The Detroit Tigers most glaring need this offseason is clearly at the catcher position. They completely blew it in 2019 by taking John Hicks and Grayson Greiner into the season as their only options, and absolutely cannot make that mistake again this offseason. The Tigers sound as though they realize this fact, but there are currently precious few options available that meet most of their requirements. Of that group, presumably a reunion with Alex Avila is the simplest solution.
The Tigers posted the second worst numbers at the catching position in baseball in 2019. Per FanGraphs, only the Rangers were worse in the major leagues. The Tigers posted a negative 3.3 mark with Hicks, Greiner, and prospect Jake Rogers handling the workload. Hicks has already been non-tendered. Greiner and particularly Rogers will try to find some traction in their second attempts to crack the major league roster, but neither can be depended on yet. As a result the position represents both a major opportunity for improvement and a necessity as hot stove season kicks into high gear.
Why Alex Avila again?
The Tigers should have a few key criteria in hunting for a free agent catcher. They don’t want to cut into development time for their two young, right-handed hitting backstops, so they could really use a decent left-handed stick in the mix. They’re also not looking for someone who is going to be upset if they only catch 60-70 games. They need a catcher with solid defensive numbers who can help potential trade chips like Matt Boyd, Joe Jimenez, or Daniel Norris maximize their results next year. And they need some veteran presence, both to mentor Rogers and Greiner, but also to help break their valuable pitching prospects into the league over the next season or two.
Avila meets all these needs to an acceptable degree.
Two of the possible fits in free agency have already signed elsewhere in the form of Yasmani Grandal and, to a lesser degree, Stephen Vogt who replaces Avila as the Arizona Diamondbacks primary backup to starter Carson Kelly. There aren’t many other left-handed hitters with the experience and skills behind the plate for the Detroit Tigers to choose from. We profiled Jason Castro earlier today, and while Avila is less appealing offensively, his defense has graded out quite well during his two years with the Diamondbacks.
When Tigers fans last saw Alex Avila, he was leaving Detroit in a July deal to the Chicago Cubs back in 2017 as the Tigers began their teardown. In that, Avila’s age 30 season, he torched American League pitching in the first half, posting an .958 OPS before joining reliever Justin Wilson in a trade that brought Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes to the Tigers. The trade didn’t work out too well for the Cubs, as Avila’s bat went cold in the second half of the season, and he hasn’t recaptured the magic in the intervening years.
By catcher standards, Avila is still coming off of a solid offensive season in 2019, posting a .774 OPS mainly against right-handed pitching. He’s still the distinct three true outcomes hitter you remember. Avila has always made plenty of hard contact and his hard hit rate has really spiked in his time with the Diamondbacks. He rarely pops the ball up for weak outs, but he doesn’t hit the ball in the air enough to take advantage of his full power. He also puts the ball in play less than most hitters because of the high strikeout and walk rates he consistently generates.
However, Avila’s on base percentage is still reliably well above league average and he’ll still have stretches where he hits for power. He was worth 1.3 wins above replacement (fWAR) last season, and Steamer projects him to be worth 1.4 wins in 2020.
Alex Avila 2017-2019
The player-coach argument
You know what’s coming next. The Tigers have two young right-handed hitting catchers, only one of whom has a notable minor league pedigree, both of whom really struggled in 2019. There is a lot coming at you, literally and figuratively, at the catcher position in your first trip to the bigs. Hopefully Jake Rogers and Grayson Greiner are more effective next year, but they could certainly use a mentor in the form of an experienced platoon partner who allows them to face the bulk of left-handed pitching the Tigers see in 2020.
The other strong argument for Avila, or any good defensive catcher, is that the Tigers’ future depends on the young arms who will begin to debut next season. Top prospect Casey Mize, currently ranked the best pitching prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline, is widely considered to be major league ready with only a strong Triple-A tuneup standing between him and his first crack at the show. Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal, and several others aren’t too far behind Mize and there could theoretically be a lot of debuts on the mound at Comerica Park in 2020.
Jake Rogers and Grayson Greiner have caught many of those pitchers already in the minors, but Avila handles a pitching staff well and is regarded as a good leader on the field and in the clubhouse. His experience, and his continued strong grades behind the plate, make Avila a pretty good choice as a fairly low cost addition this offseason. He can show the young ones what power, discipline, and admittedly a lot of swing and miss, should look like at the major league level, while supporting the pitching staff with his experience, defensive and game calling ability.
Per catching statistics from Baseball Prospectus, Avila remains pretty much neutral in framing runs, but his blocking, throwing, and fielding are still above average. He posted 13 defensive runs saved (DRS) over the last two seasons combined.
Will the Tigers try for an Avila trilogy?
Ultimately, Alex Avila fits the Tigers criteria, but checks in as a secondary choice to Jason Castro, who does several of the things Avila does well just a bit better. Heading into his age 33 season, Avila could still be a very good value for the Tigers, but his role has to be fairly limited to get the best out of him. That probably suits the organization just fine as their focus has to be on getting the most possible out of their younger catchers.
Right now, the Tigers seem set on letting Rogers get his footing at the Triple-A level before calling him up again. That could change by the time the season opens, but the Tigers could go with an Avila-Greiner tandem at catcher early in the season. When they feel Rogers is ready, he could be added to a three catcher mix—made easier by the move to the 26-man roster—or bump Greiner back to Toledo for more work as the season progresses. Avila is likely best used catching 50-60 games and pinch hitting a bit, but that avoids blocking the younger guys while still a providing some stabilizing force to a team that so badly needs competence at the position.
Alex Avila made $4.13 million in 2019. Probably there are enough cheap veteran catchers available that he’s not going to do any better than that this offseason. The Tigers could probably get him for that amount on a one-year deal, or perhaps even less per season were they to offer a two-year contract.. Because this would a homecoming for him, Avila is one of the few players the club could probably sign without paying a premium in free agency. There may be a better option or two available, but Avila still represents a solid fallback plan who matches up very well with the Tigers needs in 2020.