Last season, Ezequiel Carrera was a lightning rod for attention among Tigers fans. After Andy Dirks underwent back surgery during spring training, Carrera was among the players mentioned to take his place on the 25-man roster. Carrera hit .200 with a .238 on-base percentage in 40 at-bats and was sent to Triple-A Toledo. From there, he took off, hitting .307/.387/.422 with 43 stolen bases. Fans clamored for him to make the jump to the major leagues.
They got their wish after Austin Jackson was traded, as Carrera was finally recalled to the majors. Carrera split time with Rajai Davis in center field and hit .261/.301/.348 in 73 plate appearances. He also stole seven bases in eight attempts, and was worth 0.3 WAR in 45 games. However, an ill-timed attempt at a diving catch resulted in a walk-off win for the Minnesota Twins in a pivotal September matchup, leaving many with a sour taste in their mouth. Looking back at his overall production, Carrera was roughly what we expected.
This offseason, the Tigers signed outfielder Xavier Avery to a minor league contract with an invite to spring training. With a final bench spot up in the air -- Tyler Collins' job isn't necessarily safe yet -- Avery could be the "new" Ezequiel Carrera in 2015.
Where did he come from?
Avery was a second round selection of the Baltimore Orioles in 2008. A high school outfielder from Georgia, Avery started his career in the Gulf Coast League, where he hit .280/.333/.337 in 192 plate appearances. The Orioles promoted him aggressively to Single-A ball in 2009, but Avery didn't show much improvement. In 2010, Avery hit .280/.349/.389 with 25 doubles and six triples in 447 plate appearances at Advanced-A Frederick. He earned a late-season promotion to Double-A Bowie, where he hit .234 with a .288 on-base percentage in 107 plate appearances.
In 2011, Avery spent his age 21 season exclusively at Double A. He continued to struggle hitting for average and power, batting .259 with a .343 slugging average. His only saving grace was a 7.8 percent walk rate that bumped his on-base percentage up to .324. Nevertheless, Baltimore promoted him to Triple A in 2012, and he spent the season traversing between there and the major leagues, where the O's were hurting for outfield depth. He hit a combined .233/.325/.353 between the two levels and was worth -0.1 WAR in 107 games with the Orioles.
Avery was demoted to Double A to begin the 2013 season. Still only 23, Avery finally enjoyed some success in the high minors, hitting .300/.391/.406 in 160 plate appearances. He was promoted back to Triple A, but relapsed back to a .624 OPS before he was traded to the Seattle Mariners for Michael Morse in August. The Mariners designated Avery for assignment in March, and he spent all of 2014 in Triple A, where he hit .275/.344/.413 with 10 home runs in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. The Tigers signed Avery in November shortly after he was granted free agency.
Avery is a premium athlete who has all the physical tools to be a star, but has never been able to funnel those tools into actual production. A six foot, 190 pound left-handed outfielder, Avery has excellent speed and great outfield range. He was rated as the #9 prospect and best athlete in the Orioles' system by Baseball America prior to the 2012 season.
Baseball Prospectus was equally high on Avery prior to the 2012 season, and they raved about him in their annual publication.
Avery is the type of prospect scouts love to dream about: a multi-sport star in high school, the best athlete in Baltimore's system, loaded with potential. He passed up a football scholarship for pro ball, and was scouted out of the same rural Georgia baseball program that produced Nick Markakis and (Avery's workout partner) Jason Heyward. He is still quite raw, and his stats reflect it, but Avery has begun to spin his tools into on-field production, raising his walk rate and lowering his strikeout rate this season. He doesn't have much power projection, but he hits the ball hard, projects as an excellent defender, and, on the 20-80 scouting scale, he has 70 speed. While few project Avery as a superstar, most feel he'll be an everyday center fielder and leadoff man.
John Sickels of Minor League Ball praised Avery's athleticism after he was traded in 2013 despite a lack of meaningful production at any level.
He is one of the better pure athletes in baseball, with excellent running speed and some wiry strength, but he is still trying to figure out how to use his tools on the field. Although his throwing arm is below average, his glove is valued because he's fast enough to run down just about anything. His reads have improved and defense is probably his best overall asset. He's also improved as a baserunner and is dangerous when he gets on base.
At 25 years old, Avery is still a premium athlete who could play all three outfield positions if his baseball IQ matched his physical abilities. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened yet. Sickels again:
Unfortunately getting on base is a problem. He has worked hard to improve his selectivity at the plate, and as a result his walk rates have been trending upward. However, while he has some natural physical strength, his swing doesn't provide much power and he strikes out too much for a player who doesn't hit home runs. His career best SLG is .386, and his top OBP is .340. The .223/.305/.340 line he posted with the Orioles last year wasn't a fluke: with his current set of skills, that's exactly what he should be expected to hit. That won't get it done.
Lookout Landing had an even dimmer outlook after the Mariners acquired Avery in 2013.
Avery seems to be that classic toolsy player that looks better than he hits, much like Francisco Martinez. He's either going to put it all together and be a semi-valuable 4th outfielder or he'll toil in the minors indefinitely. In all likelihood, it's going to be the latter. He's declining as a hitter, and no amount of athleticism is going to salvage a career for Avery until the bat comes around at least somewhat.
What should we expect from him?
Avery had a solid season in Triple A last year, but a little context shows us that it wasn't the type of breakout campaign some were hoping for. Avery's .756 OPS in the Pacific Coast League is 70 points higher than the .686 OPS he had in the International League in 2012, but his 97 wRC+ in 2014 was just two points higher than the 95 wRC+ he posted in 2012. Long story short: the drop in strikeout rate is nice, but Avery's improved numbers seem to have been largely fueled by the offensive environment he played in.
At this point, Avery's ceiling is probably a fourth or fifth outfielder, similar to the role that Carrera filled in the second half of 2014. Avery may have a tick more offensive upside, but does not have the defensive instincts that Carrera does. If you're comparing the two, Carrera is probably the better player to have in 2015, with their respective long-term outlooks a wash.
There are several players sitting between Avery and a spot on the 25-man roster. He will get a shot to prove himself in spring training -- he's probably the most athletic outfielder in camp not named Yoenis Cespedes -- but I would be surprised if Avery makes it to the MLB roster at any point in 2015. Avery's youth is a plus, as he's only one year older than Wynton Bernard, who spent 2014 at Single-A ball. However, Avery seems too raw at this point to be of any significance for a team chasing a title.