May 25, 2013 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Alex Avila's protracted slump creates dilemma for Tigers' brass

Detroit — Notes, thoughts, items, as the Tigers and Twins finish business on a crisp Memorial Day weekend:

Alex Avila making repairs as the Tigers — for now — wait patiently

The situation with Avila is delicate. And for no reason beyond this:

Replacing a catcher is different from making a staff change at another position. That's because a catcher works as an extension of a pitcher, and of a pitching staff.

It is the biggest reason why Avila's bosses have refrained from sending him to Triple A Toledo for what could be a helpful getaway.

Avila is batting .168 and is sitting these days more than he is playing. The Tigers are banking that freedom from the everyday chores of catching, of doing homework on opposing hitters, and of adjusting to that day's pitcher, will enable a 26-year-old former All-Star to more clearly focus on his hitting.

There are mechanical things the Tigers and Avila can sort out in tandem. What you wonder is if those changes can effectively be made in Detroit, on a big-league ball field, in games that are of such import to a Central Division team.

Think of it this way:

Max Scherzer made a couple of return trips to Toledo and they did wonders for a talented pitcher who could better figure out his hindrances at a Triple A setting.

The same could be true of Avila — if he does not soon pull out of his stunning tailspin.

The Tigers, physically, can replace Avila. Bryan Holaday has caught in the big leagues with the Tigers and is hitting robustly at Toledo (.286 and .333 in his last 21 games).

James McCann, who someday could be playing regularly somewhere, is murdering the ball at Double A Erie: .465 in his last 12 games. He leads the Eastern League in hitting and has been regarded for the past year as a catcher who could play upper-shelf defense in the big leagues.

Where it gets ticklish is in how catchers work with pitchers. It's a little like the intern being put on a par with older, established employees. There is no commonality in experience, no similar elevation in knowing the ins and outs of a workplace. That's the downside of bringing up Holaday or McCann.

And that is why the Tigers are being so careful with Avila. They need him teaming with their pitchers. They also need his punch deep into Leyland's batting order. Hence, their all-out bid to get that once-potent bat of his popping.

But if his swing continues to be as unsettled as it has been these past few weeks, the Tigers will need to concede that a Toledo hiatus is no demotion.

Rather, it's a chance for a good baseball player to get things straight.

Drawing a bead on the Tigers' draft possibilities

And isn't this fabulous timing. The Tigers have a first-round draft pick for the first time in four years. They have three of the first 58 picks in this year's baseball draft, which begins June 6 and runs through June 8.

Of course, this might be the lightest draft in memory in terms of overall talent. The college crop is thin. The high school harvest is no more promising.

The Tigers will probably lean toward a college pitcher, should Jonathon Crawford (University of Florida), Alex Gonzalez (Oral Roberts), or even Braden Shipley (University of Nevada), be available, with Shipley and Gonzalez the most likely to be gone when the Tigers make their first selection, at No. 20 overall.

They will consider adding an impact bat, to the extent one exists. They might go with Texas prep star Billy McKinney. Or, if he has not yet been plucked, they might opt for D.J. Peterson, a third baseman from the University of New Mexico.

They like a couple of college outfielders: Hunter Renfroe from Mississippi State, as well as Samford center-fielder Phillip Ervin.

Of some interest to them (probably marginally as first-rounders) are Notre Dame third baseman Eric Jagielo, Fresno State outfielder and Paul Bunyan look-alike Aaron Judge, and Stanford outfielder Austin Wilson.

They might take a long look at South Carolina prep catcher Nick Ciuffo, but again, probably deeper into the draft. They have no acute interest in Minnesota high school outfielder Ryan Boldt, who is coming off minor knee surgery.

Note the brand of player the Tigers probably will not take in the draft's first round: a high school pitcher.

The Tigers are willing to gamble next month. But, as nearly as can be determined today, it will not be for another Rick Porcello or Jacob Turner. There are few hotshot prep pitchers in this year's shopping aisles. And that puts young pitchers in about the same category as the remainder of this year's amateur talent.

It's simply a thin year. The Tigers will hope for a surprise or two from those early picks.

Why the 1968 Tigers remain Detroit's hallowed championship team

They had a reunion Saturday at Comerica Park, a veritable consistory when you consider the venerable gents on hand:

Al Kaline, Mickey Lolich, Denny McLain, Gates Brown, Mickey Stanley, John Hiller, Don Wert, Jim Price, Jon Warden, Darryl Patterson, Tom Matchick, and Wayne Comer, not to mention Ernie Harwell's fun-loving broadcast partner, Ray Lane.

You have to be 55 years old, or even more advanced, to understand fully why the Tigers called back their '68 gang Saturday.

It was for this reason: The '68 Tigers were the greatest sports gift a Detroit team ever gave to its town and to the state of Michigan.

This by no means sells short the '84 Tigers, who began their championship season with that hallucinatory 35-5 start. This doesn't disparage the Red Wings and their four Stanley Cup years under owner Mike Ilitch. And it does not throw into the backseat the Bad Boys mini-dynasty or the 2004 championship won by some great Pistons teams.

Rather, the 45th reunion party Saturday explains something for which, as McLain said Saturday, "there is not an appropriate explanation."

And yet there is.

It had two elements.

The first was Detroit-based. The town needed to heal from the previous year's riots, the worst urban melee in American history.

The '68 Tigers helped balm a city's deep wounds, at least for the short term.

The second part was broader, more state-oriented.

The Tigers had not won a championship since 1945. The Lions and the Red Wings had been gifted teams during the '50s. But by 1968, the Wings and Lions were either fading or in trouble, and the Pistons a mess.

Detroit needed a winner. That winner could easily have been the Tigers in 1967. But during a cruel four-game pennant race (this was two years before league playoffs began), the Tigers lost to the Red Sox on the last day and during the last game of the '67 season.

A city and a state's hearts were crushed. The soul sickness lingered. Throughout autumn and the holidays. Deep into winter.

And then, in that spring of '68, the Tigers tore loose, winning dramatically, winning frequently, busting from the gate, with McLain about to become the only pitcher in the past 76 years to win 30 games in a season.

They followed up with a storybook World Series. Down three games to one, they won the final three, with Lolich winning the last game, his third of the World Series, on two days of rest.

That's why the '68 team, while no more captivating than the '84 gang, had about it an eternal glow. It was the single most compelling season of sports in the lifetime of anyone who was on hand to experience something so otherwise inexplicable.

A kid who was then 16, working the farmlands of central Michigan, that year understood baseball could be greater than sports. It could be transcendent.

It's why those gents all showed up Saturday — to see their buddies, to tell stories, to feel the love one more time from a community that will never cease to love the '68 Tigers.

Tigers catcher Alex Avila is hitting .168, but his value to the team's pitcher staff is immeasurable. / Elizabeth Conley/Detroit News
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