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Detroit – In 2012, Alex Avila was a young catcher for the Tigers making $510,000 after a season in which he hit .295.

In 2015, following many physical challenges, he'll be a catcher making $5.4 million after a season in which he hit .218.

And he'll be eligible for free agency next winter.

Meaning?

It's a make-or-break season as a Tiger coming up for Avila, whose contract option was exercised on Monday.

The Tigers need more from him than simply to come back and play for them in 2015. They need him to bounce back – which he needs for his own career.

Catchers aren't entirely, often not even primarily, judged by their batting average, of course. As long as they're taking care of business defensively, they can last a long time in a starting lineup.

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, for instance, played in 1,938 games as a catcher – the seventh most ever. Of those games, he started 1,766, but his career batting average was just .251.

Ausmus, however, threw out 35 percent of the runners attempting to steal against him (compared to a league caught-stealing percentage of 30 when he played) – and among his 18 seasons were four that ranged from 42-49 percent.

On an entirely different level was Pudge Rodriguez with a career of 46 percent.

By comparison, although there are many other ways to judge defensive merit, Avila is at 29 percent for his career, acceptable because the league average since he's been with the Tigers is 27 percent.

Plus he's coming off his best season at 34 percent.

With the current caliber of catchers in mind — comparing him to his contemporaries, in other words — Avila's arm is one of the reasons he can be considered above-average defensively.

He is not so dominating a defensive catcher, however, that the Tigers can disregard what he does offensively — or just consider it extra.

All of which brings the amicable Avila back to this: 2015 will be a pivotal year for him in terms of having a future as a Tiger.

His batting average has dropped in each of his last three years as his salary has increased – to the point that it couldn't have been a slam-dunk decision for the Tigers to pay a .218 hitter $5.4 million for next year.

But what else were they going to do? Avila is still their best option.

He's acceptable defensively and, except for his batting average, can be considered average among American League catchers in some offensive categories.

For instance, because Avila walks more than most catchers, his .327 on-base percentage ranked third in the American League among the 10 catchers with at least 350 at-bats.

His batting average, however, ranked ninth among the 10.

So, yes, his option has been exercised. But he is looking at a limited future in Detroit unless his offensive spiral changes direction.

As for the option itself, the Tigers didn't have to exercise it until Thursday because Avila's situation didn't share with others an earlier deadline.

But the Tigers did it on Monday instead — removing any and all doubt that they were going to do it at all.

Had they not exercised the option, they would have been left with Bryan Holaday and James McCann as their catchers for 2015 — the former having been Avila's backup in 2014, the latter with minimal major-league experience.

The constant issue with Avila, though, is his health – specifically, the multiple concussions he's had. But the Tigers are confident, through extensive testing, that he feels no lingering effects.

Health, they said, was not the reason they hadn't exercised the option earlier. Although it led to trade rumors involving Avila, they hadn't exercised it simply because they hadn't yet had to.

But that's a moot point now.

Meanwhile, the move increases the Tigers' guaranteed payroll obligations for 2015 to $123.4 million for nine players.

That amount does not include pitchers David Price and Rick Porcello, both of whom are arbitration-eligible — and who, between them, could make more than $30 million in 2015.

tom.gage@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/Tom_Gage

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