Henning: Avila not ideal as Tigers' 2 hitter, but ...
After a week of baseball chatter matched only by the chattering of teeth during a frigid TigerFest and Tigers Caravan ritual, the notebook yields more notes, thoughts, and items three weeks before a first workout at Lakeland, Fla.
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus considers Alex Avila at his batting order's No. 2 slot.
Wrote 10 days ago about the Tigers' options at that second spot and didn't think sufficiently about why Avila might fit there. It wasn't a matter of overlooking his on-base average (.345, career). It was more a case of accepting traits and traditions that have made Avila an easier option at 7 or 8. In great part those challenges are due to his legs, which, like most catchers' legs, are built more for squatting than running.
But that hardly kills Avila's candidacy. He gets more than his share of walks. And when you want a runner on base, even a relatively slow runner, ahead of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, it doesn't always require that the No. 2 stick be baseball's version of Jesse Owens.
On-base percentage is more relevant than odds Avila gets quashed by a double-play or that he might fail to score from first base on a double.
So, it makes some sense, particularly when Avila bats left-handed. Left-handed sticks help mightily if the leadoff man (Ian Kinsler) gets on base and the first baseman must hold him at the bag, leaving an expressway lane open between first and second.
It's at least an option OBP isn't the best credential carried by Ausmus' other prime contenders for that second slot: Yoenis Cespedes and Rajai Davis, with, yes, a personal and unpopular thought held that Jose Iglesias might in time grow into the No. 2 niche.
Bullpens tend to have Jekyll and Hyde personas.
Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers' front-office boss, had fun at TigerFest citing some lovely research by MLB Network's Peter Gammons, who spoke Friday at a dinner for the Tigers' 2015 sponsors.
Gammons mentioned that in three consecutive years (2004-06) and with largely the same cast, the Indians finished last, first, and ninth in American League bullpen performance.
In fact, the variances during those years are slightly different – depends on whether ERA or runs allowed is used – but Cleveland's three years of bullpen schizophrenia are testament to the volatility of relief pitchers. It can also be construed to suggest, as Dombrowski does, that the Tigers could easily reverse a back-end corps that last year was 27th in reliability among 30 big-league teams.
You can look at Tigers bullpen x-rays in a couple of ways that make you wonder in 2015 whether Jekyll or Hyde will be on hand at Comerica Park.
Dombrowski and the Tigers are, for sure, due for a break after bullpen collapses the past three seasons became the team's evil twin.
Those pleasantries could come in the persons of Bruce Rondon (healing from last March's Tommy John surgery), a more traditional version of Joakim Soria, a steady season from Al Alburquerque, and the arrival of various arms that might be the brand of surprise teams often get from newcomers who aren't terribly well known or regarded: Joel Hanrahan (also mending from Tommy John surgery, in 2013), Alex Wilson, Josh Zeid, and Ian Krol, who should be working this season more in line with his talent, which is high-caliber.
Bullpens are the toughest of all roster components to project. And forecasting any kind of reforms by the Tigers' back-end gang will only get tougher if Joe Nathan can't pitch at age 40 the way he did ahead of a bad, and perhaps telling, 2014 decline.
But the Indians example is a perfect illustration in how relief pitchers are like that guy in front of you who just changed three lanes in five seconds. You're not sure where he's going. Or whether, in fact, he's reckless or perhaps skilled. Destinations and pathways can vary. Getting there minus an accident is what counts.
Jose Iglesias is the Tigers' most important position storyline in 2015.
Ndamukong Suh's free agency is Detroit's most dramatic professional sports personnel story a month into 2015. He probably is the most pivotal, given the 16 regular-season games the Lions play and Suh's prime-cut place on Detroit's defense.
But you could make a case for Iglesias, all because of baseball's 162-game menu, and the general requirement that a playoff-driven team have a shining defender at short who can also get a hit and run the bases.
Iglesias has been blessed by doctors after stress fractures in both legs KO'd his 2014 season. But the Tigers concede they don't know how he will handle regular work on those two healed legs. They can't be sure about anything until he plays successive games over days and weeks and his legs cooperate.
A friend from Washington, D.C., Harris Frommer, whose baseball and Tigers knowledge is so acute he doubles as a kind of quasi front-office mind, believes Iglesias is looking at a tough year. He bases this on the fact a guy who had chronic shin issues and now has not played big-league baseball in almost 16 months is hardly the safest of bets to play an unimpeded season in 2015.
He might be right. Frommer works for the State Department, which is not generally regarded as a baseball think-tank or medical authority. But Frommer wears impressive hats and has said he believes on June 1 the Tigers' starting shortstop will be Dixon Machado, 22, the defensive whiz who had a bust-out season in 2014 at Double A Erie when he batted .305 and had a fat .832 OPS.
It's not a point of view shared here. When doctors say a guy is fine, I go by their counsel. A personal opinion is Iglesias will be planted at shortstop and will hit better than most people predict.
But neither am I dismissing Frommer's thoughts. He tends to be right about a great deal. The combination of a man's recovery from serious leg issues and the off-stage development by Machado makes a D.C. guy's premonition worth pondering.