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Detroit Tigers player preview: Can Alex Avila remain healthy in 2015?

Coming off an injury-hampered 2014 season, can Alex Avila remain healthy and bounce back to his career norms in 2015?

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Alex Avila is a 28-year-old veteran catcher entering his seventh year in MLB with the Detroit Tigers. Although widely considered one of the best backstops currently playing the game, Avila has struggled with multiple health issues. With free agency entering the equation after the 2015 season, Avila will need to remain healthy regardless of whether he remains with Detroit or pursues other options.

Recently, Avila made changes that would hopefully reduce the impact of foul tips to his head, including a new mask and catching position relative to the batter. The repeated concussions Avila has suffered (three in 2014 alone, officially) over the last few years has hurt his ability to remain healthy for the duration of the season, affecting his offensive production. Add reoccurring back trouble during spring and at times during the season, and it may give the Tigers -- and potential suitors -- pause past 2015.

As a left-handed hitter, facing left-handed pitchers is Avila's kryptonite, and his low batting average, opposite field hitting ability, and health (or lack of it) are cause for concern. However, Avila reaches base often enough, hits the occasional home run, is considered one of the best pitch-framers in baseball, throws out would-be base stealers at a high rate, and works well with his pitchers.

Stats and projections
2014 457 11 44 47 0 .218 .327 .359 .311
Steamer 373 9 40 38 2 .230 .329 .374 .316
ZiPS 454 12 43 53 1 .229 .333 .379 .320

Although Avila's strikeout rate spiked and power drifted down in 2014, the projection systems anticipate an improvement over last year -- anticipating a .230 batting average, .330 on-base percentage, and .375 slugging percentage.

His career shows a dramatic platoon split with a .792 OPS against righthanders and a .619 OPS against left-handed pitching. Avila's .358 on-base percentage against righthanders has led Tigers manager Brad Ausmus to consider him as the second batter in the lineup against right-handed starters, though Anthony Gose's impressive spring is quieting that talk.

James McCann looks ready to join the Tigers, and not just as a backup. If he were to start against all lefthanders, and the occasional righty, he and Avila could basically share the catching duties evenly. This would keep Avila healthier and allow for overall production improvement that would trend toward his career platoon rate.

Avila has also shown some effort in spring games to beat the shift by slapping singles to left field, though it would be surprising to see him continue that into the regular season. With optimal health and playing time, a .250/.350/.440 batting line is not out of the realm of possibilities.

Contract status

Avila will be a free agent at the end of this season. The Tigers have paid him $8.4 million for five years and received over 10 WAR. In 2015 he will more than earn his $5.4 million, as he will likely deliver another 2+ WAR. Russell Martin, older and a little more valuable than Avila, signed for $16.4 million per year over the offseason. Avila will easily secure $10 million per year for five years, if he survives the season and remains healthy.

With Avila's health uncertain, and the trade rumors that circulated over the offseason, the Tigers may opt to obtain some value from Avila via trade, before losing to free agency as they did with Pudge Rodriguez. If the season is a bust by late July and McCann performs as we all hope, do not rule out a trade.

However, if Avila can add some of the opposite field power that he's shown this spring, and can remain healthy in the process, his value may extend beyond his contribution behind the plate.