Arbitration case: Alex Avila is an undervalued asset for the Tigers

Alex Avila is starting to look like a long time Tiger - Leon Halip

Alex Avila quickly rose to stardom, but his performance leveled off in 2012. Will the real Alex Avila please step up?

When the Tigers selected Alex Avila in the fifth round of the 2008 amateur draft out of the University of Alabama, he was best known as the son of Tigers’ assistant GM Al Avila, or maybe as the Godson of former Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda. He might have been considered "a legacy pick". But now, the Tiger executive might be better known as "Alex’s dad".

Actually, Avila was first drafted by the Tigers in the 34th round of the 2005 amateur draft out of Archbishop McCarthy High School, in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. If that school sounds familiar, perhaps that’s because the Tigers also selected Nick Castellanos right out of the same school a few summers later. Avila, whose high school career began at Warren De LaSalle, told the Tigers "thanks, but no thanks" and chose instead to attend the University of Alabama.

It wasn’t until his third season at Alabama that Avila was converted to a catcher, a fact that speaks volumes about his deep understanding of the game of baseball. Following his Junior season, in which he hit .343 with 17 home runs and 62 RBI for Alabama, the Tigers came knocking again. This time, Avila signed his first professional contract with a signing bonus of $ 169,000, and he was on his way up the ladder.

Avila spent the second half of the 2008 season at West Michigan, then skipped Lakeland and started the 2009 season at double-A Erie, and was called up to Detroit in August of 2009. He was the Tigers’ platooned starting catcher in 2010, splitting time with Gerald Laird. He hit .228 with an on base percentage of .317, seven homers and threw out 32% of would be base stealers. He immediately gained a reputation as a solid defensive catcher.

Avila took on the responsibility of starting catcher in 2011and had a monster season both at the plate and behind the plate. He posted a slash line of .295/ .389/ 506/ 895 with 19 homers, 82 RBI and was voted as the American League’s starting All Star catcher. His on base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and WAR were tops among qualified major league catchers. He won a silver slugger award for catchers and was twelfth in the MVP voting. Well, that didn’t takelong!

But not so fast. Avila was noticeably banged up and feeling the effects of a grueling season by the end of the 2011 campaign. In 2012, the Tigers re-signed Gerald Laird, who took on about a third of the time behind the plate, and Avila’s production fell back down to earth.

For the 2012 season, Avila hit .243, still with a nice OBP of .352 and and OPS of .736, with nine homers and 48 RBI. In 85 plate appearances against left handers, he hit just .176, and he missed a couple of weeks in June on the disabled list with a right hamstring strain. After a brief rehab in Toledo, he returned to action but continued to take a beating. Foul balls had a way of finding his vulnerable spots, he was bowled over at the plate by opposing runners, and even by his own team mate, Prince Fielder, on a pop foul that sprained his jaw. He missed a few more games in September with headaches that turned out not to be a concussion.

Salary figures must be submitted by arbitration eligible players and clubs to the major league office by today, and will be known shortly.

After three seasons behind the plate for the Tigers, Avila is now eligible for arbitration for the first time. He is in the same class as Baltimore’s Matt Weiters, whose arbitration case is profiled here by Matt Schwartz for MLBTR. Wieters would be at the head of the class among catchers who are first year eligible for arbitration, and he is projected to receive a salary of $ 4.6 million (which is very high) as opposed to the $ 2.5 million that Avila is expected to receive. I would expect Weiters to receive more, because he is a legit power hitting catcher and a defensive stud, but not that much more than Avila.

Other comps are difficult to come by as far as catchers go. Few have progressed through arbitration, and most of the good ones signed multi year contracts as their clubs wanted them locked up early. San Diego’s Nick Hundley signed a modest three year deal for $ 2 million, $ 3 million, and $ 4 million, buying out his three years of arbitration. That was after a nice season at the plate, but in just over 300 plate appearances. Avila should do better than that.

The A's just acquired John Jaso from Seattle and settled with him in his first season of eligibility at $ 1.8 million. Jaso hit .276 .394 .456 .850 with 10 HR and 50 RBI, posting a 3.3 WAR in 361 plate appearances, but he caught only 39 games, while Avila ranked fourth in the AL with 107 starts behind the plate, and had 434 plate appearances. Weiters led the league with 132 starts. Avila led the league the previous season with 130, but it took a toll on his health.

Miguel Montero also got $ 2 million in his first season of eligibility, Geovany Soto got $ 3 million, and Mike Napoli got $ 3.6 million. Avila should be somewhere between them. Reality is that catchers don’t get the respect that they deserve, either as free agents or in arbitration, when it comes time to sign a contract. Only three MLB catchers currently have signed contracts for over $ 6 million for the 2013 season. Only one, Joe Mauer, has received a contract with an average annual salary in the top 50, or in the top 40 in total value in MLB history.

The true value of a catcher is difficult to measure. I would argue that it is the only position, other than the pitcher, where defense is more important than offense. A catcher calls every pitch, for every pitcher, in every game, which is far more important than just the four or five plate appearances he may make in a given game.

All Star catchers will be chosen based on their offensive stats, and if defense is considered, it’s usually just caught stealing numbers, which are a small portion of a catcher’s defensive responsibility. The point here is that I believe that the Tigers have something very valuable in Alex Avila, and I’m quite sure they know it. If you're not so sure, take him out of the lineup, and what have you got?

It’s not every day that you see a player taking up the position of catcher for the first time in his life, in the season before he was drafted, then shooting up to major league All Star status in less than three seasons. Avila has three seasons of "club control" remaining with Detroit. They’re not likely to give him a long term contract just yet, but he’s starting to look like a future long time Tiger already. Dollar for dollar, he might just provide as much value as any player on the club.

This concludes our mini series analyzing the Tigers' arbitration cases. Figures will be exchanged by clubs and players and announced today. The 2014 class of Tigers' arbitration eligibles will include the same seven players, none graduating to free agency, and potentially Danny Worth as a first time eligible.

Previous Arbitration cases analyzed in this series:

Brennan Boesch

Max Scherzer

Rick Porcello

Doug Fister

Phil Coke

Austin Jackson

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