February 4, 2014 at 1:00 am

Kurt Mensching

Believe it or not, Tigers' Alex Avila a bargain -- and could be poised for a bounceback

Tigers catcher Alex Avila avoided arbitration last week when he agreed to a one-year contract with a vesting club option for 2015. He's set to be a free agent after the 2015 season. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

Alex Avila got how much money? Likely thatís the question that crossed many minds when news broke that the Tigers catcher would be guaranteed $4.35 million with a vesting option that could pay him $5.4 million in 2015.

This for a player who hit for a career-low .227 average in 2013, getting on base at a .317 clip and slugging just .376. He had 11 home runs and 47 RBIs. Not exactly numbers you excitedly write home about from camp.

This for a player who caught just 17 percent of runners attempting to steal on him in 2013, a full 9 percent less than the average catcher and half as effective as the leagueís best.

Well, put that incredulity away for now: Itís not a bad deal, and Avilaís a better player than you think. And no, itís highly unlikely, short of an injury, that Bryan Holaday or James McCann replaces Avila by the end of the year.

Letís just state the obvious here: 2013 was among the worst seasons of Avilaís career. Thereís no hiding that. He didnít hit well, and he didnít throw runners out as often as expected. Compared to? Well, Avila.

In his All-Star 2011 season, Avila had a .295/.389/.506 line and threw out 32 percent of attempted base stealers. Thatís a high bar to reach. Using Fangraphsí wRC+ stat, or weighted runs created compared to an average player, adjusted for league and ballpark factors, Avilaís offensive figure was 40 percent above average. Thatís average for all batters, not just for catchers.

In 2012, Avilaís .243/.352/.384 line again translated to an above average batter (104 wRC+, with 100 as average) and he still caught 30 percent stealing. He slid, of course, in 2013, to a wRC+ of 92 ó a below-average batter.

It just so happens that still made Avila an average catcher even in a year he struggled. The average catcher batted .245/.310/.388 in 2013, with a wRC+ of 92.

Do you think an average catcher is overpaid if he earns a little more than $4 million?

Rebound coming?

Baseball statisticians like to talk about returning (or regression) to the mean, which essentially says a playerís results will likely correct to be closer to his true abilities. This sounds like a bad thing, especially if your favorite player just came off the best year in his career.

For a player like Avila, itís a good thing. Why should we believe a 27-year-old, above-average player will continue to struggle? Two reliable projection systems, Dan Szymborskiís ZiPS and the Steamer system, both expect Avila to bounce back to those 2012 levels.

There are two keys to getting that done.

The first, Avilaís going to have to hit better against left-handed pitching than he did in 2013. Avilaís never been a good batter against left-handed pitching, but last year he was especially bad, hitting a horrible .139/.227/.228 line. The addition of Wally Joyner to manager Brad Ausmusí staff as a hitting coach may help there.

The other key will be Avilaís health ó that has certainly been a factor keeping him from being the batter he appeared to be in the past. Avila suffered from hamstring and knee injuries after starting 130 games at catcher in 2011, and lost time with symptoms of a concussion last August.

Avila started just 107 games as the teamís catcher in 2013, including the playoffs, the lowest figure since 2010. The Tigers have to hope that, coupled with an offseason of recovery, will help Avila return to form.

If he can do that and return to the his career figures against opposing base runners, Avilaís going to be a valuable asset to the Tigers, and certainly an underpaid one compared to if the team had to dip into the free agent market.

In order for that $5.4 million option to vest, Avila would need to make the All-Star team, finish in the top 15 in MVP voting or earn a Silver Slugger award.

If Avila does any of those three things, heíll be a bargain. But thereís a good chance he already is.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog ( www.blessyouboys.com ). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com .

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