compared to just 33 walks (7.8% BB rate). However, his 15 doubles and two home runs at Charlotte should not be dismissed, as Zavala’s power was a big reason the White Sox grabbed the then 21-year-old out of San Diego State University.
The offense, relatively speaking, has been there for Zavala throughout his White Sox career. The main question surrounding his development relates to his defensive ability.
In our scouting report of Seby Zavala, we note:
“The weak spot in his game is handling bad pitches, but 2018 reports indicate marked improvement in this area, thus prompting his promotion to AAA. His arm is average but has a pretty quick release giving him better than average performance there, and he moves well around the plate in play action. We've heard a number of positive reports about his pitcher handling, and he shows good baseball IQ.”
Zavala clearly performed well enough for the White Sox to move him to Triple-A. He only totaled two errors in 563 chances (.996 FLD%), but his 12 passed balls in 66 games behind the dish are two more than both Sox Major League options, Wellington Castillo and James McCann, had combined in 2018.
Elsewhere in his defensive game, Zavala has caught 28% of base stealers in his career, which would rank him in the 19-24 range among the likes of Jonathan Lucroy, Mike Zunino, Chris Stewart, and Jeff Mathis. Castillo, for comparison, is currently ninth among active players in caught stealing percentage at 33%. Of course, the Zavala number is skewed because of the variance in talent, but I felt it was worth noting for perspective’s sake.
Speaking of perspective’s sake, how about a quote from White Sox Director of Player Development Chris Getz?
Getz spoke about Zavala last June in an article written by our Ken Sawilchik saying, “We're very comfortable in where he's at from a game calling standpoint, from a receiving standpoint, just from the defensive side.”
Catching is a complex position, and Zavala seems to be just about ready to perform at the game’s highest level.
Among the conversation surrounding his game, Bernardo Sebastian (Seby) is in a precarious spot as it pertains to his position within the organization. Just a year after Zavala was drafted, the White Sox spent the 10th overall pick in 2016 on catcher Zack Collins.
Collins and Zavala shared time on the same roster twice throughout their Minor League careers. Once in 2017 with Winston-Salem, and again in 2018 with Birmingham. Collins spent all of 2018 with Double-A Birmingham to establish consistency in his defensive game, while also accumulating quality plate appearances against high-level pitching.
The freshly-turned 24-year-old Collins played 74 games at catcher last year and totaled nine errors in 681 chances (.987 FLD%) and allowed 13 passed balls. Offensively, Collins was scouted to have plus power and offers a potential 25-30 home runs per season. In 2018, he hit 15 homers, 24 doubles and notched a .786 OPS.
The offensive numbers are encouraging, but there is still improvement to be made. Collins struck out 158 times (29.8 K%) last year but also walked 101 times (19% BB rate). Although Collins has made strides defensively, he is not Major League ready at this point. Some consider the slugging lefty as a future first-baseman/DH, but the White Sox are hopeful Collins continues to improve behind the plate and sticks at the position.
That being said, Collins was a top-10 draft pick for a reason. He is talented. His ceiling is high. He could very well be called up at some point this season. When it comes to legitimate catching options in 2019, Zavala is first in line.
It should be noted that Alfredo Gonzalez earned a call-up last year when the Sox were in desperate need for a catcher. However, realistically, Gonzalez acts more as an emergency catcher as opposed to a legitimate Major League prospect.
The course of a 162-game season presents various instances of randomness. Teams see changes to its roster daily and it's not a guarantee that both Castillo and McCann will make it to the end of the season. Injuries, transactions, suspensions or ineffectiveness could all play a role in what feels like an inevitable call-up for Seby Zavala.
The consensus here at FutureSox believes Zavala is the most Major League-ready catcher the system has to offer. The idea that Collins is not ready, along with a lack of confidence in the production of Castillo and McCann at the Major League level, puts Zavala at an advantage.
Zavala probably won’t make the opening day roster, and the Sox may prefer that to be the case. Beginning the year at Charlotte will allow Zavala to ease into his 2019. Once the opportunity presents itself, he will be ready for his debut.
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