Chicago White Sox

Zack Collins has been training with Yasmani Grandal since high school, and it's paying off for the White Sox prospect

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USA TODAY

Zack Collins has been training with Yasmani Grandal since high school, and it's paying off for the White Sox prospect

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Since he started catching, Zack Collins has always had a major league mentor he’s counted upon in Dodgers backstop Yasmani Grandal.

Early in his high school career, Collins — who was promoted to Double-A Birmingham from Single-A Winston-Salem on Tuesday — knew he wanted to catch. He sought help from Grandal, who had just been drafted by the Cincinnati Reds after catching at the University of Miami, and convinced him to train together.

They’ve remained close ever since.

That bond has been extremely helpful at every step for Collins, who has an experienced friend who understands the complexities of developing into a catcher. Even though Collins is very pleased with his 2017 campaign, he has his doubts like any other player. At times, the White Sox 2016 first-rounder has been frustrated by his batting average this season. But same as always, Grandal has been a perfecting sounding board.

“I was like Yaz what do I do?” Collins said. “He’s like, ‘You’re there to catch, hit home runs and have a good on-base percentage.’ He pretty much told me all he cares about is making his pitchers feel good, having a good slugging percentage and a good on-base percentage. That’s pretty much it.

“We all have things to work on, but I’m happy with how my season has gone.”

Grandal likes what he has seen from Collins since the outset. He liked how much effort Collins, who was 15 at the time, put into training sessions as he attempted to match the pace of Grandal’s rigorous offseason conditioning program. Collins could only manage to do part of the training and said he always felt like he had run a marathon afterward.

“I put him through a lot of hard work,” Grandal said. “I had a vision for him, and I needed to get him to where I see him (being) in a short period of time. He needed to put the work in. I think we made lots of strides toward that goal.”

Since then Grandal has been a guide for Collins on a matter of subjects. When the Reds selected Collins in the 27th round of the 2013 draft, Grandal suggested he think about playing in college, and Collins ended up playing at Miami. Grandal had made the same decision in 2007, and he went from a 27th-rounder to a first-round pick in 2010.

The two have also discussed how Pilates help strengthen core muscles and how much it can help catchers. Collins began doing Pilates last offseason and on Monday said he feels strong and in great shape despite having played in a career-high 101 games, including 76 starts at catcher.

“I’ve spoke to him a lot, pretty much guiding him through little things here and there,” Grandal said.

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It’s no surprise to find that Collins recently brought up his batting average in a conversation with Grandal. Collins has heard the questions and at the Futures Game last month said he’s not as concerned about his average. After all, he still carried a high on-base percentage and had 18 doubles and 17 home runs. Behind the plate, Collins had thrown out 41 percent of the stolen-base attempts against him this season, up from 3-of-21 last year.

But naturally, Collins had some doubts.

He’s open to working on his swing — “You can say hitch, you can say bat movement, but the key is to get in a good position at an early time and just be able to see the pitch and hit it,” Collins said.

Collins just prefers to work on the swing change in the offseason. After trying to adjust recently during the season, Collins found it difficult to compete while making the switch and requested a stoppage until instructional camp, which begins in Glendale, Arizona, next month. Collins said on Monday he’s headed to the one-month camp for minor leaguers.

“It wasn’t really working in the middle of the season,” Collins said. “It’s tough to think about swing changes, but right now I’m just going out there and hitting and having fun the way I’ve always done. We’ll worry about that in the offseason.

“When you’re trying something and you have one bad game it’s like, ‘Oh, maybe I should do something different.’ We’re going to work on everything in the offseason.”

After talking to Grandal, Collins had confidence that the rest of what he has accomplished shouldn’t be overshadowed internally by his strikeout total and average. He instead wanted to focus on finishing the season strong at Winston-Salem. In August, Collins hit .343/.500/.686 with four doubles, a triple, two home runs and seven RBIs in 48 plate appearances before his promotion.

While he’s the one who has done the work, Collins knows have a sounding board like Grandal continues to be a big help.

“I had just started catching, I was raw back there,” Collins said. “I think it was more important to work with him just to see how he carries himself and he works rather than learning stuff. I would go watch him play and to see how he carries himself on the field and the way he did things helped me out a lot.”

Top 10 storylines from the White Sox minor league season

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USA TODAY

Top 10 storylines from the White Sox minor league season

White Sox prospects received more attention from fans and media this year and on Sunday the White Sox minor league season concluded with rookie level Great Falls dropping the decisive game in the Pioneer League Championship.

Here's a look at some of the standout players, storylines and moments from the season that was, from Yoan to Eloy to Robert.

1. Yoan Moncada gets called up to make his White Sox debut after seven-player trade with Yankees

Yoan Moncada wasn't only the top White Sox prospect but the top prospect in baseball according to some, so when he was the first big prospect in the club's rebuild to get called up, it was a significant moment. Moncada mania began with a standing ovation from the home fans in his debut. He drew a walk in his first plate appearance and later said his White Sox debut had a similar feeling to his major league debut with the Red Sox.

2. Eloy Jimenez’s arrival and immediate hot streak

Trading Jose Quintana to the Cubs wasn't an easy pill for White Sox fans to swallow. With that in mind, it's a good thing that Eloy Jimenez quickly turned public perception of the trade in the White Sox favor. Jimenez had good, but not great numbers with the Cubs' Carolina League affiliate Myrtle Beach (.271/.351/.490) when he was traded. Jimenez had missed some time due to injury, but staying in the same league, he erupted with the Winston-Salem Dash. In 29 games with the Dash, Jimenez hit .345/.410/.682 and blasted eight home runs.

One of the highlights was when Jimenez told teammate Ian Clarkin, who arrived from the Yankees just days after the Quintana-Jimenez trade, that he was going to hit a home run. After Jimenez did in fact go yard that game, Clarkin shared Jimenez's prescient call on Twitter.

Jimenez provided more magic by blasting a home run in his first at-bat for Double-A Birmingham. In 18 games with the Barons, Jimenez hit .353/.397/.559 and solidified his spot as one of the best hitting prospects in the game. He has impressed the White Sox and Jimenez thinks he is ready to play in the majors.

3. The Luis Robert saga

With the major league team struggling on the field, the off the field moves attracted most of the attention. The chase for Cuban free agent Luis Robert riled up Sox fans, who were eating up the latest news and rumors about the then-teenage prospect.

When the Sox landed Robert, it was another big move for a quickly improving farm system. The outfielder has received high praise from around baseball.

After signing Robert played in the Dominican Summer League. He missed some time with minor injuries, but finished hitting .310/.491/.536.

4. Michael Kopech dominates in Double-A

Along with Moncada, Kopech was a big part of the Chris Sale trade. When the White Sox got him he was a hard-throwing 20-year-old who had plenty of strikeouts, but also plenty of walks.

After continuing that trend for the first three months of this season, something appeared to click for Kopech. The former first-round pick walked 11 batters in 44 1/3 innings in his final eights starts with Birmingham. He struck out a whopping 58 during that stretch and earned a late-season promotion to Triple-A Charlotte.

When he was in Birmingham, Kopech created buzz the Barons hadn't seen since Michael Jordan. He finished tied for fifth in the minors with 172 strikeouts on the season, which impressed the White Sox front office and earned him Southern League Most Outstanding Pitcher.

5. Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez make White Sox debuts

Moncada was the first major prospect to get promoted in the White Sox rebuild, but Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito represented the first pitching prospects to join the big league club. Both joined the White Sox in the Adam Eaton trade in the offseason, had major league experience and began the year in Triple-A.

Lopez's debut came first. After rolling off a hot July in which he posted a 2.10 ERA, Lopez pitched a quality start on Aug. 11 in his White Sox debut.

Meanwhile, Giolito waited a little bit longer after struggling for much of the year in Charlotte. He had a 5.40 ERA in his first 16 starts for the Knights, but found some consistency later in the year and drew rave reviews when he made his Sox debut on Aug. 22.

6. Breakout years for Alec Hansen and Dane Dunning

Lopez and Giolito received most of the attention in the Eaton trade, but in the early part of the season it was Dunning who was making the most noise in the minor leagues. The 2016 first-round pick utterly dominated the opposition in Single-A Kannapolis with a 0.35 ERA and 33 strikeouts against just two walks in 26 innings. Dunning got promoted to Winston-Salem and finished tied for 11th in all of the minors with 168 strikeouts, capping off a stellar first full season in pro ball.

Amazingly, Dunning may have been outshined by his own teammate. Alec Hansen, who the White Sox drafted in the second round last year, didn't get promoted out of Kannapolis as quickly, but dominated in Winston-Salem and finished the year in Birmingham. He ended up leading all of minor league baseball with 191 strikeouts and he thinks 2018 could be even better.

7. White Sox draft Jake Burger in the first round and he hits for a cycle

The White Sox will have a higher draft pick next year, but this year the Sox picked up Missouri State third baseman Jake Burger with the No. 11 pick.

Burger began his pro career hot by hitting .358 in Kannapolis, but slumped the rest of way. Burger hit .219 in August and September, but did hit for a cycle on Aug. 24.

8. Zack Collins struggles at the plate, but shows defensive improvements

When Zack Collins was drafted by the White Sox with the 10th pick in 2016, he was thought of as a sure-thing bat with question marks about his ability to play catcher. So naturally, his 2017 played out in exactly the opposite way.

He hit .223 in Winston-Salem while striking out 118 times in 426 plate appearances, but got promoted to Double-A Birmingham anyway. He got promoted the same day as Eloy Jimenez and both homered in their Birmingham debuts. Collins posted an .893 OPS in Birmingham, but still hit just .235.

Collins received better reviews about his defense, which he owes partially due to training with Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal, a fellow University of Miami product.

9. Zack Burdi’s Tommy John Surgery

When Zack Burdi was with the White Sox in spring training, he was trying to act like he belonged in big league camp. The fire-balling relief prospect was in line to be the White Sox closer of the future.

After beginning the season in Triple-A Charlotte and producing uneven, but promising results, the White Sox learned in July that Burdi would need Tommy John Surgery. A look at the White Sox bullpen now shows a lot of young, unproven pitchers and Burdi likely would be among them had he stayed healthy.

Now, it's all about the recovery for the 22-year-old, whose upside combined with the lack of proven arms in the White Sox bullpen means he remains a potentially key part of the team's future.

10. Micker Adolfo flashes power potential

Micker Adolfo wasn't a high-profile prospect at the start of the year, but had a breakout season. The 21-year-old was a big international signing back in 2013, coming with a $1.6 million signing bonus.

He was named the White Sox minor league player of the month for both May and June. He began to show his power potential with Kannapolis and helped the team make it to the South Atlantic League Championship Series. Adolfo slowed in the second half, but finished with 16 home runs, tied for fifth in the league.

Bonus: Nicky Delmonico shines in short big league stint

It wasn't a big deal at the time, but Nicky Delmonico's promotion has looked like a potentially significant moment for the White Sox rebuild. He has had a breakout performance in the majors and has made a strong case that he could be a significant part of the team's future.

White Sox prospect Alec Hansen thinks 2018 season could be even better than breakout season

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White Sox prospect Alec Hansen thinks 2018 season could be even better than breakout season

Look out for Alec Hansen.

The White Sox prospect thinks 2018 could be even better with all that he’s learned about managing himself in his first full season. That's pretty scary when you consider that Hansen, who finished at Double-A Birmingham, led the minors in strikeouts and earned two promotions in 2017.

The No. 6 White Sox prospect (No. 95 overall according to MLBPipeline.com) is even more optimistic about his second full season.

“(The first full season) was great that it taught me about my arm and how my arm is going feel in between every start and how my body is going to feel throughout the season,” Hansen said on a conference call. “I can go into this offseason and work out and get my body the way I want it to going into spring training and be able to maintain that throughout the season next year.”

“I'll have a lot more confidence and experience. By the end of next year that experience and confidence in my body will be where it needs to be to be in the major leagues for good.”

Hansen has plenty of reason to feel confidence. The No. 49 pick of the 2016 draft followed a stellar pro debut with an outstanding 2017 campaign in which he struck out 191 batters in 141 1/3 innings. Believed to have No. 1-starter type stuff, Hansen put it all together and carved a niche for himself in an organization loaded with pitching prospects.

Hansen said the final two starts of the season at Double-A Birmingham, in which he struck out 17 batters in 10 1/3 innings, further convinced him how his stuff would play at higher levels.

"That’s something I'll remember for the rest of my life that I led the minor leagues in strikeouts this year, which is pretty cool,” Hansen said. “You got to think, it was at the lower levels, it was in A-ball where guys swing a lot and are pretty aggressive at the plate. But it was nice to see I went up to Double-A and still had quite a few strikeouts. That was kind of reassuring.”

So, too, were the promotions.

Hansen started the season at Single-A Kannapolis and made 13 starts before he was sent to Single-A Winston-Salem after striking out 92 batters in 72 2/3 innings. He also excelled for the Dash, striking out 82 batters in 58 1/3 innings. Right before the season ended, Hansen got the call one last time. He went 11-8 with a 2.80 ERA and struck out 191 batters in 141 1/3 innings over 26 starts.

“Honestly, I had no idea what was going to happen to me this year,” Hansen said. “If you asked me at the beginning of the season where do I expect to end up, I wouldn’t have said Double-A. But if you asked me toward after the All-Star break and after a couple of starts at Winston-Salem where I started to pick it up a little bit, then I was kind of hoping I was going to finish at Double-A.”