Detroit Tigers: Questions behind the plate

Detroit TigersQuestions about the Detroit Tigers heading into the 2014 season range from the bullpen to the third base position and everything in between. Answering those questions however, likely won’t happen until the first month of the season is completed.

There might be enough evidence to turn one of those questions into a frightening reality: is Alex Avila worn down to the point where he can’t consistently produce behind the plate and in the batters box?

Servicing as a full-time catcher in the MLB is one of the most demanding jobs in all of professional sports. The combination of constantly being struck by foul balls, collisions at home plate and wearing catching gear through the heat of the summer, all while crouching for nine consecutive innings, can take a toll on the human body.

Upon Ivan Rodriguez’s departure from Detroit in 2008, the Tigers found themselves in search of a full-time catcher who was just as productive in the batter’s box as he was behind the plate. Avila became the primary starter for the Tigers in 2010, displaying his potential on both sides of the plate. After a season of becoming familiar with the pitching staff, Avila was named to the All-Star team in 2011, just his second full season in the big leagues.

The eventual Silver Slugger award-winner played in 141 games and batted .295 with 19 home runs and 82 RBIs in 464 at-bats. The 24-year old appeared to be the real deal but the Tigers have not seen that Alex Avila on a consistent basis since 2011. The Tigers’ season came to an end after being defeated by the Texas Rangers in the ALCS, Avila had just three hits in his 41 postseason at-bats.

[Depth a major concern for the Detroit Tigers]

Former manager Jim Leyland reduced Avila’s time behind the plate in 2012, as he played just 116 games. His offensive production did not reach the level that it had during the previous season but he still managed to bat .243 (15th highest among catchers with at least 100 games played) with nine home runs and 48 RBIs. Although his production had declined, his numbers were still respectable for an every-day catcher.

Just as it was for the entire team, 2013 was a season worth forgetting for Avila. He was placed on the 15-day disabled list in June with a left forearm contusion, then again in August after suffering a concussion. In total, Avila missed 30 games while he was on the DL and played just 102 games all season. In that time, Avila hit .227 with 11 home runs and 47 batted-in. Fortunately for the Tigers, backup catcher Brayan Pena batted .297 in 229 at-bats. Pena was granted free agency this past offseason and has since signed with the Cincinnati Reds.

Outside of Avila, the Tigers entered spring training with just one catcher on their roster, Bryan Holaday. Detroit drafted Holaday in the sixth round of the 2010 draft, he made his first big-league appearance in 2012 and has 11 hits in 39 career at-bats. Holaday caught 84 innings last season with the Tigers when Avila spent time on the DL.

Now, just ten days into spring training, Avila did not participate in workouts again on Sunday do to back spasms. Avila said he is bothered by the spasms a couple times a year, but is usually able to play through them. He also went on to say that he has never gotten them during spring training and is choosing to rest rather than irritate his back even further.

Regardless of the low-leveled severity of the injury, it’s never a good sign when the starting catcher (who suffers from more injuries than the rest of the team combined) is sitting out during spring training because of a reoccurring injury.

Not only is Avila constantly forced to miss games because of injuries (whether it’s due to something as minor as back spasms or as severe as repeated concussions) but his production at the dish has also steadily dropped. Now, just to be clear, I applaud Avila for his toughness and blue-collar approach. He knows the Tigers’ pitching staff better than anyone else and calls a great game behind the plate, but how much longer can his body hold up as the full-time catcher? Will he be able to reach the same level of offensive production as he did in 2011? And most importantly, how many games can he play in-between days off?

[3 x-factors for the Detroit Tigers in 2014]

Whether new manager Brad Ausmus will have to extensively rely on Holaday because of injuries to Avila or to prevent those injuries from occurring, offensive production from the catcher position is likely to be insignificant. Ausmus has flirted with the thought of Victor Martinez catching in the National League ballparks but let’s not get carried away, he is much too valuable and fragile to be catching games at 35 years old.

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  • Joe White

    Good stuff Jordan. I don’t think they need the 2011 numbers he put up. .260 with 15 homers and 30 doubles would be just fine.

    • Jordan Johnson

      Absolutely. He just needs to be serviceable at the plate. It’s been widely noted that there are some questions regarding the lineup already, he just needs to perform at a level where he won’t be considered as another hole