GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — After an injury-shortened 2016, Alex Avila remained a draw for several teams as a backup catcher this offseason. A few came pretty close to signing him. But when presented with the option, Avila preferred to return home.
“When (Tigers assistant general manager John Westhoff) ended up calling my agent, at that point I was like ‘well, you know, everything being equal everywhere else, I’d rather be here,’” Avila said. “Just being familiar, I have a home here, it’s comfortable, it would be easy for my family. It would be a good situation, it would be a good fit (personally, and on the team). For me, it was a pretty easy decision.”
The negotiation wasn’t a drawn-out one, Avila said, and with the exception of updates, he stayed out of most of the process until a yes or no was needed from him. It lasted no more than a couple of days before Avila was reunited with the team he’d played on for seven years. But whereas Avila has been managed by Brad Ausmus already, coming back to Detroit with his father, Al Avila, as the GM, was new.
“Well, had to (sign him), his dad’s the GM,” Ausmus joked.
In all actuality, however, it was assistant general manager John Westhoff and Alex's agent, who exchanged figures and worked out the eventual signing. Alex and his father didn’t discuss anything team-related until after the signing, which was finished the same day that Alex and his father had a scheduled dinner together over the holidays. A dinner that wasn't going to be rescheduled regardless of whether a decision had been reached by that point.
“Oh yeah. I mean, he’s still my dad,” Avila said.
A year after leaving Detroit for a season with the White Sox, the Tigers’ pitching staff has changed. Gone are most of the staff that Avila caught for years — only Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez remain. When last he was on the team in 2015, James McCann had taken over as the primary catcher under the mentorship of Avila.
Now, the veteran catcher returns to the same role that he left as, and a largely new staff to familiarize himself with. While Avila served in much the same capacity with the White Sox as he will continue in Detroit, playing backup is still something he’s getting used to. Even the uniform number has changed, though No. 31 is “just 13 flipped.”
No. 13 now belongs to first base coach Omar Vizquel, who has also been the guardian of “Jobu” in Avila’s absence. The figurine had been a staple in the catcher’s locker at Detroit, until he left. Avila may not be getting his old jersey number back — and he said he isn’t planning on asking Vizquel for it — but at least he did get his old locker back, a spot occupied by Cameron Maybin in 2016. Still, in some ways, it was strange coming home.
“I’ve gotten a lot of ‘Welcome homes,’ which is pretty cool,” Avila said about doing another Tigers Caravan. “I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Walking down to the clubhouse yesterday with (Tigers clubhouse manager Jim) Schmakel, he gave me my old locker. It’ll be like I never left.”
Leaving had its benefits, though. It gave Avila fresh perspective of a team that he’d never faced. He gained an insight into how the White Sox, and other teams, went about preparing to face Detroit. Things that he’d never noticed before began popping up and gave him an “eye-opening” outlook, aspects that he hopes to bring to the team when the time comes.
The catcher position will be more balanced this year than in 2016, on both sides of the plate. While Avila has some catching up to do this time around, the one thing he and McCann aren’t concerned about heading into 2017, is their health.
For catchers, it can be trickier given the additional wear and tear their bodies endure, but McCann is young and Avila — who will be 30 in nine days — has since adapted his offseason training regime. Part of that includes more stretching and, admittedly, the need for more rest. As a backup catcher, he’ll have the ability to do that without burdening the team.
As to the strength of the Tigers, Avila is happy with the current makeup. While he wasn’t with the team at the time, in retrospect, Avila is glad the organization didn’t go on an all-out selling spree. In his opinion, it’s not what owner Mike Ilitch would’ve wanted anyway. Now home again, Avila is looking forward to bringing added depth to a team he believes can make a legitimate run at a championship — as is.
“One of the core reasons I did come back was because the team was intact and there was still a good group of guys that have a chance to win,” he said.