April 8, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tony Paul

Tigers Mailbag: Readers worried about Alex Avila's decline, bullpen debacle

Alex Avila is a selective hitter, but too often gets into counts that favor the pitcher. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Detroit – Before we get to this week's Tigers Mailbag, I just wanted to remind readers that there's still time to enter the 2014 Detroit News Tigers Over-Under Contest.

We've compiled a list of fun – but not-bettable – prop bets, one for every Tiger and then some.

Just make your picks, and who knows: You could walk away with a sweet prize at the end of the year, like Caro's Larry Brown, who won the 2013 contest and took home a Miguel Cabrera autographed baseball – which he's kindly passing on to his grandson.

Already this year, there have been 1,000-plus entries. You have until noon Friday to get in on the fun. As always, it's free to enter.

Just go here or email me to learn more.

With that, time to see what's on Tigers fans' minds this week.

Question: Why are the Detroit sportswriters treating Alex Avila with kid gloves? Avila is a nice guy, but when was the last time you saw him throw anyone out at second base or third base? – Court Jester

Answer: This is becoming an increasingly popular question, and make no mistake: It's definitely caught the Tigers' attention, too.

The last couple years as he struggled, it was easy to blame it on one ailment or another. But for the first time in what seems like forever, Avila is completely healthy – yet, again is off to a seriously sluggish start at the plate. He's looking much like the Avila of the first half of 2013, appearing somewhat lost every at-bat, and seemingly in a big hole each time up.

Part of this is Avila's approach. That's his game. He sees a lot of pitches. Interestingly, that used to drive former manager Jim Leyland nuts, because Leyland thought he could do some damage with many of the border-line pitches he lets go on through to the catcher's mitt. Leyland was thrilled in last year's ALCS when Avila jumped on a rare first pitch, and hit a home run. But on a whole, it's not just not Avila's game. I remember him telling me last spring, in a clubhouse in Dunedin, "I don't swing at balls."

But there's a fine line in being passive and patient. A hitter's end result is, on a whole, much better on an 0-0 pitch than an 0-2 pitch, but Avila's approach too often puts him deep in a pitcher-advantage count. So far this season, he has just a single in 12 plate appearances, though he has drawn six walks.

The defense is a whole other issue. Four runners have tried stealing on Avila this year, and all four have made it safely. Last season, Avila threw out just 17 percent of would-be base stealers – down from 30 percent the year before, and 32 percent the year before that. Only some of this is on the pitchers – particularly Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello and several Tigers relievers, who can be slow to the plate.

Clearly, it's been a steep falloff for a guy who, back in 2011, was the American League's starting catcher in the All-Star Game.

That's not to say he still doesn't add value, however. He calls a great game, so Tigers pitchers really like throwing to him – and, frankly, it shows in the numbers. With Avila last year, opponents batted .232, almost 30 points lower than if Brayan Pena, Bryan Holaday or Victor Martinez was catching.

That's not to be ignored. Then again, nor should his fading offense, which is a concern – and why Avila's 2015 contract is a team option that automatically vests only if he reaches some pretty lofty kickers.

Question: Just how much of a dumpster fire is the Tigers bullpen right now? Can it even be fixed at this point? – PK (Tigerfan_PJK)

Answer: It's not good, PK. But I also am not nearly convinced the situation is as dire as fans think. And my opinion hasn't changed, even after word this week that Evan Reed is being investigated on sexual-assault claims. It remains important to note, he hasn't been charged with anything.

I seem to recall the Tigers bullpen being a major concern each of the three previous seasons, and that didn't stop them from advancing to three consecutive AL championship series, and one World Series.

Reason why? Bullpen's can be quick fixes.

If Phil Coke and/or Joba Chamberlain don't work out – and let's be honest, those are the two biggest question marks down there – the Tigers will have other options.

For starters, there is significant depth in the Tigers’ minor leagues. In fact, there's more bullpen depth than for any other area of potential need. Two names are at the top of that list: Melvin Mercedes, the Bruce Rondon lookalike who has good swing-and-miss stuff at Triple A, and Corey Knebel, the fast-tracked prospect who's pitching at Double A – when the SeaWolves aren't getting rained out.

Then there are a handful of guys on the 40-man roster who could help, including just-acquired Mike Belfiore, Justin Miller, Jose Ortega, Casey Crosby and Kyle Lobstein. Then there's Blaine Hardy, who opened eyes in spring training, plus the comeback bid of Nate Robertson.

Not all of those guys will pan out this season – but one or two could. And that might be the difference. Remember, too, there's always the possibility of a summer trade. Bullpen help, after all, is the least-expensive commodity on the market.

The Tigers bullpen, certainly, remains a work in progress. And progress, still, remains possible.

Question: Do you think the Tigers should have kept Jhonny Peralta? And would you re-sign or trade away Max Scherzer? – Ryan (GoTigers414)

Answer: That's two questions. Getting a little needy there, Ryan. But we'll let it slide.

No. 1: Sure, the Tigers would be thrilled to have Jhonny Peralta right now – their starting shortstop, Jose Iglesias, is likely to miss the season, and his two replacements are less than ideal. Alex Gonzalez should hit OK but not field all that well, while Andrew Romine has a slick glove but almost no bat.

But remember, Peralta received $52 million to play for the Cardinals – more money than anyone could've imagined. It completely fooled the Tigers, who were so convinced he might've signed a $14.1 million qualifying offer, they declined to offer him one, and then weren't able to receive a draft pick when he signed elsewhere.

The Tigers, obviously, were never going to pay Peralta that. Neither, frankly, would 28 other teams.

No. 2: Given that it's not my money, sure, sign Max Scherzer. I mean, who wouldn't love the idea of a rotation of Justin Verlander-Scherzer-Anibal Sanchez for the next five to 10 years? But it's a far trickier decision for the Tigers, who can't possibly be OK committing a combined $90 million or more a year to just three players (Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Scherzer) for the foreseeable future. That, potentially, would severely handcuff them from improving other areas of the ballclub.

That said, I also can't see him being dealt. The Tigers are going for a World Series, and the odds of them getting there are amazingly better with Scherzer than without him.

I've said it for over a year now: I seem him staying a Tiger all of 2014, then departing in free-agency – when the Tigers, at least, will receive a prime draft pick as compensation.

Question: Who are your top three AL pitchers? In order. – Daniel Tallant (Dan_Tallant)

Answer: Good question, Daniel, with no easy answer.

The American League is loaded with quality arms. Now, I assume you're talking starting pitchers, so that's where I'll stick.

Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, after a fair amount of deliberation, is atop my list. He's so consistent, and would get far more love if a) his team were any good, and b) he didn't make most of his starts while the rest of the country was sound asleep.

After that, it's much trickier. Despite last year's down year (for him), Verlander comes in second for me. Given how good he looked this spring, I'd actually be a bit stunned if he didn't with another Cy Young this season.

Then, at No. 3, I'm cheating – and including three guys, each of whom doesn't have a long enough track record to warrant a higher ranking: Scherzer, Yu Darvish of the Rangers and Chris Sale of the White Sox.

Question: Two questions, Tony: What's keyed Torii Hunter's recent hot streak, and what's your favorite Billy Joel song? – Tony Ortiz (ajortiz3)

Answer: Another two-parter.

First: Obviously, Hunter been a beast, so far, at the plate. (While no beauty on defense.)

A lot of that is the situation he's been in. He's just happened to come to the plate with men on and work himself into fastball counts. And Hunter hasn't missed those fastballs – belting home runs in each of the three games in the Orioles series, to go with a bases-clearing double.

Then there's the more obvious answer: Pitchers would much rather attack Hunter than the guy who is looming on deck.

"Anybody in this country who plays baseball, even Little League, would love to hit in front of Miguel Cabrera," Hunter said the other day, with a big smile.

Second: Tough call for a big Billy Joel fan, but I always come back to "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant."

If you want to ask Tony a question about the Tigers, you can e-mail him at tpaul@detroitnews.com or hit him up on Twitter at tonypaul1984. Every Tuesday, he's a Tigers chat on Twitter.