This week's disconcerting news out of Detroit about Victor Martinez cast a slight pall over the eager anticipation many fans are feeling with spring training just around the corner. The idea of Martinez missing the early weeks of the season has many wondering just where the offense will come from in Detroit.
There is no question that runs could possibly be at a premium in the early going. Nobody knows if Miguel Cabrera will be in the Opening Day lineup, after all. What can the Tigers do?
Certainly, it remains to be seen if the Tigers will find some offensive help during spring training either via trade or by trying to find "the next J.D. Martinez" off the scrap heap. Players will be available as roster crunches set in around the game and it's likely the Tigers will be trying to bolster their bench or their depth at Toledo, if nothing else, while they toil away in the Grapefruit League.
However it seems there is one step that must be taken to attempt to squeak as many runs out of the lineup while waiting for their big artillery to mend. It's time for Brad Ausmus to rip the band-aid off and commit to a true platoon for Alex Avila and James McCann. They need to take the McCann car out for more than the short "salesman in the backseat" road test we saw last season. Ausmus should just buy the car and see what how it handles when rubber meets the road on the open highway.
Avila is a very good defensive catcher with a rock solid arm. We hear talk all the time about the pitchers enjoying working with Avila as well. This is all great and very valuable. But if offense is scarce in the early weeks, it's time for the Tigers simply admit what they already know in their hearts: Avila is helpless against left-handed pitching.
The Tigers catcher hit just .226/.287/.302 in 2014 against southpaws in 116 plate appearances. The amazing part of those numbers is they were a noticeable uptick from 2013 when he hit an unsightly .139/.227/.228 against lefties. The jury returned the verdict a while ago, the judge is just late getting back from lunch to read and announce it. No appeals are necessary; against most lefties, sit Avila.
|Avila vs. LHB||116||1||12||.226||.287||.302||6.0%||36.2%|
|McCann vs. LHB (AAA)||132||0||16||.342||.404||.475||8.8%||14.0%|
McCann, meanwhile, showed in Triple-A Toledo that he has some promise facing left-handed pitching. In 136 plate appearances he produced impressive numbers, hitting .342/.404/.475. While it's true that Chris Sale and David Price weren't the southpaws McCann was beating up in the International League, those numbers at least give us some indication he can offer a counterbalance to Avila that Bryan Holaday was ill-equipped to provide last season.
If Avila's experience with the pitching staff is an advantage over McCann, at least Avila still mans the strong side of the platoon. Avila hit a fairly acceptable .215/.340/380 with 27 extra-base hits against right-handers in 2014, and had even better numbers in 2013. He can hold his own.
|Avila vs. RHB||341||10||35||.215||.340||.380||15.8%||32.0%|
|McCann vs. RHB (AAA)||324||7||38||.276||.317||.407||4.0%||21.9%|
This isn't a mindless plea to completely bench Avila. The Tigers need that offensive boost against lefties, however. They can sacrifice some of Avila's work behind the plate to get McCann -- a good defensive catcher in his own right, according to scouting report -- in the lineup against good matchups where Avila would struggle in hapless fashion.
Avila's health is always a concern, but assuming average health with a bit of luck and his new catching mask, the Tigers will have 40 "day-game-after-a-night-game" scenarios this season for McCann to handle in Avila's stead, plus another 30-odd games against lefties that don't come on those days. There is no good reason why McCann cannot get at least 60 starts logged in 2015, assuming he earns them with solid play beyond what the Tigers could get from Holaday. The lighter workload might also unlock some of Avila's offensive game if he's kept fresher throughout the season.
It's also time for Avila's helplessness against lefties to be alleviated late in close games with pinch-hitters. The Tigers can't waste outs on Avila facing tough lefty relievers in a tight spot simply to avoid being down to one catcher if they utilize a pinch batter. Ausmus needs to relentlessly pursue favorable matchups at the bottom of his order even when his best hitters are back. Going against the book about being down to one catcher is something he needs to strongly consider.
The Tigers have a couple of platoon opportunities to exploit. Anthony Gose and Rajai Davis should also be mixed and matched appropriately. If Victor Martinez is out for a while they should also establish some sort of platoon at the DH slot. Losing Victor Martinez for a few weeks isn't the end of the world. He's a 36-year-old player with an injury background to begin with. It wasn't a stretch to figure they'd be without him for a spell anyway. To alleviate the loss, they need to be chasing every small advantage to bleed every run out of the club they'll be running out there.
Getting James McCann deeply into the mix in a true platoon role seems like a good place to start. Nobody is asking the rookie to carry the club in any way. He can be protected with favorable matchups and we'll see if the young player is up to the task.