Henning: Tigers set to play without Avila in 2016

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

As for Tigers news that might have been underappreciated in the days following Detroit's farewell to 2014, there was the doctor's report on Alex Avila.

He had no detectable damage from the past season's concussions. Moreover, the docs saw no reason for him to fear playing big-league baseball in 2015.

This came as a surprise only to lay people who have watched Avila take a unique and inexplicably severe pounding behind home plate. A lot of us have wondered, with NFL and boxing casualties providing some basis for concern, if the repeated blows to a 27-year-old man's head might be risking permanent damage.

The experts say no. And so the Tigers, at least for now, will prepare for 2015 and for Avila probably playing a majority of games at catcher in what, quite likely, will be his last season with Detroit.

Eleven months from now Avila will greet life as a free agent. He will be all of 28. He will have spent — if his health cooperates and he plays the expected number of games – six full seasons as a team's primary catcher.

And yet the Tigers will likely say goodbye to Avila — unless he puts together a season in 2015 that would rival his big All-Star year of 2011 when he batted .295 with a whopping .895 OPS.

The reason Avila is almost certain to leave the Tigers is because in the years since 2011 his bat has not cooperated. If it had, Avila and Detroit by now would almost surely have tied up a new multiyear package. Catchers can be indispensable, particularly when they play defense and handle pitchers on the level of Avila. If they flash those skills and hit even close to acceptable levels, they're bedrock. Teams can't abide thoughts of losing them.

Avila, though, is trapped by a batting average that in 2014 was .218. Even with all the walks he draws, good for a .327 on-base percentage, his slugging average dropped to .359 from its 2011 elevation of .506.

It just doesn't cut it in the big leagues, an OPS of .686, even when you are a catcher as defensively gifted and as savvy in working with pitchers as Avila.

McCann's role to expand

The Tigers are prepared to make rookie James McCann more of a presence in 2015. They have not offered firm plans for how he will be used, but it would make sense that McCann, a right-handed batter, will at least platoon against left-handed pitching. It's no stretch to imagine McCann in more of a shared-time arrangement with Avila, with McCann starting against some righthanders.

The Tigers will be preparing him for full-time work in 2016 when the reality of losing Avila is forcing them to equip McCann for No. 1 status.

Avila's departure is easily assumed for reasons that might or might not apply a year from now.

If the Tigers wish to keep him and not sign him to a long-term extension, they need to cough up one of those friendly qualifying offers for 2016, which will probably be a bit north of the $15.3 million now required (the figure is based on an average of the top 125 big-league salaries).

That's a lot more than the Tigers can budget for a left-handed hitting catcher — unless Avila were to break loose next year and hit more in the fashion of 2011, which could always happen, given some of his past seasons and spurts.

But if you are looking more at recent numbers, any such thoughts of Avila rediscovering 2011 are probably remote. And that's where Detroit must get serious about its future, beginning with McCann, another skilled defender, as the Tigers' probable main man in 2016.

McCann was Detroit's top draft pick in 2011. He is 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, has an excellent glove, a good arm, and is viewed as a particularly sharp student when it comes to scouting reports and breaking down opposing hitters.

He batted .295 in 109 games the past season at Triple A Toledo and is considered a decent hitter whose only drawback is that he doesn't yet hit for much power.

McCann's power developing

The key word there is "yet." McCann has the size and strength to swat more than seven home runs in a season, which is what he smacked for the Mud Hens in 2014. But it's important to note that five of those homers were clubbed in August, his last month in Toledo before joining the Tigers for September.

At a point in the season when catchers normally wear down, McCann instead had five bombs and five doubles, good for 14 RBIs, which was the most RBIs he had during any month from 2014.

He is only 24 and a case could easily be made that McCann's power is beginning to catch up with his body and other aspects of a well-developed catching profile. If he is allowed proper grooming in 2015 and isn't rushed, the Tigers might find McCann's easily their man as they look at seasons ahead.

They also should have enough back-ups and young catchers in the hatchery to look at McCann exactly as they regarded Avila the past five years. As an everyday caretaker whom they can count on as they mix and match on his supporting cast.

Bryan Holaday remains important there. He's a good reserve who isn't in McCann's league as an everyday candidate but who can work in Detroit or in Toledo as the Avila-McCann matters are resolved.

They also very much like Grayson Greiner, a big guy (6-foot-6) they drafted in June from the University of South Carolina, who batted .322 with an .839 OPS in 26 games at Single A West Michigan.

As for Avila and his fortunes, it has been mentioned via national reports that the Tigers were at least discussing trading Avila in conversations with the Astros and Braves. This would make sense only if the Tigers were able to get a certified babysitter to offset McCann and his youth at one of the most sophisticated positions on the field.

No such person is on the immediate horizon. But nothing says Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers' front-office chief, would be precluded from finding someone trustworthy as the Hot Stove League's machinations begin to hum.

The Tigers don't care to see a valued catcher walk away a year from now, minus compensation. But that has always been the catch with Avila. He is too valuable to discard. And yet, as long as his bat balks, he is just short of delivering the value necessary for a long-term deal, or a major trade the Tigers could justify.