Almost a month into the 2014 Major League Baseball season, the Detroit Tigers have yet to find a way to score runs on a consistent basis. In 17 games, Detroit has failed to score more than two runs on eight occasions and are 2-6 in those games.
The struggles of Miguel Cabrera and the lack of offensive contribution at the shortstop position could be seen as the main reason for these offensive woes, however, it’s more likely that the underlying reason is the bat (or lack thereof) of Alex Avila.
Look, Cabrera is the three-time reigning American League batting champion, his swing will find its rhythm (it already may have considering Tuesday night’s performance) and the shortstop position in the lineup was already expected to be Detroit’s glaring weakness after Jose Iglesias went down.
As for Avila, it’s simply inexcusable to be performing at the level he currently is. Clearly, it’s early in the season. There’s no need to hit the panic button yet but if his offensive struggles continue into May and June fans will be calling for his departure, and rightfully so.
Avila is hitting .227 (10-for-44) on the season, with no homers and just two RBI (none prior to April 21). Of the 28 MLB catchers with at least 40 at-bats, Avila has the sixth-worst average and the fifth-worst slugging percentage (.318). The five catchers that have a lower average than Avila have all driven in more runs than he has.
The Tigers’ starting catcher has struck out in 21-of-44 at-bats, tied for most in the MLB. Tyler Flowers of the Chicago White Sox has struck out the same amount of times as Avila, but in 13 more at-bats.
A slump is a combination of a few things: well-hit balls that become outs, coming within inches of hitting one down the line but it lands foul, and continuously being on the wrong side of outstanding defensive plays. What Avila is going through is far worse than a slump, it’s a struggle.
Avila is just 1-for-11 (.091) with runners in scoring position this year, striking out six times. His lone hit came in the fifth inning of Tuesday night’s win over the White Sox.
Manager Brad Ausmus, a former major-league catcher, finds that calling a good game is more important for a catcher than his production at the plate.
“There’s that line where the balance tips one way or the other but right now for me his game calling supersedes what he has done with the bat,” Ausmus said to Jeff Riger of CBS Detroit.
To his credit, Avila knows the strengths and weaknesses of Detroit’s pitching staff about as well as any catcher possibly could. However, what happens if (or when) the “balance” that Ausmus speaks of does indeed tip in the other direction?
The only other catcher on the Tigers roster is Bryan Holaday, who only has 48 career at-bats and just nine in 2014. The time to experiment with him as a possible replacement is quickly approaching.
James McCann isn’t quite ready for the big leagues just yet, but in his first year with triple-A Toledo Mud Hens, McCann is hitting .302 and hit .277 last year for AA-Erie.
The only other viable option I see for the Tigers is to make a trade for former Tiger Brayan Pena. Pena currently plays for the Cincinnati Reds and is 10-for-30 on the season. He is familiar with Detroit’s staff and the price to get him (both his contract and value to the Reds) will not break the bank.
Matt Wieters of the Baltimore Orioles is an interesting name that could be on the move this summer, but his second-year arbitration contract is worth $7.7 million and the price to acquire him is likely lofty.
If Tigers fans hope for anything to come of this situation, it should be that Avila gets back on track. If he doesn’t, the outcome will be troublesome.
One final possible solution to get Avila back on track is to have Phil Coke throw his batting practice. (credit: Joe White)