Mensching: Avila's contract a bargain
The Tigers got a pretty nice deal Monday.
Alex Avila will be paid $5.4 million in 2015 after the Tigers exercised the option to keep him in Detroit next season.
That sounds like a lot for a catcher who hit just .218 while battling injuries throughout last season.
A little perspective came within hours of the Tigers' announcement Monday morning, though: The report Russell Martin will be paid nearly three times that figure each season for the next five years. Martin, who'll turn 32 before the Blue Jays even play their first Grapefruit League game of the year, will reportedly sign an $82 million deal with the Blue Jays.
So a little more than $5 million for a starting catcher of Avila's caliber isn't bad. Exercising the option was a move the Tigers had to make and one the team should have made earlier in the offseason if it felt confident with Avila's health going forward.
What do you get in Avila? If your answer begins and ends with "a .218 batting average" you need to expand your mind.
Among catchers with at least 450 plate appearances, Avila had the seventh-highest wins above replacement (WAR), per Fangraphs, at 2.1.
That's comprised of above-average offensive contributions for a catcher — his on-base percentage plus slugging (OPS) of .686 ranked 10th for the position. Add to that a defensive contribution of 6.6 runs above average, good for second among catchers, and you've got what you're looking for in a position more important for its defensive offerings than its offensive.
Avila is praised for both his pitch calling and pitch framing, which has helped Detroit become one of the league's best pitching staffs, and a 34-percent caught-stealing percentage ranked near the top of regular catchers.
He's pretty good under pressure, too. According to Baseball Reference Avila had a .915 OPS in "close and late" situations. Close and late essentially means the batter came to the plate in the seventh inning or later with a one-run lead, tie game, or the game-tying run at least on deck.
When you think about it, Avila's the kind of catcher most teams would want. No wonder the Tigers were reportedly fielding calls about him last week.
The worry — and it's a justifiable one — is whether Avila's body and brain have taken too much abuse over the past few seasons. The downward slope of Avila's production recent years is hard to ignore, and concussions have been a disconcerting issue. The Tigers expressed a few concerns about the health aspect in October, and should keep a tighter rein on how often he's behind the plate.
No doubt Martin was a better player than Avila in 2014. He hit better and he was the only catcher to rank better defensively.
Martin also is going to be a 36-year-old catcher by the end of the contract, and he's coming off a season far better (.832 OPS) than anything he'd done in the past six years. Not bad for a player who was worse than Avila during each of the previous three years (combining for a .716 OPS vs. Avila's .788).
It wouldn't be a good idea to lock up Avila for the long term. He's almost certainly going to have a shortened career and probably can't stick behind the plate for too many more seasons.
But that's not what's important here.
There's no reason the Tigers have to even try to sign him for the long term, and there was no reason they needed to try to sign the position's only big name free agent to a deal this offseason either.
The Tigers made a smart move in sticking with Avila in 2015.
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at email@example.com.