Detroit Tigers’ catcher Alex Avila’s season came to an end when he was unable to play due to a concussion that kept him out of the third and final game of the American League Division Series against the Baltimore Orioles. It had been another rough season for Avila health-wise, particularly toward the end of the year.
Avila has been hit by foul balls, bats, and even a glove tag to the jaw, leading to three concussions (possibly more) over his five year career. He says he is now symptom-free, and both he and the Tigers expect him back behind the plate in time for the 2015 season. So, for purposes of this discussion, we will assume that Avila is ready to play physically.
As the first order of business, the Tigers will have to decide within two days after the end of the World Series whether to exercise the team option for $5.4 million on Avila for the 2015 season. The smart money says they will. Should they decline the option, they will pay Avila a $200,000 buyout, and any number of things could happen.
Should the club decide that $5.4 million is too much to pay Avila, they could buy out the option and either release him, trade him, or tender another contract for one season or more, and head to arbitration if they don’t come to terms. The uncertainty of what an arbitration panel might do is likely enough to deter Dave Dombrowski, who has never had a player go to an arbitration hearing since joining the Detroit organization.
Avila’s option could have vested automatically if he had won a Silver Slugger award, a 2014 All-Star selection, or a top-15 finish in the MVP voting. None of those things happened, or will happen. Avila did make an All-Star appearance in 2011, when he won a Silver Slugger award and finished 12th in the American League MVP voting. In that season, he hit .295/.389/.506 with 19 home runs, 82 RBI, and logged 551 plate appearances. Unfortunately, it has all been downhill since then, at least in terms of his offensive numbers.
For the 2014 season, Avila found himself in the middle of the pack offensively among catchers. Despite just a .218 batting average, he added 61 walks to bring his on base percentage up to a respectable .327. Once on the bases, he was basically a road block. He avoided that problem by striking out one third of his plate appearances, one of the highest strikeout rates in the majors. With a wRC+ of 97 (100 being league average), his big problem offensively is on the bases, and that isn’t likely to improve with age.
But Avila’s strength is not his offense. According to Fangraphs, Avila’s defense saved the Tigers 15.3 runs over the league average in 2014. That ranks second only to the Royals’ Salvador Perez, and is second on the Tigers at any position to Ian Kinsler. Avila and Kinsler are the only two starters who posted above average defensive numbers for the Tigers in 2014.
Among the 15 catchers in the American League with the most games caught, Avila led the league with 36 runners caught stealing, and was second to the Yankees’ Brian McCann in percentage at 33.6 percent caught. He had the fewest passed balls in the AL, with only three for the entire season. Bryan Holaday made more throwing errors and had more passed balls than Avila in less than half the number of games caught.
There are few alternatives if the Tigers wanted to upgrade the catcher position. The Pirates’ Russell Martin would be one option, but he will be pursued by several teams and it will take a multi-year commitment at a substantially higher price than Avila's contract option to get Martin signed. The Pirates are said to want Martin back badly enough to make him a qualifying offer of $15.3 million, attaching draft pick compensation to any other club that signs him away.
Avila started 116 games for the Tigers in 2014, which is fifth in the league. That left 46 games to be caught -- mainly by Bryan Holaday -- and that is a problem for the Tigers. While Holaday threw out a respectable 29 percent of base runners, and Fangraphs rates his defense above average, he is a black hole in the lineup.
With any luck, James McCann will be able to win the backup job at catcher, and prepare to take over for Avila in an increasing number of games if Avila’s health issues and declining numbers continue to be a trend. It would be helpful if Avila’s backup were able to pinch-hit for him at the end of a game -- especially against a left-handed pitcher -- when offensive considerations prevail.