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White Sox have defining battle brewing in Birmingham

in Chicago White Sox by

As the White Sox continue to struggle in the early going of the 2018 season, a lot of the attention remains on the farm system and with good reason.

The bulk of their assets are in various stages of development scattered throughout the minor leagues. And an area of particular intrigue is at catcher in Double-A Birmingham.

Former first-round pick Zack Collins and Seby Zavala, a former 12th-round pick who has put up big numbers to climb from the fringe of the organization’s consciousness to legitimate prospect, are both in the Southern League leaning on their strengths to prove they can be the catcher of the future.

Welington Castillo will hold the job down through 2019, barring a trade. Then, the White Sox have an $8 million team option they can buy out in 2020, setting the stage for a distance run between Collins and Zavala. And it will be interesting to see how they might differentiate themselves during the next two seasons given their similarities.

Both still have plenty of work to do with the glove and are leaning on their potential for offensive productivity to rise through the system.

Each has plenty of pop, with Zavala hitting 27 homers since the start of 2017 and Collins hitting 22. While both will be threats to drive the ball out of the park, Collins is the bigger backstop with more natural power, so most would project that he’ll hit more home runs at the next level than Zavala.

Meanwhile, Zavala has shown better bat control with a .279 average in 1080 plate appearances compared to Collins’ .227 average in 724 plate appearances. However, Collins makes up for the lack of contact with incredible plate discipline, drawing a walk nearly once every five trips to the dish for a career OBP of .379 to Zavala’s .356.

Collins is 18 months younger, which is a tick in his favor as Zavala approaches his 25th birthday and the tail end of life as a “prospect.” And the White Sox are certainly more invested in Collins because of where they were drafted.

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Oct 11, 2017; Glendale, AZ, USA; Chicago White Sox designated hitter Seby Zavala plays for the Glendale Desert Dogs against the Peoria Javelinas during an Arizona Fall League game at Camelback Ranch. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

However, with time on their side, the organization isn’t in any hurry to rush to a decision. They know there’s a lot of developing to be done by both players, and what they do between now (the point where they’ve drawn even) and then (the choice) will be what distinguishes each.

In reality, there are three ways they sort through this. Collins fixes the hitch in his swing and suddenly unleashes the massive offensive potential that made him the No. 9 pick in the 2016 draft. Zavala regresses considerably offensively. Or the job simply goes to the player who makes the largest strides defensively.

Both have worked hard on their arms and reducing their pop times. Collins is throwing out 38 percent of runners since the start of 2017, and Zavala is cutting down 43 percent in a smaller sample size since the start of the Arizona Fall League last year. However, both have struggled blocking the ball, with the pair combing to allow 9 passed balls already this year and 38 (20 for Collins and 18 for Zavala) since the start of last year.

Ultimately, it all seems to even out at this point. So as they split time between catcher and designated hitter at the same stop, as they did last year for a while in Winston-Salem, we’re getting direct comparisons. We should continue to get those comparisons through 2019.

Eventually, they may even make a pair that can compliment each other nicely in the majors as well. Collins hits from the left side, and Zavala from the right, where he thrashes left-handed pitching. They both could give you some serious offensive quality at catcher through 162 games.

However, it’s hard to imagine two rookies being given the enormous responsibilities of catching duties in 2020 when the White Sox are expecting to be playoff contenders. A veteran catcher is almost certain to be on that roster, meaning it’s likely one or the other to begin with.

That’s what makes getting this thing right so important. There’s such an average amount of offense being generated from the position throughout the league. If the White Sox can make the correct decision and get early production from either Collins or Zavala, it gives them an enormous leg up.

So while it’s easy to get wrapped up in what Michael Kopech is doing in Charlotte or what Eloy Jimenez is doing in Birmingham since we’ll likely see them at some point in Chicago this season, keep an eye on Zack Collins vs. Seby Zavala. It’s one of the most important position battles in the White Sox system at the moment.

Ryan Wooden is a full-time sports writer based in the Chicago suburbs. In addition to co-founding The Chicago Sports Column, he is a staffer for SportsLine.com, a premium gambling and fantasy brand from CBS Interactive. Find him away from the computer (or don't) on some body of water or some golf course somewhere.