Alex Avila should be a familiar name to anyone who has watched a Detroit Tigers game this decade. Though numerous injuries and waning offensive production saw him lose his role as the Tigers starting catcher, he is back on the market this offseason after one year with the Chicago White Sox. With the Tigers likely to part ways with Jarrod Saltalamacchia now that his one-year contract is at an end, it seems like a perfect opportunity to revisit Avila as an option behind the plate.
Avila spent seven of his eight active major league seasons in Detroit. In that time, he was a memorable presence on the field, from his skillful handling of the pitching staff to his top notch game-calling to his magnetic ability to get hit with nearly every wild pitch and foul tip. His offensive presence left a lot to be desired at times, but Avila’s value was never solely in his bat.
Why should we care?
Avila knows how to catch. Not in a generic, “get the ball in the glove” way. He knows the finer points of calling games, of soothing frantic pitchers, and keeping an eye on the base-paths. There is a fine art to being a top-quality catcher, and it’s not something that’s easily taught. Among the current Tigers roster, Avila has worked extensively with Justin Verlander — catching his second no-hitter — as well as with Anibal Sanchez, Daniel Norris, and Shane Greene. This pre-existing knowledge of the Tigers pitching staff, as well as his familiarity with manager Brad Ausmus makes Avila an ideal fit to slide right into the back-up catcher position behind James McCann.
Avila’s career offensive numbers are middle-of-the-road at .240/.346/.395. It’s worth noting that his batting average climbed from .191 in 2015 to .213 in 2016, which shows that Avila may still have something to offer at the plate and not just behind it. As for his work behind the dish, he ranks 18th among all active catchers in runners caught stealing. Even in a mere 57 games with the White Sox last season, he still managed to throw out seven would-be base thieves. The real strength of his ability behind the bag is hard to measure because there aren’t statistics in place for a catcher’s ability to read a game or communicate with his pitcher.
Why should we stay away?
For one thing, Avila is as injury prone as they come. In 2013 alone he spent 37 days on the disabled list from concussion, contusions, and knee issues. Those injury issues continued in Chicago where he spent another 30 days on the DL with knee and hamstring issues last season. Avila, who will be 30 in the 2017 season, has played 740 games in his career and is showing the wear and tear. There could be some concern over whether or not he could manage the entire season injury-free, even as a backup to McCann.
His price tag is also a bit heftier than the one they’re losing with Saltalamacchia. Avila earned $2.5 million with the White Sox last season and should be expected to get something in that range this coming year. For a backup catcher it’s not the most wallet-friendly acquisition the Tigers could make, especially as they look to cut costs elsewhere. But Avila’s knowledge of the team and his leadership skills in the locker room — especially with the young pitchers — could prove to balance out any of the concerns over his paycheck. Not to mention, $2.5 million is a steep drop from what Detroit paid him in 2015, at $5.4 million.
Another factor is the fact that general manager Al Avila is Alex’s father, something which might make either party want to avoid the signing. Al might want to avoid complaints of nepotism, and Alex might want to distance himself from being his father’s employee. With that in mind, however, Alex was on the team for several seasons with Al acting as assistant general manager to Dave Dombrowski. During that time, the two Avilas were able to keep things professional. It’s unlikely the father-son relationship will play a major part one way or the other in re-signing Alex.
Will he end up in Detroit?
There’s a strong possibility we might see Avila make his return to the Motor City for the 2017 season. The Tigers need a reliable backup catcher, and adding another left-handed bat to the lineup is always helpful. Avila is well-liked in Detroit and would transition easily into the team a second time around. Though his price tag might be a bit higher than the Tigers would like to pay, it’s still a relative bargain to some of the other free agent catcher options out there. While it’s certainly not a done deal by any means, Avila would be a smart pick for the Tigers this offseason.