Collins, Zavala being weighed for spot on Sox playoff roster originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
During spring training, the most hotly contested roster battle in Chicago White Sox camp was for the job backing up No. 1 catcher Yasmani Grandal.
Fast forward to the regular season's end, and that's the biggest roster battle as the South Siders prepare for what they hope is a lengthy postseason run.
The White Sox made a change at that position Tuesday, bringing Zack Collins up from Triple-A Charlotte and sending Seby Zavala down. It's an interesting move considering Zavala seemed to leapfrog Collins on the team's depth chart when Grandal went down with a knee injury in early July, the White Sox admitting to prioritizing what Zavala could do behind the plate to what Collins could, potentially, do at it.
Zavala earned the bulk of the starts while Grandal was on the mend, earning high praise for his work with the pitching staff. When Grandal came back, it was Zavala who stuck around, not Collins, who had won the backup job thanks to a huge spring.
While that decision made it look like the White Sox had made their choice as to who would team with Grandal to form the team's catching core in the playoffs, Tuesday's roster move changed that perception, and manager Tony La Russa made it clear that no decision has yet been made on which guy will be the team's backup catcher come October.
In fact, that's why Collins is here: to help the White Sox make as informed a decision as possible.
"We've been eyeballing Seby, we're going to eyeball Zack," La Russa said. "Nobody has any kind of commitment or promise, assuming we get that (magic) number down to zero and we're actually in October. This gives us a chance to take a fresh look at Zack. And at the same time, Seby's going to be playing every day down there, which keeps him in shape."
Certainly Grandal, who's been on fire since returning and seems ready to deliver some playoff heroics for the White Sox, figures to get the vast majority of the playing time in the postseason, perhaps only not catching when needing to be lifted for a pinch runner late in a close game. Of course, Grandal could slot in at first base or DH, if the puzzle needs to be put together that way, as well.
But another catcher will demand a spot on the roster, and the White Sox need to figure out who that guy will be.
Zavala indeed impressed in terms of what he can do behind the plate, and seemingly every pitcher he worked with had nothing but great things to say about him.
"He's a guy that really takes pride in what he's doing behind the plate," White Sox starting pitcher Lance Lynn said earlier this season, "whether it's his game-planning, knowing what you do, being able to get strikes framed, throw guys out. ... He's the whole package as a catcher back there behind the plate, and you're seeing him get the chance to catch guys and show what he's about. ... He does everything you ask for a guy to do. ... You trust him because you know, in your conversations, he's done his homework. It's a good feeling."
That's a valuable thing, though who knows if it will be quite as valuable with Grandal catching every day in October.
Zavala's bat never really caught up to the defense, and despite a three-homer game, he's hitting just .183 with a low .240 on-base percentage. Soaking up a spot on the bench might require a little more offensive capability than that, considering the potential for critical pinch-hitting appearances with the season on the line.
Of course, Collins, who was long billed as an offense-first catcher during his time in the minor leagues, hasn't hit much better in the majors this season, coming into Tuesday with just a .202 batting average. His on-base percentage was significantly better, at .324.
"You're not going to turn a season around the last half month, especially playing as a backup," Collins said Tuesday, admitting he hasn't hit up to his standards this year. "But my goal is to go in there and, whenever I have the opportunity, I help the team win and get as many 'W's' as we can.
"It would mean everything (to be a part of the playoff roster). It's what we've worked for the whole year, to get to the postseason and give ourselves a chance to win it all. This is a great team and we've had a lot of guys step up for us this year, and it would be great to be part of it."
Collins has also received positive reviews from pitchers and coaches alike, touted as much improved defensively from earlier in his pro career. And it would be wrong to suggest the White Sox wouldn't be comfortable with him behind the plate, like he was when Carlos Rodón threw a no-hitter in April.
But just like Zavala might not be the first choice to pinch hit with the season on the line, Collins might not be the optimal guy to catch the back end of the bullpen in late innings with the season on the line.
That was the decision facing the White Sox when Grandal got hurt, and it might be the decision facing the White Sox once more. As opposed to the last time they had to make it, though, Grandal is here, healthy and hitting like gangbusters. The catching situation come playoff time will obviously be Grandal-centric, regardless of who's picked to back him up.
But someone will be backing him up. What's more important to have in October: a trusted receiver, or a more reliable bat in a pinch?
The White Sox will use the regular season's final weeks to answer that question.