Say what you will about Alex Avila’s capabilities as a catcher. He wore out his welcome with Detroit Tigers fans in his previous stop, hitting just .216/.326/.351 with 26 home runs and 107 RBI from 2013 to 2015. That translated to an 89 OPS+ and 2.8 rWAR in 298 games played over three seasons. Some fans (myself included) defended Avila because of his high walk rate and solid defense, but that production isn’t enough out of a starting catcher. Avila bounced back slightly in 2016, but is little more than a backup at this point in his career. His new one-year, $2 million contract with the Tigers will polarize the fanbase just as his offensive profile did a few years ago.
It shouldn’t, though. We can debate Avila’s merits all day long, but the Tigers’ willingness to spend is the real story here. Just a few days after we were led to believe a backup catcher was out of the team’s price range, the Tigers opened their checkbook for a marginal, yet necessary upgrade. Avila’s $2 million deal won’t break the bank, but it’s a $1.5 million addition* to a payroll that has been stretched to its breaking point. The Tigers are already slated to pay the luxury tax for their 2016 payroll, and should take another hit in 2017. They are willing to pay the overage on Avila’s deal (an additional $600,000) in order to field a more complete roster.
We shouldn’t expect another Justin Upton-like contract in January, but adding Avila signals that the Tigers might be willing to take a flier on a stopgap center fielder. JaCoby Jones seems to be the heir apparent, but the Tigers have postured all offseason long that he could use more time in the minor leagues. The Los Angeles Angels signed potential Tigers target Ben Revere to an incentive-laden $4 million contract on Friday. There are still other players like that on the market — hello, Rajai Davis — and the Tigers could attempt to replicate the Revere deal on another buy-low candidate.
*Avila’s contract is $2 million, but the Tigers had to spend the league minimum (roughly $500,000) on a catcher anyway.
Another benefit to the Avila signing is that it adds organizational depth at a position that was looking quite thin. Before bringing Avila home, the Tigers were slated to use John Hicks as James McCann’s backup. Hicks hit a robust .303/.356/.485 with 28 extra base hits in 70 games for Triple-A Toledo last season, but is unproven at the major league level. He may have been a capable backup, but adding a steady hand behind the plate is important for a team with playoff aspirations. Plus, Hicks now provides valuable insurance for when Avila or McCann inevitably hit the disabled list. Prospect Grayson Greiner also gets another year of development time without risk of being thrust into a role he’s not ready for.
Adding a backup catcher of any sort was a necessary move for the Tigers this offseason. The Tigers could have improved the team more if they were willing to spend — Matt Wieters is still out there, after all — but Avila represents a modest upgrade for a modest price. Even better, though, is that it represents a Tigers front office that is still willing to spend when it counts.