May 21, 2013 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Tigers may have no choice but to send down Alex Avila

You do not hit as Alex Avila did during 2011 and write it off as a fluke. (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)

Among all of Alex Avila's graphic numbers for the Tigers, one, in particular, explains a former All-Star Game starting catcher's baffling issues in 2013.

It's his previously faithful on-base percentage. Even a year ago, when he batted a so-so .243, he had a heavy .352 OBP.

Today, it is .256 — .172 spanning the last two weeks. He is batting .179 on the season. His slugging percentage is .304. Together he has an OPS of .560, which compares with the .895 OPS he put together during 141 games in 2011.

If he doesn't pull out of this spiral, and in a hurry, the Tigers will be left with no practical choice but to return Avila, 26, to Triple A Toledo for a head-clearing stint that might put him back on track.

Backup plans

Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers' front-office boss, was asked about Avila's situation during a Tuesday e-mail exchange.

"I do not have any set answer on that," Dombrowski wrote. "We continue to watch him daily and hope he will soon snap out of this tough streak."

Dombrowski was stationed Tuesday at Erie, Pa., where he has been tracking the Tigers' Double A partner. Erie also happens to be the outpost for catcher James McCann, the Tigers' top draft pick in 2011. He's a skilled defensive catcher who has been hitting steadily at Erie, .333 on the season, with an .806 OPS.

McCann is 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, and a right-handed hitter. Opposing scouts said a year ago they considered McCann and Nick Castellanos to be the two prospects who would move most rapidly to Detroit.

It's also possible the Tigers and Toledo could do a one-for-one swap if it's decided Avila must get away from Detroit. Bryan Holaday, who had time with the Tigers in 2012, is batting .294 for the Mud Hens, which includes a .368 spurt in his past 10 games.

Either way, the Tigers are no doubt getting close — very close — to acknowledging that Avila's funk, should it continue, will need to be sorted out elsewhere.

Why, and how, this has happened has everyone buffaloed.

Puzzling slide

You do not hit as Avila did during 2011 and write it off as a fluke. He might have overachieved at age 24, might have found a rhythm in 141 games that would be difficult to repeat at the same high altitude, but you do not slip from .295 in 2011 and .243 in 2012 to .179 during the first six weeks of 2013. And you for sure do not free-fall from a career on-base percentage of .359 (390 big-league games) to that crazy .256 mark in 2013.

Ah, but the cynics say, this is all nepotism, a testament to the Tigers drafting and developing the son of their assistant general manager, Al Avila.

And of course it's nonsense. Nepotism, if that's the twisted take on this tale, delivered Avila to the 2011 All-Star Game as the American League's consensus best catcher.

In fact, the Tigers made one of those fifth-round draft picks 29 other clubs wish they had made in drafting Avila.

His left-handed swing was so short and powerful that, ironically, it looked to scouts as if Avila would avoid long-term slumps. Another plus was his batting eye. His strike-zone judgment was so sharp, a catcher would certainly build on those big on-base and slugging numbers because of his savvy in swinging at hitter's pitches while sidestepping the fringe stuff that become a pitcher's best friend.

Then, the slide began.

Avila appeared to the Tigers to be overly careful during his 2012 slide when on-base percentage remained high but his batting average and productivity fell off.

The Tigers wanted him to become more aggressive in 2013. And, early on, he was, which seemed to be paying off as he hit a pair of early home runs and looked as if he was headed for a rebound year.

But a malaise that has become more like torture has been apparent to anyone watching Avila's at-bats. He has been fighting to be aggressive, fighting to lay off bad pitches, fighting to find his swing — fighting it everywhere.

And that is why the Tigers almost assuredly are ready to surrender and to decide there is no choice but to give Avila some get-away time to sort out his various ills in a less pressured venue.

The Tigers have been delighted catching depth is one of the organization's ongoing trump cards. What they didn't envision was needing, perhaps, to tap into that depth to replace a starting catcher whose descent has been an utter mystery.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

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